Review: Coco is the flagship of Easthampton’s burgeoning dining scene

New American, Pan-Asian and Mexican influences mingle at this intimate space

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Review: Coco is the flagship of Easthampton’s burgeoning dining scene

(Jacob Abrams/Daily Collegian)

(Jacob Abrams/Daily Collegian)

(Jacob Abrams/Daily Collegian)

(Jacob Abrams/Daily Collegian)

By Jacob Abrams, Assistant Arts Editor

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There is little reason why a University of Massachusetts student would schlep all the way to Easthampton. And a schlep it is. It’ll take you just over a half hour if you’re lucky enough to travel by car, even longer if you’re a part of the bus-taking masses. There are plenty of places in Amherst including restaurants, music venues, bars and shops, which are all within walking distance of campus, and Northampton – the closest thing we have to a “happening” city – is about half as far away as its smaller cousin to the east.

Perhaps the Flywheel, the Pioneer Valley’s preeminent community venue for deeply underground music, is the biggest attraction in the tiny town. There’s much more to Main Street: Coco, an intimate, dimly-lit restaurant, is but a two minute walk up from the Flywheel. The kitchen is helmed by power-couple Unmi Abkin and Roger Taylor, who have been listed as semi-finalists for a prestigious James Beard Award for the past four years and will release their first cookbook, titled “Curry and Kimchi,” in late October.

Coco’s tall windows reveal candlelit tables and an eclectic crowd. Thirty-somethings mingle with older, academic types and millennials hang at the bar. The restaurant is split in two; Coco sits on the street level, and the aptly named Cellar Bar, serving specially crafted cocktails and various snacks. The bar can be found by descending a short flight of stairs near Coco’s open kitchen. When me and my dining companions arrived, we waited down there somewhat aimlessly for several minutes while our table upstairs was being cleared. After a few minutes of dawdling, we were led to a booth that overlooked Easthampton’s quaint Main Street. Tables are close quarters so restaurant goers should expect to sit shoulder to shoulder with your unacquainted fellow diners.

For our two starters, we chose both a Szechuan cucumber salad replete with silken tofu and “Papas Veracruz,” AKA the best home fries you will eat in your life. Small cubes of fried potato are dressed in a lime cream, crumbly cotija cheese and a smattering of spicy, smokey seasonings. They were instantly devoured by me and my three companions, which left us with the delicious, if somewhat less exciting, cucumber salad. Still, it served a vital purpose: the aqueous sweetness acted as a refreshing foil to the fried potatoes. The cukes were tastefully adorned with tingly chili oil, onion, cilantro and sesame seeds, which added a toasty complexity to the dish. All of these flavors were absorbed by soft blocks of tofu.

These were washed down with a “corn and oil,” a Caribbean drink consisting of spiced rum, lime, blackstrap molasses and falernum, a limey, ginger-y liqueur with a syrupy consistency. It was the perfect drink to accompany this lingering September heat, but it made me wish that more of these summer days were ahead of us.

Preliminary research suggested that one of Coco’s main attractions is an almost anti-climactic dish: fried chicken. Yes, there were choices that were more “exotic” and rooted in flavors not traditionally American, but one of the most fascinating things a chef can do is take a ubiquitous staple and elevate it to new heights. The breading on the chicken was akin to that of beer-battered fish rather than that of something from the south. The coating maintained a light, airy crispness even after coming into contact with the mashed potatoes. The meat inside was succulent and moist, there was not one dry bite on the bone. All the richness was masterfully balanced by a fresh, spicy jalapeño slaw.

Coco is romantic, but it eschews schmaltz; every element is understated, simple, subtle. It is not, however, an ascetic dining experience. It manages to find a fullness that most restaurants cannot in its humble, pamphlet-sized menu. There are other restaurants within our vicinity who can do the same: Montague’s The Alvah Stone and Northampton’s Bistro Les Gras to name two.

Coco, along with those restaurants, are home to some of the most talented kitchens this side of Massachusetts. They are perpetually adapting their menus to the seasons and shun any trace of culinary stagnancy. A night at Coco is a greatly rewarding and fulfilling experience, and one that makes any trip to Easthampton truly worth it.

RATING OUT OF 5 STARS: ****

Jacob Abrams can be reached at [email protected]