Easthampton’s Coco and The Cellar Bar draws national attention three years in a row

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 30, 2018, by Andy Castillo

Chef Unmi Abkin’s eyes light up as she holds a plate with an experimental version of General T’so’s chicken resting in a bed of white rice. She is in her main dining room at Coco and The Cellar Bar in downtown Easthampton. Tantalizing aromas mingle and drift into the room through a window in the small kitchen in the back where cooks prep food for the evening rush.

“This is a go then?” Abkin asks Roger Taylor, her husband and business partner, who, sitting at a dining table, samples the entree. It’s Abkin’s latest creation. Its sweet sauce, finished with a slight zesty tang, is accented by a satisfying crunch of scallions sprinkled over the crispy chicken.

“We’re trying to figure out the crispy factor,” prompts Abkin, noting the finalized dish would include broccoli as well. Taylor chews, pauses, and then says, “the flavor is good. It’s darn close.”

It takes a lot of tweaking before an idea, of which Abkin is never in short supply, becomes an item on the restaurant’s selective menu.

That attention to detail makes Coco and The Cellar Bar, which Abkin and Taylor opened together in 2011, stand out among restaurants in the Pioneer Valley. For the third year in a row, the restaurant made it to the second round of the James Beard Foundation’s annual cuisine excellence competition in the “Best Chef: Northeast” category. It is one of five restaurants in Massachusetts and the only eatery from the western end of the state to receive the recognition. Receiving a James Beard Award, called ‘the Oscars of food,’ by some in the industry, is a prestigious recognition.

Tens of thousands of restaurants across the United States are nominated each year. Nominations can be submitted anonymously by anyone. Only a few hundred are selected as semifinalists through a ballot vote by previous award winners. They are divided evenly across regions, who score restaurants on a wide range of criteria like consistency of food quality, how staff members are treated, and taste, based on repeated site visits.

“It’s absolutely mind boggling to us,” Taylor says. “We weren’t looking for that. Three years running is a wild thing.”

Coco and The Cellar Bar did not make it through to the final round. Other semifinalists from Massachusetts in the regional best chef category include Karen Akunowicz of Myers and Chang in Boston; Tiffani Faison of Tiger Mama in Boston; Seizi Imura of Cafe Sushi in Cambridge; Tony Messina of Uni in Boston and Cassie Piuma of Sarma in Somerville.

Laser focus on food

For Abkin, 49, food is a lifestyle. “It’s all I do. Besides raising a child, which is wonderful, and having a family life. Beyond that, all I do is read and think about food,” she says. The couple’s 8-year old daughter, Coco, is the restaurant’s namesake.

Taylor, 39, agrees with his wife’s assessment of her focus. “I’ve never met anyone who thinks about food the way my wife does. She dreams food.”

When creating dishes, Abkin blends flavors based on personal taste.

“I’ve been cooking for such a long time that I’ve gotten to a point where I have my own style,” she says, noting a balance between flavors and texture — spicy with sweet, crispy with smooth — in dishes served at the restaurant.

At any given time, there are only five dinner options and five starters available. The restaurant’s mainstay, which doesn’t leave the menu, is buttermilk fried chicken served with garlic mashed potatoes, jalapeno slaw, cilantro, and chili oil.

Currently, the other offerings are pan-seared salmon served with tempura maki, ponzu, cucumber and pickled shiitake mushrooms; General Tso’s tofu with pickled ginger, broccoli, toasted cashews and sushi rice; ddeokbokki, thick Korean rice noodles with spicy pork, scallions, shiitake mushrooms and toasted sesame seeds; macaroni and cheese made with Vermont cheddar and jalapeno slaw. These dishes range in price from $13 to $24.

Starters that are on the menu are a spring garden salad; quince and manchego; duck confit; falafel; and Thai coconut soup. These range from $6.50 to $12

“The menu is an outgrowth of the size of our space, and a desire to make sure our attention can be focused on everything that we do,” Taylor explained. “There’s a danger of having an enormous menu. The cooks become less familiar with cooking each individual dish. Food tends to sit around for a little bit longer. There’s more choices, so people are ordering less of each dish.”

Coco’s has a 32-seat dining room upstairs, which requires reservations and looks into the kitchen, and The Cellar Bar downstairs, also accessible from Main Street via outside stairs, with space for 24 more diners. The downstairs area doesn’t require reservations and offers the same menu.

The restaurant is open five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, leaving time on Tuesdays to experiment with flavors and plan future dishes.

Roots in California

Abkin and Taylor say that the secret behind the restaurant’s continued success is its workers.

It’s a “really great staff that has been with us for many years,” Abkin says. She notes employees like longtime dishwasher Jesus Ayala of Amherst, whom she hired in 1994 before opening her first restaurant, Cha Cha Cha, which served Mexican food in downtown Northampton, and Pastry Chef Miranda Brown, who has worked with her for five years. Abkin and Taylor, who’s also a trained chef, met at Abkin’s second Northampton restaurant, Unmi, an Asian fusion eatery.

Abkin honed her skills in California’s budding culinary scene in 1991, “way before ‘superstar chefs” and before television networks carried food channels, she says. Initially, though, cooking as a profession wasn’t on her radar. After high school, Abkin graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with degrees in pre-med and psychology, but took a year off to figure out her next step before graduate school.

“I decided to go to this place called the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, because I was interested in cooking. I had not worked at a restaurant before,” Abkin says. “I fell in love with it.”

After working for a few years in San Francisco restaurants, Abkin moved to the Pioneer Valley in the mid-’90s and subsequently opened Cha Cha Cha and then Unmi, where she met Taylor, the restaurant’s sous chef.

Unlike Abkin, Taylor grew up into Northampton’s restaurant business. His family ran the kitchen of former North Star Seafood Bar, a nightclub and restaurant across from Forbes Library. A cousin runs The Lone Wolf in Amherst.

“My earliest memories are in a restaurant, kind of like how she’s growing up in a restaurant,” Taylor says, looking over at Coco, now eating Abkin’s experimental General Tso’s Chicken for lunch at a table near the windows.

The couple moved together back to California in the 2000s so that Taylor could attended California Culinary Academy as his wife did.  Steeped in California’s diverse food culture, Abkin and Taylor developed a taste for flavor that isn’t tied to any one particular style.

“We learned fried chicken in Oakland, California. A whole lot of folks moved to Oakland after World War II, from the South, to take jobs in shipyards. There was certainly a strong culture around that. I can remember working at a restaurant in Oakland and seeing a sandwich shop down the street with a line out the door for fried chicken sandwiches,” Taylor says.

Crafting dish ideas into menu items is a collaborative effort that often takes months. While Abkin is experimental when it comes to cuisine, Taylor understands the nuts and bolts of running a restaurant, and fine tunes ideas into entrees that can be produced from the restaurant’s small kitchen day in and day out.

“A restaurant is only as good as the last meal it puts out. You have to execute every single time,” Taylor says. Dishes are streamlined to shave seconds off prep time, which adds up into minutes wasted over a 10 hour shift.

For a long time, Coco and The Cellar Bar served an arugula salad with goat cheese sprinkled on top. Taylor says chefs found they were spending too much time “getting the goat cheese just right over the top of it.” One of the restaurant’s cooks, Aaron Thayer, suggested to instead spread an emulsion made with goat cheese and milk beneath the greens, creating a unique salad with the same ingredients, in less time.

Running a restaurant business can be stressful — food needs to be prepped days in advance, dishes need to be made quickly to accommodate as many customers as possible, and employees work long days. Conversely, it can also be rewarding.

For Taylor, that reward comes “when everything is firing on all cylinders, that’s probably one of the best times. When the place is humming and the music is right on a Saturday night, and the food is coming out crisp and clean. The second we put it into the window there’s wait staff waiting to take it away and put it in front of someone. It’s a pretty special feeling.”

Abkin says she cooks to see a light in the eyes of her diners. “Sometimes, I look out of the dining room to see if people smile. If somebody comes here and gets really good food and service, and it makes their day, it makes my day. What’s more important than sharing a good meal? It’s community, it’s friendship, it’s life.”

For more information on Coco and The Cellar Bar visit The restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday, and is open Thursday through Friday from 5 p.m. to midnight, and Sunday from 4 to 9 p.m.