“You know all those pre-Prohibition-style bars downtown? We’re none of that,” says Mathieu Muckensturm, head bar guy and more at Coco Chocolate Lounge & Bistro. This is apparent the moment one walks into the space dominated by red velvet booths and chandeliers both painted and pendant. It’s refreshing to have the theme so directly stated.
Directness shouldn’t be surprising. “I’m French; we don’t keep our tongues in our pockets,” Muckensturm says. Born in Alsace, his wine background served him well at Las Canarias where he first met and worked with Coco’s owner, Philippe Placé. But there were experiences beyond wine to be mined as well. “My grandfather had a vineyard, but he also made schnapps, so from a little boy… ” No wonder he was recruited by Placé to help open Coco: his little-boy look and just-enough accent are perfect behind a bar that caters to women.
Coco’s focus on the female patron was a given from the get-go, and from that the emphasis on chocolate in many forms emerged. “We have a lot of chocolate drinks,” Muckensturm continues, “but they’re not like anyone else’s.”
Take the White Chocolate Cucumber, for example. OK, I wouldn’t have, but I also have to admit that this over-the-top-seeming blend of Hendrick’s Gin, muddled cucumber, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, Godiva white chocolate liqueur, and blue Curaçao, had a certain exotic appeal — from the pale turquoise color to the remarkably balanced flavor profile.
I felt only slightly less resistant initially to the Dulche de Coco, the bar’s most popular cocktail and Muckensturm’s baby. It’s composed of leche quemada drizzled decoratively into the glass, Tres Leches liqueur, and the “chocolate whipped” version of Pinnacle, a French vodka that comes in a Howard Johnson’s array of 29 flavors. Again, it’s remarkably seductive, and “No, we don’t talk about calories,” replies bartender Melissa in response to the inevitable question. For me, it was the chipotle-and-sugar rim that evened out the Sexual, Coco’s second most popular drink, made with vodka, Godiva, and Bailey’s.
But all is not cream and chocolate chez Coco.
“Yes, the ladies like a drink a little on the sweeter side, but we have something for everybody,” says Muckensturm. Fresh juices, mint picked fresh daily for mojitos, Texas produce used wherever possible, and a close relationship with the kitchen are all part of the equation. “I’m not gonna lie to you, we do a lot of reading, but in the long run we invent,” Muckensturm adds. He and his team come up with a new martini every week, he says, and as an example I’m treated to one created for a competition sponsored by GQ magazine.
Here’s the recipe for the Coco Thai:
1 1/2 oz. Bombay Sapphire Gin
A dash Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur
Half a lemon, freshly squeezed
1/2 oz. Monin lemongrass syrup
1 tsp. Bonne Maman orange marmalade (his mother used to use this when her own was depleted)
Pinch grains of paradise (an aromatic West African spice)
Shake all ingredients but the grains of paradise vigorously in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Sprinkle ground grains on top. (You may substitute freshly ground black peppercorn for the grains.) Garnish with a thin slice of lemon skewered on a sprig of lemongrass.
“It’s harder to please a woman than a man; she’ll tell you right away if she doesn’t like something,” says GQ. But it’s hard to imagine that Coco’s clientele wouldn’t go for this distinctly herbal/spicy drink. I can testify that the invented-on-the-spot drink we shared with a woman sitting near me at the bar was well received.
Anyone, male or female, seriously interested in investigating drinks at Coco is advised to get there relatively early. The place regularly hits capacity. “We don’t want to follow trends, we want to be one,” Muckensturm says. For an often-neglected market segment, they seem to have become just that. •
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