Cafés have a long history, rolling with tides of cultural change while offering outlets for sociable caffeination in good times and bad. These days, you know a neighborhood's star is on the rise when it gets the kind of café that serves biscotti. Or so we remarked to each other five years ago, when Lawrenceville's reinvention as a bohemian design district was just beginning. Sure enough, that first café was not long in setting its biscotti jars on the counter, providing refreshment to hipsters browsing their way through Butler Street's art galleries and antique shops.
Then, one of Butler Street's pioneer new businesses, a top-notch vintage-furnishings store specializing in the bold colors and geometry of the early- to mid-20th century, underwent a reinvention of its own to become a café. Its new owners made Coca Café much more than just another café: By utilizing vintage pieces as decor and featuring local artists' work on the walls, Coca has perfected the neat trick of appearing hip without being pretentious.
The atmosphere is somehow simultaneously bustling and relaxed. Natural light floods the space through the storefront windows, falling onto a motley assortment of tables and chairs, each of which seems to promise its own experience: an intimate two-top here, a family-sized dinette there.
Coca offers far more than coffee and cookies on its breakfast and lunch menus. Among the surprising but not outlandish variety of dishes on its brunch list, the omelets alone include smoked salmon, wild mushroom, roasted vegetable, sun-dried tomato pesto and four cheese a selection that had us begging our server for "just one more minute" each time she approached, pencil poised. Coca also caters matter-of-factly to vegans with options such as scrambled tofu in place of eggs.
To ease into our brunch, we tried the yogurt-granola parfait. The granola, full of whole almonds and toasted oats, provided a sweet, crunchy layer alternating with smooth, tart yogurt and topped with ripe, fresh berries.
Next came herbed-goat-cheese French toast. Three slices of country white bread were each two inches thick, light and fluffy with a toothsome crust. Chevre, tinted green by added herbs, filled the middle of each slice with creamy, earthy richness. We wondered if fresh fruit and syrup would really work with this savory base, but it did. The sweet-tart freshness of blueberries and strawberries, the sugary slather of maple syrup, the airy bread and the luxurious cheese together put us in mind of a decadent, yet not saccharine, Italian dessert.
Jason wanted something both savory and hearty, and the southwest wrap fit the bill. Roasted red peppers, caramelized onions and wilted spinach accompanied fluffy, seasoned scrambled egg, with plenty of gooey muenster cheese upping the ante to make this breakfast burrito almost rich. The whole-wheat tortilla had been crisped in a sandwich press, a small touch that went a long way toward improving the texture of the wrap, and the accompanying salsa defied any accusations of blandness.
Our tour of the breakfast menu satisfied our appetites but only piqued our curiosity about lunch. On the afternoon menu, an array of wraps and sandwiches follows the lead of the omelets, offering distinctive and interesting, but not precious, combinations. Full as we were, we agreed to share a sandwich of turkey on a croissant with roasted red peppers. Herbed goat cheese made another appearance, but in the sandwich context its herbal character came to the fore. A generous heaping of fresh vegetables, sweet roasted peppers and a crispy, buttery croissant rounded out this outstanding sandwich. Alongside was a delightful orzo salad, rice-shaped pasta tossed with an array of roasted vegetables in a light, subtle dressing.
Coca Café used to be a place to shop for treasures. Now it is a treasure in and of itself, a place where ordinary food and objects rise to extraordinary levels of refinement in an atmosphere as agreeable as your own home kitchen. And you don't have to do the dishes.
Jason: 4 stars
Angelique: 4 stars