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June 18, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, June 18, 2004

Venezuelan style Venezuelan style (June 18, 2004)

High-quality coffee and chocolates among highlights of Coupa Café

by Jennifer Aquino

In this on-the-move city full of CEOs and high-achieving students it should come as no surprise that we consume more coffee per capita than any other city in America.

It's a statistic that brought Jean Paul Coupal and his Venezuelan roasted coffee to Palo Alto. Coupal and his wife, Nancy Farid-Coupal, recently added Coupa Café on Ramona Street to Palo Alto's stable of java houses. It's the first American café for this owner of three restaurants, a coffee-roasting business and a café in Venezuela.

Coupa Café is more than just a place for caffeine junkies to get a quick fix. Paper cups, plastic spoons and milk are provided, but frowned upon here. Coffee was meant to be enjoyed black, in a ceramic cup with a metal spoon, according to Coupal.

Americans have poor coffee habits, Coupal said, flocking to fast food-like coffee joints that offer milk-laden cups of joe made in mass quantities. His mission: To re-educate Americans about coffee, and also provide them with typical café fare.

He also offers a walk on the South American side with rich Venezuelan chocolates, European-influenced pastries and a traditional Venezuelan dish called arepa (a Venezuelan staple equivalent to bread). This is a good place to contemplate over a good cup of coffee and a light, South American-inspired lunch or dessert. Just don't expect great service.

Tucked inside a Spanish colonial building built by Birge Clark in 1932, the Ramona Street café's bright, watermelon-and-mustard-colored walls, rustic tile floors, photos of Venezuelan coffee plantations and dim lighting feel South American. A small table-filled patio in front is lined by two glass cases displaying South American artifacts. These include a turn-of-the-century Venezuelan green bean coffee selector made from mahogany to Brazilian Indian hammocks that take four months to weave.

The narrow space is lined with a coffee bar and glass cases filled with pastries, paninis and chocolates. In the back, comfy couches and padded booths surround a fireplace.

The café's yet-undiscovered state is somewhat of a blessing. Coupa is quiet and secluded, with generally only a few tables occupied by lone diners plugging away at their laptops, taking advantage of the café's free wi-fi connection.

The café as a whole pays tribute to Coupal's homeland, from the simple wooden tables to the granite countertop to the chocolates to the coffee (delivered two to three times a week from Venezuela via DHL).

Coupa offers beans that are shade-grown and roasted on one of six Venezuelan coffee estates. Coupal only buys coffee from farmers who grow one of three varieties brought from Africa to Venezuela. The result, Coupal said, is a sweeter bean that retains 30 percent of its sugar. Although Coupa offers everything from caramel macchiatos to vanilla frappes, his emphasis is on pure coffee and espresso.

The coffee isn't ground or even percolated until you order it. It's made by a barista , a term Coupal said is too loosely applied to employees at other coffee houses. He hired a full-time barista from Venezuela to train his staff here.

The energy put into brewing a cup of joe is noteworthy. The coffee is less acidic than other South American varieties with a clean, crisp flavor. It's meant to be drunk in small quantities for a reason -- it's strong. A cappuccino ($2.75 for a medium) arrived in a bowl-sized ceramic mug with piles of foam stacked like clouds and a latte ($2.50 for a small) came in a slightly smaller cup with frothy milk. Both were delicate and slightly sweet.

If you want something more, grab a paper menu by the cash register and order at the counter. The menu is broken into breakfast, lunch, arepas and pastries and desserts. You seat yourself and will be brought silverware with your food.

The arepas are the most authentic and interesting items on the menu. The cornmeal pancakes are the size of sand dollars and stuffed with various ingredients, from a traditional Venezuelan meat stew to smoked salmon to guava jelly. In Venezuela they are served like bread before a meal or eaten as a snack after late-night disco dancing.

An arepa on its own makes a good snack. To make a meal, order the duo arepa ($9.75), two arepas of your choosing. The best traditional arepas are filled with carne mechada ($5.95) (shredded meat stew) and reina pepiada ($5.95) (shredded chicken and avocado). The corn cake is soft like a pancake and as plain and salty as a corn tortilla.

In the carne mechada the thin cake acts as a clean backdrop to the salty, rich shredded meat stew and chunks of tomatoes. The reina pepiada arepa is likewise a cornmeal cake stuffed with a slightly salty chicken salad and creamy avocado.

Less authentic but equally tasty are the paninis, an Italian-style sandwich. Try the Spanish Serrano "Iglesias" ham ($7.50), thin slices of nutty-tasting Spanish ham, paired with Mozarella, tomatoes and Mesclun lettuce, served between two slices of Acme soft panini bread and grilled flat. Another good choice is the proscuitto "San Danielle" ($7.50), two slices of Acme panini bread filled with the thinnest, finest proscuitto I've ever had, tomatoes and Mesclun lettuce.

The salads weren't as stellar as the paninis or the arepas . I ordered the duo salad ($6), two salads of your choosing. The Greek vegetable salad -- cucumbers, kalamata olives, tomatoes and sliced onion drizzled in oil -- was good, but dripping in dressing. The corn and wild rice salad, filled with corn, black beans and wild rice, was chewy and looked and tasted wilted.

Perhaps the most tempting items are the desserts and pastries. Coupa, according to Coupal, is the only place in the United States where you can buy chocolate made by Chuao, a Venezuelan chocolatier. The chocolate can be bought by the bar or as bite-sized bonbons ($1.45 each). The bonbons are covered in a thin veil of perfectly sculpted chocolate and house sweet, creamy centers, such as toasted hazelnut butter and mango. Coupal also uses Venezuelan chocolate to create his tarts, mousses, croissants and brownies. The brownie ($1.75) is as big as a block and stuffed with walnuts. It's as dense as fudge and bears a robust, deep chocolate aroma.

Although the majority of the desserts are made by a local artisan, every morning the croissants ($2.25) are made fresh in-house, using Plugra butter (a European-style butter with more fat and less moisture) and French techniques for folding the pastries. The result is a buttery, soft shell-shaped bread that pulls apart like cotton candy.

Coupa also serves a host of unusual beverages, from natural juices popular in Venezuela, such as mango and tamarindo, to hot "Chuao" chocolate, to Forte tea, whole leaf teas, fresh cuts herbs and flowers served in triangular-shaped silk mesh tea bags.

The only drawback to Coupa is the service. Although the staff is well-meaning, they can be slow and a bit uninformed about the menu. On one occasion, there were only two other diners in the restaurant and it took nearly 45 minutes to get one entree.

On another, the Three Cheeses Melt panini arrived as an egg sandwich. When my dining partner sent it back because it lacked cheese and had egg on it (there's no indication on the menu that egg is a part of this panini) the dish arrived with the egg still present and a piece of cheese melted on top. But these missteps shouldn't dissuade you from trying Coupa Cafe.

The high-quality, authentic coffee and chocolate are worth the effort. Coupal and his wife have created a truly unusual introduction to Venezuelan culture, coffee and food. Their passion is so great they hope to establish a sister city relationship between Palo Alto and Caracas in the fall.

Coupa Cafe, 538 Ramona St. in Palo Alto; (650) 322-6872.

Hours: Mon. - Sun. 7 a.m. - 11 p.m.

Atmosphere: Restored Spanish colonial building with moody lighting, rustic wood beams, a comfy couch and a fireplace.

Highlights: Carne mechada arepa ($5.95), Spanish Serrano "Iglesias" ham ($7.50), croissant ($2.25)
Price Range: Breakfast: $2 - $7.25, Salads: $5.50 - $6.95, Soup: $4.75 - $4.95, Panini: $5.95 - $7.95, Pasta: $5.95 - $6.25, Coupa Specialties: $5.95, Arepas: $4.95 - $9.75, Desserts: $1.45 - $5.75.
Reservations: N/A Credit Cards: Yes Lot Parking: No Alcohol: Yes Takeout: Yes Highchairs: Yes Wheelchair access: Yes Banquet: No Catering: Yes Outdoor seating: Yes Noise level: Avg. Bathrooms: Avg.

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