Cocola is the brainchild of mother Sue and son Amir Aliabadi, open since 2002 in San Jose and October 2010 at Stanford Shopping Center. Sue is the executive pastry chef and Amir is in charge of operations.
Sue Aliabadi learned cooking by observation, trial and error. When she and her husband were living in pre-revolution Iran, he was a banker and a picky eater. He hired a cook to prepare meals after the couple wed, but Sue was not happy with that arrangement and determined to do it herself. She quickly learned and took over.
"Mom always had a talent," Amir said. "She picks up techniques very quickly."
Amir graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in genetics, but was drawn to the world of business. After he completed a master's degree in business administration, his ambition was to work for a high-tech startup. Those plans evaporated with the crash of 2000.
"I quickly rethought what I wanted to do. Food seemed a natural. We borrowed from family and started our own business," he said.
Now with five busy locations, Cocola closes only on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Longtime Stanford Shopping Center devotees might remember Alice Medrich's Cocolat. She introduced America to chocolate truffles from her original Berkeley shop in the early 1970s. By the '80s, Cocolat was a Bay Area chain including a store at Stanford Shopping Center. Medrich sold Cocolat in 1990 and her successors soon failed the business. Cocola is not related.
The space was cramped for the Oakville Grocery operation but is near-cavernous for a sandwich and pastry shop. French-inspired tile-topped iron tables are scattered throughout with additional tables on the food-court piazza for al fresco repasting. Indoors, one corner is cozily set with leather sofa and chairs meant to inspire long philosophical coffee shop discussions — or for taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi connection.
There are a half-dozen soups du jour offered in daily rotation. The tomato tarragon ($5.90) was a large bowl with generous chunks of tomato, minced celery, onion, carrots et al. Flavors were right and the tarragon judiciously imbued. It was plenty for lunch and came with slices of house-made baguette. I wish they had offered a smaller bowl of soup coupled with a small salad or half a sandwich. Portions were too large to order a regular size of each.
The tuna nicoise sandwich ($8.90) was brimming with alabaster-white albacore tuna, capers and mixed greens all dressed with a lemony vinaigrette. The toasted baguette was soft and crunchy. A flavorful celery root salad accompanied.
The roast turkey sandwich ($8.90) featured fresh-baked tender turkey breast, cranberry sauce and slices of French brie. The brie and cranberry were surprisingly compatible and livened the crusty baguette. A carrot salad supplemented the plate.
Chicken breast salad ($9.90) was piled with tender, room-temperature but still juicy chicken, atop a medley of baby greens, carrots, cabbage, croutons and a tomato salsa. It was dressed with a tangy lemon vinaigrette. Large tasty salad, reasonable price.
Adjacent to the ordering counter are glass display cabinets that show off a multitude of tempting French breakfast and dessert pastries. I felt like the kid in the candy store but with a vastly more sophisticated assortment to agonize over.
The individual apple tart ($3.90) had a sweet soft crust, not gooey soft, but easy to cut and eat. Bite-sized slices of golden delicious apples sat atop a delectable vanilla pastry cream. Sweet but not cloying, it made a satisfying ending.
The chocolate brioche ($2.80) was flaky and studded with rich chocolate bits. It was probably intended as a breakfast pastry but was just as good with lunch. The mini hazelnut cake ($3.10) had layers of chocolate sponge cake, coffee and hazelnut mousses.
Besides offering individual servings, Cocola has whole cakes and tarts in sizes that can accommodate everything from small family gatherings to large events. Beverages include richly brewed coffee specialties, Italian sodas, beer and wine.
Cocola is a welcome addition to the food court area of Stanford Shopping Center. The soups, salads and sandwiches are high-quality and the pastries are worth seeking out.
Stanford Shopping Center, E715, Palo Alto
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun. 7:30 a.m.-8 p.m.