More Than Sweet

The Conche celebrates chocolate in a range of elegant and satisfying dishes.

Sour cream chocolate layer cake.

Photos by Under a Bushel Photography

At The Conche restaurant in Leesburg, chocolate is the main attraction, but that doesn’t mean it’s overpowering. Chef Santosh Tiptur works chocolate into the menu’s savory and sweet dishes in surprising and often subtle ways. Seared scallops are crusted with cocoa nibs and accompanied by a white chocolate cauliflower puree, which is perfectly balanced by the crunch and sizzle of tempura-fried Brussels sprouts. The ribeye steak is nestled in a celery root and parsnip puree that is finished off with a chocolate Burgundy reduction. Crispy calamari is coated in a chocolate beer batter. And that’s before we even get to the dessert menu. 

A veteran chef, Tiptur came to Washington, D.C., in the mid-2000s to open the acclaimed Co Co. Sala with owner Nisha Sidhu. That chocolate-themed restaurant was a favorite with the after-dinner crowd, but Tiptur and Sidhu decided to close Co Co. Sala to move on to new opportunities when their 10-year lease was up in 2018. For Tiptur, that meant creating a new chocolate-themed restaurant in Virginia that would be much closer to his home near Dulles Airport. He opened The Conche in the Village at Leesburg, a mixed residential-retail development, in May 2017, helping to close one restaurant as he opened the other.

So far, The Conche has been met with enthusiasm by its savvy suburban clientele, but it required a bit of education. “People often think we’re just a seafood restaurant,” Tiptur says, explaining how people mix up the restaurant’s name with the conch, a tropical shellfish. The restaurant name actually refers to the machine that mixes and agitates the ingredients that go into chocolate, which in turn got its name because early machines resembled conch shells. Conching remains an essential process in refining the taste and texture of chocolate to this day. At The Conche, diners can even witness conching through the restaurant’s Chocolate Lab, a 300-square-foot windowed room where pastry chef Kathleen Faliskie and chocolatier Sara Dobson can often be seen working their magic. 

Before they eat there, Tiptur says, some diners have the impression that the restaurant is some kind of Willy Wonka funhouse where everything from the salad to the steaks is dipped in chocolate. But they quickly learn that The Conche is actually a posh dining room with elegant, inventive entrées and appetizers. Tiptur likes to put dishes on the menu that feel familiar, filling, and comforting, but with a surprising twist. The beef slider trio, for example—which sounds like a barroom staple—arrives stuffed with braised short ribs and shallot jam, alongside a satisfying chocolate barbecue sauce. The key is understanding that the cocoa bean has no inherent sweetness, but it does carry certain flavors depending on where and how it’s grown, Tiptur explains. In savory dishes, Tiptur uses cocoa almost like a spice. 

When I visited The Conche for lunch one day recently, my crab cake sandwich was topped with a melt-in-your-mouth avocado mousse and a piquant tomato chocolate chipotle spread. My friend Lisa opted for the ahi tuna poke bowl, which is very of-the-moment, but the bright, fresh dish was peppered with cocoa nibs and crowned with a lacey sambal tuile for added texture and crunch. We split an order of aromatic Parmesan and rosemary fries that came with a duo of dips, one tomato and herb, the other made from chili and—what else?—chocolate. 

And yet not all of the entrées or appetizers feature chocolate, Tiptur points out. Despite not being a direct reference for the “Conche” name, seafood is nonetheless prominent on the menu, including two chocolate-free entrees—Antarctic salmon with braised spinach and potato salad, and shrimp and grits with chorizo that remind you that, even in northern Virginia, you’re still in the South. Similarly comforting and delicious are the braised short ribs that come with crispy greens, sautéed cremini mushrooms, and potato puree. 

So, what about desserts? Not surprisingly, The Conche’s dessert menu is extensive, with dishes named for different kinds of chocolate from around the world. The Manjari, for example, is a delightfully presented chocolate mousse with vanilla crème brûlée, dark chocolate brownie, and a side of salted caramel ice cream. The Guanaja is a sour cream chocolate layer cake with Oreo crumble and a Muscovado sugar ice cream. Diners can also opt for the assorted artisanal chocolate platter—the chef’s daily choice. But the pièce de résistance is undoubtedly The Conche Entremet, a dramatic dark chocolate sphere layered with sour cream chocolate cake, ganache, a variety of ice creams, and a trio of chocolate and caramel sauces. The Conche’s signature cocktails, which include an old fashioned with Aztec chocolate bitters and the Moussetache with mousse and crème de cacao, are fitting accompaniments, too. 

On the day we met, Tiptur poured me a cup of coffee accompanied by two dark chocolate candies. The lunch rush was still an hour away, so Tiptur told me stories about his childhood in Bangalore, India. From a young age, Tiptur loved to shop with his mother at the open-air markets, where he came to value high quality, fresh ingredients. When his mother gave him some pocket change for helping her, he purchased his first-ever piece of chocolate—a Cadbury Éclair. Later, Tiptur was given a taste of his future career when his uncle’s friend, who owned a bakery, taught him to bake a cake. Tiptur went on to attend culinary school in India, where he specialized in confectionery science. 

In more recent years, Tiptur has appeared on several Food Network shows, winning itsHalloween Wars competition, as well as segments on CNN and other outlets. That’s probably enough exposure to warrant calling Tiptur a celebrity chef, and yet he remains an affable, approachable presence that makes the elegant Conche feel like a neighborhood joint, too. As if to prove the point, Tiptur congenially sent me on my way with a complimentary sampler of four chocolate bonbons flavored with pear, coffee, cranberry, and honey. Like that first piece of candy that set Tiptur on his culinary journey years ago—and yet a world apart in taste and refinement—it was chocolate that won’t soon be forgotten. 

This article originally appeared in our April 2019 issue.

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