By David Minsky
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By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
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Like I've always said: Never trust a food critic. There she'll go, raving about "authentic Amazonian twice-baked piranha" at some impossible-to-find dive. You trek 80 minutes through Cat 2 squalls to get there, and the fish tastes like twice-baked Nike. Or the place is "under new management": Piranha is now served in curried mojo reduction with sun-dried tomato coulis at seven times the price. Dear reader, when it comes to your gastronomic adventures, a critic can only shove you into the deep end -- whether you sink or swim depends on incalculable factors.
This lesson was hurled in my face, like a calfskin glove presaging a duel, when I recently swallowed whole the gushing prose of a critic from our local daily and herded my party of out-of-town guests over to CoCo Palm Beach. I wanted to see what the new owners, who opened last January, had done with the place. CoCo is where E.R. Bradley's -- swinging party central of my misspent youth -- used to live (the bar moved years ago to Clematis Street). I was jazzed when I heard my old stomping grounds had been turned into a swanky Chinese restaurant, where retro-'30s Hollywood glam meets "Palm-Asian" fusion.
Opening a glitzy Asian restaurant on Sunset Avenue is like throwing Gwyneth Paltrow into the ring with Joe Frazier and telling her she has to go the full 12 rounds. Because a short block away, on Sunrise Avenue, the best pan-Asian restaurant in Palm Beach County, serving traditional and tweaked Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes, has been doing booming business for almost a decade. That restaurant, owned by the Breakers, is called Echo.
290 Sunset Ave.
Palm Beach, FL 33480
Region: Palm Beach
Thus, it's hard to imagine what was going through the minds of co-owners Jeff Peng and Simon C. Fireman, who must have spent a million dollars to refurbish CoCo, hewing out a shadowy doppelgänger of its arch rival right down to a rhyming, mirror-image name. Peng was formerly chef-owner of Shangri-La in Lake Worth, a shabby, long-running Cantonese joint that sometimes received baffling raves from foodies; I never had a good meal there. Fireman, who shuttles between Palm Beach and Quincy, Massachusetts, is a notorious philanthropist. In 1996, he pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance charges for funneling illegal contributions to presidential hopeful Bob Dole (his employees at Aqua-Leisure Industries wrote the checks; he reimbursed them). Fireman was sentenced to six months' home detention and slapped with a $6 million fine. This year, he served as Red Cross Ball chairman at Mar-a-Lago, proving once again that Palm Beach doyennes are mad for men in ankle bracelets.
What a pair! Was it Peng or Fireman who drew up this whopper of a business plan? The echoes of Echo were so weird that I had to look up the original's menu just to be sure I wasn't crazy. Echo serves Chinese egg rolls ($8); CoCo serves lobster spring rolls ($14). You get skewered beef and chicken at Echo ($9); Asian beef skewers ($9) at CoCo. Look for char-broiled pork spareribs ($12) at Echo; charred boneless back ribs ($11) at CoCo. Sushi and sashimi -- yessiree. Fried rice -- yup. Pad Thai -- check. Chow fun noodles -- you betcha. Crispy whole snapper -- uh huh. Seared ahi tuna -- righty-o. Peking duck -- ten-four. Eat in or take it out -- but of course!
Still, no two ducks are identical, and having another fantastic Asian restaurant in Palm Beach wouldn't be a bad thing. And the lady on the phone at CoCo had been so nice when we called.
We were four: two omnivores and two semivores who don't eat chicken or beef. That was fine; there's lots of seafood and vegetarian stuff on CoCo's menu. We looked around, and the place was pretty: late-evening light falling through the high windows; striped curtains; alternating hues of yellow, red, and blue on walls, upholstery, and ceiling; a handsome bar in one corner. Chic. The place seats 86 inside, another 36 on the outdoor patio in good weather. It was, and remained, about a third full on a Friday night. We ordered banana shrimp with peanuts fried in a panko coating ($14); Lotus Blossoms of minced chicken in endive ($8); a Japanese-style shrimp tempura roll ($14); and a fried lobster spring roll ($14) for starters.
Things began to go downhill even as we sank into our chairs. Our waiter set down bowls of crispy noodles. In most Chinese restaurants, these are egg roll wrappers cut into strips and deep fried. Not a gourmet item, but they arrive piping hot, crunchy, yummy dipped in mustard or sweet-sour sauce, and they're impossible to stop eating. At CoCo, they apparently dump theirs right out of a La-Choy can: thin, stale, lacking in flavor, crunchless.
Alrighty then. At least the wine was OK. We were sipping glasses of Santa Margherita pinot grigio. At $14 a glass, just slightly less than you'd pay for a whole bottle at the liquor store, but when you're dining in Palm Beach, don't expect discounts. Our server plopped down a handful of little sauce dishes along with our appetizers, but he didn't tell us what they were or which plate was meant to pair with what sauce.