By David Minsky
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By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
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By Laine Doss
If I followed my own advice, I'd be thinner and richer as it is, this bird has way outgrown her little nest. And my current fascination with the rituals of Asian foodstuffs, particularly sushi, isn't helping. If Asians are skinny for a reason, it isn't because their chow is inherently less caloric. They just eat less of it. Meanwhile, they observe a flowing, graceful etiquette that frowns upon grabbing food from other people's plates and stuffing one's mouth too full to breathe. The sushi-loving Japanese, for instance, orders her sashimi not on a "boat" the size of the Queen Mary 2 but one tiny saucer at a time. She pauses to contemplate and delight in its beauty. She chews before swallowing.
Come to think of it, most rituals were invented to slow us down the pace of the thoroughly civilized soul is sedate. So on my first visit to Coco Asian Bistro (not to be confused with the Coco in Palm Beach), which just opened up on Cordova Road in the Harbor Shops, I made a real effort to get steady. Mike Ponluang, who has operated Thai Pepper in Coral Springs with his wife, Varisara, for 15 years, finally opened Coco this month after innumerable delays, evidently having gotten too big to fit comfortably into his own little nest. Ponluang is Thai, and his peripatetic life, while interesting, has evidently been no picnic he learned to cook as a boy when his mother was disabled in a fire caused by a kerosene lamp.
Ponluang is elegant and narrow, peering intently through oval spectacles, brushes of gray at his temples. He looks a bit like the interior décor of his restaurants: sophisticated in a subdued way, warm but not overbearing. Thai Pepper, from what I gather, has been immensely popular with the Coral Springs set, and Ponluang would probably like to replicate that good fortune downtown with Coco. About six years ago, he started serving sushi too, so the menu at the new place similar to the one at Thai Pepper is half Japanese and half Thai.
Coco is a beautifully pulled-together space. It's intimate without crowding, chic without pretense. Atomic lamps hang like starbursts from the ceiling and accent red walls; bamboo slats over the booths make lovely shadow pictures as the light shines through. Cool linen drapes give the impression of wafting even when still. On one side of the room, a full bar serves imaginative cocktails like mango mojitos and Coco lemon drops; the chefs at the sushi bar on the other side prepare everything from tuna with truffle oil ($9) to unagi don ($14). A lunch menu of bento boxes (most around $10) and sushi combos appears to have already generated significant business.
I was eager to try out my new sushi-eating skills. It's time we all graduated from ordering 30-piece sushi boats and slathering everything with wasabi, dunking our rice in soy sauce, and picking from our partners' plates with dirty chopsticks. I've been guilty of all of the above for too long now, even knowing that the sushi chef (if he deigned to notice me at all) was probably regarding me with a finely honed disdain verging on outright disgust. Sushi chefs train for eons before they're allowed out in the world on their own. And according to tradition, they're not even permitted to pick up a knife for the first couple of years. When they do pick up that knife, they're expected to use it artfully. Notice, for instance, that your sashimi (plain raw fish) is cut in a completely different way from your nigiri (raw fish with vinegared rice), so the texture and the experience of eating it is utterly different the sashimi doesn't dissolve on the palate the same way the more slender nigiri does, for example. Polite customers revere a sushi chef for his skill, rather than just haphazardly pigging out, and I'd decided it was time I learned me some proper manners.
So we began on our first visit by ordering sashimi. A knowledgeable friend had instructed me to always begin with sashimi preferably toro, the fatty, expensive belly of the bluefin tuna, and a couple of pieces of something else exquisite, like another cut of bluefin, because these will really let you judge the quality of your fish. It's also bad luck to order a single piece of anything. And if you don't like the sashimi, you might as well fold up your napkin, pay your bill, and look for a new sushi palace because sashimi, like a good clairvoyant, will tell exactly what your future holds. We ordered toro ($8) and bluefin ($6) to start, plus the sashimi moriawase sampler ($19) to get an idea of the chef's range. The night's sampler included octopus, salmon, hamachi, and more tuna.
These were all presented gorgeously, on dark, heavy rectangular plates in the case of the tunas and in a big, square, white bowl, artfully overlapping inch-thick slices with bits of daikon radish and vegetable fripperies to make it all look pretty. As instructed, I tried a bit of the toro without either soy sauce or wasabi, fully expecting a mouthful of bliss. Toro's flavor has been described as like butter or like excellent filet mignon; it's pale red to pink, and a good piece should entertain your palate with an indescribable fullness, as if the coldest, lightest seawater had been condensed and enriched. Unfortunately, the toro we had at Coco that night was stringy, bitter, fishy, and tasted of iron. It was awful. The regular bluefin wasn't much better, fishy rather than cleanly flavored. Toro, like oysters, is supposed to be best in winter, so it may have been a mistake to order it in May. But still, shouldn't the restaurant just refrain from serving it?
We plowed on through the sashimi sampler the thick, overly chewy octopus, fine slabs of salmon and hamachi and found that all the sashimi was at different temperatures. Some pieces were room temp, too warm to be palatable. Some were coolish. And the tuna in the sampler was partially frozen, so I chomped down on tiny ice crystals. In short, disgusting.
If I'd been a plain old civilian rather than a food writer, I would have folded my napkin at this point and signaled for the check. I was saddened for a lot of reasons. From what I know of him, Mike Ponluang is a sympathetic creature, and I wish him no harm. I also have friends and acquaintances who've gone to Coco and absolutely loved it. A lot of people have put care and attention into so many of the wonderful details colors, textures, plating techniques that I positively yearned to adore it. But things didn't improve enough post-sashimi to quell my misgivings.
It's unfortunate that once you taste yucky sashimi, you approach anything that follows it with a suspicious eye and a nose trained to detect off-odors. We ordered a few of the rolls and nigiri, and they were mostly fine, if none of them too subtle. A special yellowtail sushi "with aioli and cilantro" had substituted scallion for the cilantro. Salmon sushi with mango and dill (both two pieces for $9) was attractive, fresh, and innovative. A tanzana roll ($9) combined hamachi, asparagus, avocado, scallion, and masago into a combination that seems too ubiquitous to be interesting. And a volcano roll ($12) was a superrich dish of crab, cucumber, cream cheese, and avocado, topped with dynamite conch in spicy tobiko mayo. I enjoyed the fattiness here that I didn't get from the toro, but these ingredients together, honestly, are major overkill creamy crab, creamy cheese, creamy avocado, creamy mayo. It's yum yum yummy, but not for the sushi snob who cares one whit about authenticity or a clear palate.
Has it happened? I've turned into that snob. Dear reader, you may go to Coco and have the time of your life a plate of panang curry or the beloved filet mignon with avocado, portabella mushrooms, potatoes, and curry sauce that everybody raves about from the Thai Pepper. Or a dish of coco sea bass with chili sauce, a roasted duck with tamarind. Wash it down with a mango mojito and you're in heaven. I have no quarrels with you. It's just that I'm inhabiting an alternate universe these days, cranky and exacting, where I want my next som tum green papaya salad ($6), which I had at lunch the following week, to teach me something I don't already know, to inspire me or quarrel with my preconceptions. Coco's som tum never rose to meet even my lowest expectations. The shredded papaya was soggy, and the execution lacked balance too spicy hot and too sweet, although I appreciated the weird salty tang of those dried shrimp. A bowl of tom ka kai soup with chicken ($3 at lunch, $5 at dinner) had the same flaws silky coconut milk was overly sweetened, and none of the lemongrass lime-leaf flavors had managed to poke through. When I'm in search of the famously beautiful, unexpected flavors of Thailand, it isn't to Coco I'll be turning. In fact, I'm already planning a winter flight to Bangkok.
I've obviously grown too precious for this world.