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.
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.
Lobster spring rolls came with a cognac plum glaze. Ideally, as we know, anything fried at the right temp is supposed to emerge crackling and airy. I won't say these rolls were inedible, just greasy, heavy, and damned skimpy on the lobster. I ate them all anyway; I was starving. Banana shrimp, served with chili sauce, were another mild downer; you took a bite and got a mouthful of oily breadcrumbs. A failed experiment with a fancy name, Lotus Blossoms were endive leaves stuffed with dry, bland, ground chicken. Only the tempura shrimp roll, with ripe avocado, asparagus, sesame seeds, and fish eggs, was a success.
I might have been tempted to cancel our order and hit the road, but creeping inertia had soldered me to my seat. A bad expensive restaurant exerts a kind of sick fascination. Is that handsome couple at the next table feeling as ripped off and dissed as I am? Has Chef Peng ever actually tasted the Lotus Blossoms? Could I have bought a new dress for the price of this glass of wine?
Anything that starts out this badly isn't going to end well. It's one of life's immutable lessons, as true for amorous relationships as it is for restaurant meals. Indeed, the Pad Thai ($23), requested sans chicken, arrived strewn with big chunks of fowl. This is an evil thing to do to someone who doesn't eat meat. We sent it away. While we were waiting, we ordered another pinot grigio. Our waiter came back with a glass of something else. "Tastes like a mixture of air freshener and Boones Farm Peach Orchard," my friend said.
"This isn't my wine," she told the waiter, and handed it back. The mishap had raised questions no well-bred ladies should ever have to contemplate over dinner. Viz: An honest mistake? A switcheroo hoping we wouldn't notice? Bartender too frugal to open another bottle of Santa Margherita? I used to think it was just extra finesse when restaurants brought the bottle to the table to pour my single glass. Now I understand: It's fraud insurance.
The Pad Thai came back, and we all dug in. But the shrimp was off -- mushy and rotten. Attentive and gracious, General Manager Victoria Stogryn, bless her, noticed our pained expressions before we'd had a chance to utter a word. She whisked the offending crustaceans away with apologies, removed the charge from our bill, and offered to bring something else. Shrimp "not so fresh" had been the sole complaint of the critic who'd recommended CoCo -- but this shrimp was well beyond unfresh. As one of my guests commented, it "smelled like cat litter."
One rotten shrimp, unfortunately, can spoil a barrel of meals. I've eaten bad shrimp in so many restaurants that it barely fazes me anymore, but my mates weren't as hardy. We picked our way gingerly through a Taste of Citrus ($21), Angus beef over stir-fried Chinese shoestring potatoes, in a sauce made with orange peel and chili peppers. The beef was a little tough and chewy but flavorful, the sauce rich and piquant, the potatoes undercooked. Ahi tuna steak crusted with sesame seeds ($26) was the seared rare fillet we've all had in dozens of restaurants, livened up slightly by a scallion pancake. We did like the lobster roll ($14) inside-out with scallions, asparagus, and avocado. Avocado and asparagus appear, together or separately, in almost every roll CoCo offers, apparently for economy's sake. Satisfying as it was, this roll won't win any contests against the ones made a block away at Echo or, for that matter, against the much more glamorous and funky versions at Sushi Jo, a couple of miles south.
We stifled irritable yawns, paid our $250 bill, and trudged out. Maybe the kitchen has cut back on quality for the slow season (gotta stretch those shrimp!); it's possible, I suppose, that Peng will get it together in October, when the beautiful people start to drift back to town. Whatever. This beautiful person will be drifting in other directions.