It was the first dry spell after days of rain. At 8:30 on a Tuesday night at Coconuts, French doors opened to accommodate a cross breeze and people-watching. Just-right lighting ensured that the dining crowd looked especially attractive. Canvas shades had been unfurled for a backdrop. Boat lights twinkled in the Intracoastal. That cold front I'd been hearing about had arrived. I took a seat at the bar, facing the water.
"What is your name?" asked my bartender, Derek. In between the recitation of a handful of specials and a bulletin that all bottles of wine are half-price on Mondays and Tuesdays, Derek introduced me to his fellow bartenders and the guy next to me. My bar mate, a lawyer for the airline industry, segued between reading Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven and talking to me about the book.
Coconuts, the restaurant in the choke of tourist traps near A1A and Sea Breeze Boulevard, has a clunky name that connotes plastic flamingos, spray tanning oil, and a rack that's a couple of cup sizes larger than peaches. Despite the dopey connotation, the place is charismatic and even graceful, especially on nights like tonight, when the service is on.
Part of its appeal is that it caters to locals. Coconuts used to be a sibling to Mangos on Las Olas. Back then, it dished out expensive, subpar food, like many restaurants on the ocean stretch. Five years ago, a Houston's company guy, Elliott Wolfe, bought it, recruiting colleagues Merv Jonota and chef Luc Limage of the Miami branch to join him to run the place. "We loved Houston's, but we wanted to start a place with friendly, local appeal," said Jonota, the restaurant's general manager. Wolfe has recently signed a lease on the restaurant's adjacent space, and the trio will open B&G Oyster Bar there this December.
Coconuts is the first restaurant where I'd had lunch in Fort Lauderdale, when my editor took me last July during my interview for this job. I was expecting a fried fish basket or blackened seafood. And although those items are available — dear God, with the '80s long gone, why won't blackened anything go the way of raspberry coulis? — the menu also offers some ringers. Two favorites are the delicious banh mi on crusty French bread with marinated pork, pâté, pickled carrots, jalapeños, cucumber slices, and cilantro for $15, as well as a soft-shell crab on a poppy roll for $18, served with homemade aioli, bib lettuce, a wedge of ripe tomato, and pickled red onions.
Coconuts is also where I became enamored of Florida fish dip, a starter listed on so many menus throughout South Florida. Here, it's made with mahi-mahi or kingfish, Miracle Whip, mustard, and thyme. Served with relish and Tabasco, the dip is meant to serve as a one-bite Saltine spread, with room for adjustment of sweet and spice.
As I've learned in half a dozen visits to Coconuts, polished service is not always the norm, particularly at lunch, when a waiter might skip the paper and pen and subsequently bring out the wrong item or double back after he has walked away and forgotten the order. I'm told by chefs to expect better service at night in South Florida, where the power lunch almost does not exist, but the discrepancy in service between shifts is baffling.
On this Tuesday night at the bar, the service is seamless. Derek delivers a bottle of Italian Vitiano Rosata. At $12, it's a deal and pairs nicely with the night's special. A $28 bowl of paella is the menu addition on Tuesdays and Fridays, when a line cook tends to the rice dish on the patio. It's a delicious amalgam of saffron-infused rice; a half lobster tail; a braised, bone-in chicken thigh; mussels; whitefish; roasted red peppers; and haricot verts. I'd asked for and scored some extra socarrat, the caramelized, toasted rice on the bottom that's the best part of any paella.
Like the service, the food can also vary, though I have yet to have a bad meal. By the list of specials, you can tell that Luc Limage is having fun in the kitchen. While the main menu lists standards such as a $16 steak salad, $19 coconut shrimp, and an $18 yard bird with rosemary and lemon, the specials reward more-adventurous diners. Specials also allow Limage to test dishes such as the banh mi or soft-shell-crab sandwich on a conservative dining public. The sides are more stylish than the rest of the menu, with $3 to $4.50 offerings such as mac and cheese, sausage and sage stuffing, pigeon peas and rice, and deviled eggs.
Occasionally the presentation is sloppy. For lunch one afternoon, I'd ordered the heirloom tomato salad minus blue cheese, which arrived as if beautiful red, yellow, and purple tomatoes had been sliced with a plastic serrated knife. Uneven, oversized chunks of tomato were presented with jagged skins. The bowl was enormous, containing no fewer than three giant tomatoes.
Whether it's a salad, sandwich, or entrée, expect gargantuan portions, and order accordingly. Each entrée will likely serve two or double as the next day's lunch, which adds value to dishes that range from $9 to $26.
Despite a goofy name, the owners of Coconuts are succeeding in creating a place that's authentic and charming. With a little polish and smoothing out of the kinks, Coconuts could provide regular dining that's as lovely as the scene on deck on a balmy Lauderdale night.