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Not Too Cuckoo for Coco

"Little birds nest according to their size," goes the Thai proverb. Or as King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand has repeatedly cautioned his people: Don't live beyond your means. We Americans could take a page or two from the Thai book, eh? My own addendum to the famous proverb goes like this: "Don't order more som tum or sushi than you can eat. And don't eat more than you can pay for."

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.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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