8 years ago
|Dale F. Bentson , a Professional Reviewer, wrote:||
by Dale F. Bentson, Palo Alto Weekly (Jan 30, 2009)
I don't like coconut, an aversion I've had all my life, yet I loved Coconuts. Chef Robert Simpson's newest Jamaican eatery opened in Palo Alto early September. Despite my dislike of that fibrous fruit, I thoroughly enjoyed his subtle use of its nectar in flavoring rice, curries and desserts.
Simpson's Back A Yard Jamaican American Grill in Menlo Park continues to flourish. But, where Back a Yard is posited in an iffy location with limited seating and ambiance, Coconuts is colorful and inviting, offers ample seating, and is located across from Palo Alto's city hall on Ramona.
Born and raised in Jamaica, Simpson's grandmother was the cook in the family. He grew up on hearty oxtail stews and goat meat, soothing papaya and plantains, exotic spices and tangy jerk rubs. His original goal in life was to become an engineer, but he caught the cooking bug while a student.
Simpson attended a culinary school in Jamaica, worked in Europe where he became grounded in French technique, moved to New York, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and became a top chef at Sandal's, a premiere Jamaican resort. There, he met his soon-to-be wife, Anetta, a native Jamaican who lived in Chicago.
Moving to The Windy City, Simpson worked his way up and became an executive chef at the Swissotel. Lured to the Bay Area, he was the opening and executive chef of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Burlingame, a position he held for four years before setting out on his own.
Coconuts is awash with vivid Caribbean colors: soothing turquoise and sultry melon, Jamaican sunset red-orange and lilac sea foam. Bob Marley wails continuously overhead. Live music — steel drums, vocals, et al. — play every Friday and Saturday from 6 to 9:30 p.m. The place pulsates with energy.
For starters, the codfish fritters ($7.25) were crisp and hot from the fryer. Seasoned with scallions and thyme, the accompanying Creole dipping sauce of mayo, ketchup, green onion and celery provided balance.
Irie Jerk Wings ($ 6.95) roasted over an open flame were tasty little morsels. Irie is a Rastafari term generally meaning that something is "real good."
Aunt May's Curried Crab Cake ($10.25) with spinach, mango, avocado, papaya and mustard sauce was satisfying although a tad light on the crab. Flavors were complex and complimentary.
Jerk is a style of cooking, unique to Jamaica, where meats are dry-rubbed or marinated with spices before barbequing. Allspice, a Jamaican pimento, and the scorching hot Scotch Bonnet peppers, are the principal spices used, although most jerk rubs incorporate dozens of ingredients.
Simpson's jerk rub consists of 16 spices that are patted on hours before cooking over hot coals. Because Scotch Bonnets are difficult to obtain here, he uses the closely related habanero pepper. The result is meat that is spicy but not blistering, with complex fruity flavors, intriguing textures and pleasantly lingering tastes.
Coconuts offers jerk in both mild and spicy versions. I prefer spicy to tame in food. The spicy jerk rub immediately brought my mouth to the edge of a fiery precipice but no further. Unlike much spicy food that just gets hotter in the mouth with each subsequent bite, Simpson's version elevates to two alarms but then holds at a nice steady pace throughout.
Whatever the jerk is rubbed on — pork, fish, chicken or tofu — the underlying flavors are released and cascade over the tongue, sometimes overtly, often subtly, but always intriguingly. While the portions are handsome at Coconuts, the food is so satisfying that gargantuan portions aren't needed.
The Jerk Chicken ($12.95) was meaty and fragrant. The spicy rub permeated the skin and imbued the meat with bold, husky flavors. Sauteed vegetables, comforting fried plantains and a terrific rice and bean mixture completed the plate. The rice and beans were ubiquitous to most of the entrees and were rich with coconut flavor.
The Jerk Salmon ($14.25) was delightful as well, the piquant exterior giving way to a fleshy orange-pink interior. Despite the spiciness, there was no doubt about what I was eating; the jerk rub encouraged and highlighted the salmon's delicate flavor and lush texture. Whipped potatoes, green beans and papaya mustard salsa accompanied.
For those of you who have never tried goat, here's your chance. Long popular in Mediterranean fare, goat is a staple in India and Pakistan as well. Coconuts offers goat ($14.25) as a curried dish with steamed rice, plantains, sauteed vegetables and a rich house-made mango chutney.
Desserts were good and helped calm keyed-up taste buds. Sweet Potato Pudding ($6.95), made with a discreet coconut cream atop a caramelized crust, was sweet, dense, and not overfilling. The refreshing Key Lime Tart ($6.95) was a pastry filled with citrusy custard and whipped cream.
Coconuts Caribbean Restaurant and Bar
642 Ramona Street
Palo Alto, California 94301
650-329-9533 | phone
650-329-9530 | fax
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