“My specialty is hospitality,” says Adam Greenberg, the “Chopped” performer turned creator of the recently opened Coconut Club near Union Market.
The proof is in the aloha customers encounter at the door, a plant-fringed bar in the center of the former warehouse, and dishes that spark conversation. Everyone at my table seems to have an opinion about skewered Spam, and a riff on an Old-Fashioned cocktail that’s touched up with sesame oil.
Coconut Club is meant to evoke the way Greenberg, a son of Connecticut, says he felt going to the beach as a kid or sipping frozen piña coladas with his wife, poolside in Hawaii. Hence the wall painted with outsize fronds and fish flown in from the Big Island. Buttery walu stars in an olive oil-moistened crudo made beautiful with dill, fennel, blood orange and other sunny citrus. It’s basically a lei you can eat. And what looks like rubies in a bowl of poke is diced tuna arranged with soy sauce and sliced cucumbers, as well as delicate fried lotus root chips.
Not all the “beachy tapas,” as Greenberg calls them, are created equal. Shishito peppers animated with waving bonita flakes and heaped on eel sauce are overwhelmed by their mayonnaise spiked with Korean chile paste. And chunks of pork alternating with bites of grilled pineapple on another small plate are so tough, we leave most of them behind. “Spicy” chicken draped with a sauce of coconut milk and jerk spices needs more of a jolt. As is, it’s a Caribbean wallflower on a bed of steamed rice.
That still leaves lots to like — Spam selections included. The “patty melt” threads together grilled Spam and charred bread, a porky combination finished with relish and stripes of melted American cheese. Presented like a club sandwich lying down, the salty-creamy-toasty creation does the job of poutine or nachos, sponging up alcohol. Speaking of which, the drinks include some nice moments. The well-balanced Yas Queen’s Park Swizzle is based on mango rum produced by one of the restaurant’s neighbors, Cotton and Reed, along with mint, lime, allspice dram and a hint of coconut.
Come dessert, soft-serve ice cream is the path of least resistance. Peanut butter ice cream garnished with jelly tastes better than it sounds. Coconut cream pie fans may feel let down by the deconstructed version here; crushed vanilla wafers are no match for a proper crust.
“I’m authentically me,” says Greenberg, referring both to the whimsical design and food rooted less in tradition than fun. At the same time, he says he’s willing to listen to guests and give them what they want. No one asked for a reading nook, but it’s nice to spot art and food books, and two-person chair swings, in the mix.
The servers tend to be super! perky! Even their laid-back boss has had to dial them back on occasion. “You’re at a 10,” he says he’s coached one. “We need you at 6.” Still, I’d take enthusiasm over ennui any day of the week, and the chef-owner concurs. “I can’t teach empathy,” he says.
Before he found himself in the middle of his version of paradise, Greenberg served as executive chef of Barcelona on 14th Street NW. His new gig finds him checking plates and holding court in front of the open kitchen, where Bethesda native Kyle Henderson works as chef de cuisine.
Parties tend not to be quiet. Coconut Club is no exception. The din at the beginning of the night becomes a roar as the hours pass. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Now, pass the poke.
540 Penn St. NE. 202-544-5500. hellococonutclub.com. Big plates, $19 to $28.50.