The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2019 Spring Dining Guide.
Cross “Gilligan’s Island” with spring break, and the result is a “Chopped” performer’s notion of a Hawaiian vacation in the big city. Just to see the place, near Union Market, is to wish you were in shorts and sandals. Diners enter to find a plant-fringed bar in the center of the action, tropical shades everywhere, and garage doors rolled up to let the good times spill outside. Of course there’s salmon poke, scooped up from a shell with lotus root chips, and Spam served three ways. (Try it as a skewered patty melt.)
“I read every single comment card,” says chef-owner Adam Greenberg. “We’ve listened to the feedback.”
If you dropped by early in its run and wished for less noise or more heat, you’re in luck. Count me a convert to Coconut Club’s chicken, brined in coconut milk and zestier than ever, and hurrah for a farro salad that makes you want to twist and shout, or at least finish every last pickled green strawberry, pistachio gremolata and crumb of sheep’s milk cheese. Smoky grilled pork ribs, showered with toasted cashews and Fresno chiles, don’t need extra firepower, but just in case, ask for the just-introduced, housemade habanero-pineapple hot sauce.
Coconut Club: 540 Penn St. NE. 202-544-5500. hellococonutclub.com.
Open: Dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
Prices: Dinner $20 to $30.
Sound check: 79 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following preview was originally published Feb. 15, 2019.
Fantasy Island surfaces at the vibrant new Coconut Club
“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 has 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.