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Restaurants & Bars 4

MSP-Coconut Grove Caribbean (Looong)

ajs | Apr 2, 200501:01 PM

Short version: This place pretty much represents what I think of as the Chowhound Ethos. Inexpensive, terrific food served by a warm and collegial crew. Reminds me of Abundant Bistro in Saint Paul for feeling.
Beer and wine only, no coffee, no checks.
Been open about four months, and should be much busier than it is. Go right now. Enjoy anything but shrimp dishes.
3554 Penn Avenue North, Minneapolis, 612.521.2622
Last time I visited it, their website was down.

Long version:
Twice now, I have been to Coconut Grove at 35th and Penn North in Minneapolis. First time, as a party of six, second time as a party of ten.

Our first visit, on a Wednesday, found the place packed with a large party of visiting politicians from the City Council (who were apparently showing solidarity for North side businesses in the wake of the shootings a little while back), but there were enough civilians present to counter that bad element...
The small room is gaily painted with a wraparound sunset and palm tree mural, with a tiny bar, an elevated level with tables (whose chairs are jolly sherbet colors), a small four seat counter by the washrooms, and a vest pocket back room with its own beaded curtain entry.

We ended up seated at the bar, because that was all that was available. As it happened, we each ordered a different dish from a slightly confused server. Due, I think, to the presence of large parties, dishes tended to emerge from the kitchen as they were done, rather than the party's order all coming up at once. A genial fellow whom we took to be the chef, but turned out to be, I think, more of the floor manager, kept water filled, shmoozed the guests, and supplied us with small plates, since we were a pass everything around and taste everybody's entrees kind of group.

Everything was fabulous. The dullest dish, the Stew Beef, had wonderfully savory meat reclining across dull, flat dumplings about the size of your ear. They are dumplings, after all, and a dab of the yellow hot sauce that perched on the bar livened them up considerably. The Cooked Up was a sort of Caribbean red beans and rice, with lots of tasty bits bound up with rice and coconut milk, I believe. Caribbean comfort food. The meat Roti (there is a veg version, too), I did not get to taste nearly enough of was mildly spiced and would be a good thing for the people in your party that like to eat well, but aren't that crazy about spice. My curried chicken, served with a spiced rice, was some of the nicest spicing I have had in Minnesota, where we generally think that ketchup is a spice. Fifteen minutes after finishing the chicken, I still had a nice tingle going in my mouth. The Tobago chicken was the spicier of the other two chicken dishes, served with the same rice as the curried chicken, and I preferred that over its companion dish, which was the Trinidad chicken, I think, served with while rice. Each of the dishes had a distinctive array of spice flavors, and sharing plates here is something that I'd urge.
One of our party felt that her fried plantain side (on the Tobago chicken) was not as nicely done as the order to her left. The genial manger fellow explained that as plantain ages, its sugar content shifts, making it harder to prepare properly, allowed as how she might have had an older piece, offered to replace it (she declined), and insisted on giving her a complimentary refill on her Spanish wine. A kitchen error sent another Tobago chicken our way, which we shared with a couple around the corner of the bar. It is the kind of place where that seems like the thing to do.
By now, it was quieting down, and the chef emerged. He was at least as genial as the manager, curious about what we thought, and so saddened that we had not tried a particular Caribbean beerlike drink that he broke out shot glasses and a bottle of the stuff (a violently pink liquid called Shandy, I think), and passed tastes around to us. It tasted faintly of strawberries and cinnamon, lightly carbonated, and apparently comes in a ginger version, too. Not bad, not really my thing, but I could see its appeal, especially if you like things in the wine cooler genre. Probably be better in hotter weather, too.
I contented myself with a bottle of Red Stripe, which is not on the beer list but is in the cooler. The chef passed out markers and encoraged us to sign a wall by the bar.
As we had pie waiting for us at our hostess' home, we didn't even ask about dessert, and our server offered no enticements in this line.

Second visit, a week later, party of ten. The place was quieter this time, and we had a 5:30 reservation, which seemed like a good idea the previous week, when the joint was much more jumping. We were shoehorned into the tiny back room, which we had to ourselves, and which suited us just fine. Though if you had more than say, ten to twelve people, it might be too tight. This time, our server (a different young woman from our first visit) had more on the ball. The manager fellow pitched in, and we were able to persuade him to sell us a couple of orders of wings, which are sold as an entree, without their sides, as an appetizer course. We had the jerk wings, and I think, the Caribbean wings. Both of which were grand, but we generally preferred the latter, as they had a sauce that would make old socks a treat. Whether by luck or design I do not know, but we were given precisely the right number of wings that we would all get one of each flavor.

Again, our orders came up as they were ready, with a fairly lengthy time spread from first to last. Some may mind, but this didn't bother us a lot, as we had lots of catching up to do. I am assuming that the kitchen is a one man band about the size of a stove, which would explain this. Again, the manager supplied us with small plates, and we passed things around. Again, almost everything was fabulous, but there was only one dish that was new to me this time, the curried shrimp. The curry seemed a little blander to me than the curry on the chicken, and the shrimp were fairly tiny, and overcooked to a chewiness that did little for me. I was pleased that I had ordered the Tobago chicken, and added an item to my mental list of reasons not to order seafood in the midwest.

Once the place quieted down a little (though it had already been distressingly quiet), the chef again appeared, and chatted us up. He offered a small platter of freshly fried plantain, seemingly for the hell of it, which was better than any of the plantain sides we'd had, probably because it was utterly fresh from the kitchen. A bit later, he appeared with another platter. He explained that he was fooling with a new dish, which seemed to be split boiled Yukon Gold potatoes and shrimp in a sauce, served over white rice. While the shrimp was again chewy and smallish, the potatoes were wonderful with the sauce, which made the potatoes glisten like candied yams. Road apples would be wonderful with that sauce, in my opinion.
Shortly after our test dish appeared, the manager chap materialized with a tray of champagne flutes and a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that he thought would play nicely with the shrimp dish, and passed glasses around. We sipped and noshed our lagniappes appreciatively.
This time, our server had the presence of mind to describe desserts, which consisted of a brownie with ice cream and two or three styles of cheesecake. Since this seemed fairly pedestrian to us, in light of the rest of the menu, and we were stuffed like Christmas geese, we passed. It did not help me, at least, to learn that coffee is not offered.

With much apology, our checks were declined, but we were able to work around this with no hard feelings. Our first visit, with a decent tip, cost us less than $90 for six. Our second visit, with a more lavish (25-30%) tip, cost us $200 for ten. Yes, you read that correctly, a terrific dinner served by warm and jovial folks treating you pretty much like long lost family for twenty dollars or less a person. One way or another, that cannot last.

We stepped outside into a raw spring rain, suddenly transported back to Minnesota, congratulated our hostess/enabler on her find again, and made our several ways home, completely delighted with our brief trip to the islands.

It is a terrible thing, because it makes it all the harder for me to get into, but I urge all Hounds to go to Coconut Grove Caribbean Restaurant and Pub and enjoy.



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