863 Houston Northcutt Blvd.
Entrée Prices: Moderate ($15-$20)
Serving: Lunch & Dinner (Mon.- Sat.)
For more than a decade, Coco's Café has been a Mt. Pleasant fixture, bringing a little French bistro style to the Patriots Point Plaza.
There's a definite European feel to the room, from the specials chalked on big blackboards to the banquette seating with tables that squeeze you close in to your neighbor. You can't help but eavesdrop on the conversation next door, and if your neighbors are gregarious enough, they may even join in on yours. The service, while friendly and attentive, can be quirky, and on our last visit the tabletop was noticeably sticky, so that lifting a wineglass required a little twist of the wrist to pop the base free from the table's surface.
But, for me, at least, these things don't necessarily harm the experience. Coco's isn't the kind of place you take business clients you are trying to impress or foodie friends seeking new culinary thrills. It's more a cozy neighborhood spot, the place you go when you are looking for relaxed conversation and comfortingly-solid French food.
The appetizer menu features old bistro favorites like Escargot de la Bourgogne, swimming in garlic butter in their little six-pitted dish with little domes of puffed pastry on top, and seared foie gras with a roasted peach reduction. The charcuterie plate includes duck pâté, chicken liver mousse, and sausages that are made in-house. The coquilles (scallops) ($12) are done to a turn, pan-seared a golden brown, and sprinkled with a citrus and chive vinaigrette. The three scallops are heavily dosed with coarsely-ground black pepper, and they're served with a small mound of carrot puree that, despite a slight ginger tinge, is a little too bland and babyfood-esque to be enjoyable. But, the scallops are so perfectly tasty that one can brush aside some of the pepper grains and ignore the carrot puree as a rather unfortunate garnish.
I have no such compunctions about the Langoustine risotto de crevette ($12). The risotto is creamy and tender, and the shrimp and shreds of lobster add rich punctuations of flavor. The risotto is quite highly seasoned — with a generous dose of (if my palate can be trusted) tarragon — and while the savoriness was a little surprising at first, by the time we finished off the appetizer I was hooked.
Perhaps the best thing about Coco's is the entrée selection. Everything looks good, which makes it difficult to decide. There's a hanger steak accompanied by a big mound of frites, and a bouillabaisse made with local seafood, and pan-fried flounder with brown butter.
And the entrées deliver. My two favorites are the Canard Roti and the Navarin d'Agneau. The first ($19) is half a roasted duck that has that glowing richness you can only get from roasted duck skin, but it's the sweet cherry sauce that's served on the side that really makes the dish.
Navarin d'Agneau ($18) is a braised lamb shank served over creamy potato puree with a side of green beans. The lamb is surrounded by a tomato-laden sauce that is — like the seafood risotto — very heavily spiced, but it works well against the strong flavor of the lamb, which has that deep, rich tenderness you can only get when you slow-cook a gelatinous shank.
What both of these entrées have in common is that they are the kind of delightful comfort fare that fills you up on a cold winter night and leaves you warm and satisfied. They encourage you to linger over the last glass of wine, enjoying a calm evening out in an environment that — while perhaps a little cramped and sometimes noisy — is surprisingly calm and relaxing. There's something reassuring in that, especially in a restaurant market where every week seems to bring yet another chef offering an upscale twist on contemporary Southern cooking (read: gussied-up shrimp and grits) and Asian-fusion experiments.
That's not Coco's. The café has been open since 1997. The present chef and owner, Stephen Ollard, purchased the restaurant from its founders, Alain Saley and Francois Rivalain in 2006. A Johnson & Wales graduate, Ollard mentored under Saley and Rivalain before taking over the kitchen, and he has continued the restaurant's focus on traditional French country fare. One gets the sense that he isn't stretching too hard or trying to impress anyone. Instead, there's a consistent focus on reliable old favorites and a casually elegant dining experience.
It's a good spot for a relaxed lunch, too, with midday-sized entrées like a croquet monsieur, hanger steak with frites, and coq au vin that are all priced under $10.
And that's more than enough to keep Coco's Café a neighborhood favorite.