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Bal Harbour Blues

I don't know if it was a result of navigating through the closely packed tables or just innate clumsiness, but our server at Coco's Sidewalk Cafe seemed born to bobble. He dribbled water on the floor, knocked over a glass of our wine on his tray, and tripped over the same chair every time he approached our table. By the time he toted out the appetizers, we were making bets on the next thing to take a tumble. He made it to the table with all items intact, but just as we were heaving a collective sympathetic sigh of relief, he sent the salt shaker flying when he laid down the plates.

I'm a pretty superstitious person, so I wasn't surprised to see him sweep up the salt and throw it over his shoulder before he went back to handing out dishes. And at Coco's, the gesture seemed particularly appropriate. This place, which just reopened after having been closed for nearly five months, has had some recent bad luck.

Coco's opened on the first level of Bal Harbour Shops in 1978. Eighteen years later the landlord suddenly refused to renew the restaurant's lease. Instead, proprietor Lori Migicovsky (daughter of the founding owners, David and Tootsie Migicovsky) was offered a new space on the second floor. The mall's ownership had two things in mind: a more upscale restaurant tenant on the first floor, and a lure for shoppers on the upper level. Not at all eager to move away from her client base, Migicovsky grudgingly took the deal. Coco's now comprises 30 indoor seats in a modern bar/dining room and 100 outdoor seats, shaped like seashells, on the upper promenade (a slightly crowded arrangement, as our waiter might attest). Meanwhile the Mediterranean-theme Giulio's opened the day after Christmas on the ground floor.

It's too early to tell whether the mall's gambit will pay off in the long run, but both places were half full (or half empty, depending on how you look at such things) on the Friday evening I visited. Regarding the upstairs/downstairs pricing strategy, though, I couldn't help but wonder why the fuss on the mall's part. Coco's may cook down-home Continental fare -- meat loaf, pastas and pizzas, an assortment of grilled chicken and veal dishes -- but no way is this place cheap. Entrees range up to $28; I dropped as much dough here as I did on a recent foray to Mark's Place. But the output, sadly, was nowhere near as stimulating.

Though the location may have changed, the menu remains exactly the same as before the move. In fact, it's a pretty good bet that the list of (fried, fried, and more fried) appetizers hasn't been altered since the Seventies. Usually I'm delighted when a restaurant features so much deep-sizzled stuff, because it obligates me to order some. But this rationalization works only when the result is worth the health hazard. In the case of Coco's "great zucchini stix," it wasn't. The julienned squash was mushy inside its limp batter crust, which retained more oil than it did heat, and the honey-mustard dip seemed sports-bar standard, uninspiring. Ditto for the potato skins, so overdone that the potato portion had long been cooked away, leaving only a brittle shell. For a dollar extra, diners may request cheese or bacon bits as enhancements. We went for both, but asked that only half the order be augmented (we were charged the full two bucks anyway). The cheese was Velveeta-like, the bacon unremarkable; the main effect was to provide visual cover for the burned-out spud shells. At least it was a distraction.

Cheese was in no short supply atop a bowl of French-Canadian onion soup. Though the concentrated broth tasted to me of beef-flavored bouillon cubes, salty and grainy, the soup was stocked generously with soft, almost caramelized onions. A slice of resilient French bread bumping up against the lid of mild, crisp-edged cheese boosted the broth considerably.

Five "gourmet" pizzas continued the cheesy theme, in either entree or "taster" sizes. The taster version was an individual-size pie cut into quarters, ideal for a starter if everyone wants just one wedge. The Napolitana was scattered with tomato sauce, mozzarella, sliced mushrooms, and a satisfying amount of somewhat tame pepperoni. The crust was unusually crisp, not only at the edges but almost all the way to the center; we dismantled a slice and found grill marks on both sides of the dough, as if the crust had been made ahead of time, then assembled and rebaked when needed. In fact, the grill marks come from the oven racks "when the dough is being defrosted," says Migicovsky.

One entree description contained a superlative I couldn't resist. "Just like Mom used to make! America's favorite with the greatest mashed potatoes and gravy ever!" read the caption under the meat loaf. If I were to compare Coco's indigestive bricks to the moist meat loaf masterpieces we ate when I was a kid, my mother would disown me. And the three sculpted flourishes of mashed potatoes, which looked as if they'd been squeezed from a pastry bag, were nicely seasoned and lumpless, but they were also rubbery from having sat too long before being brought to the table. The gravy was tangy and bright, more like barbecue sauce, and could have used some toning down.

A simple grilled breast of chicken -- boneless poultry butterflied, then pan-fried to a golden brown -- was well prepared, if a touch boring. Side dishes of buttery roasted potatoes and an insipid overcooked summer squash-zucchini saute garnished this as well as the other main courses, including a subpar scampi. Five large (not jumbo) shrimp tasted as if they had been boiled before being dropped into an oily bath of butter and raw garlic. None of the ingredients seemed to have been cooked together; notes of lemon were lost under the pungent garlic. For twenty dollars, this amounted to a ripoff.

Veal piccata was the final gyp. Three flour-dredged medallions, tender but tiny, were less like medals and more like quarters. The lemon-butter sauce was tasty, tart, almost vinegary, and gentled a bit by the butter. But the side of the "chef's pasta of the day" -- for which we paid an extra $3.95 -- was awful. "We don't have pasta," the waiter said when we asked about it. "We have spaghetti." That should have been our first clue not to try the stuff, which turned out to be carelessly cooked noodles with a pasty tomato sauce smeared on top.

Dessert was a split decision. A three-berry pie was stale, the wilted cardboardlike crust falling in on strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries. Pecan pie, on the other hand, was delicious, whole crisp nuts supported by a fluffy, sugary filling -- though the $7.25 price tag for it left a hole like a cavity in my pocket.

Migicovsky and staff may still feel bitter about their forced march upstairs, but they need to start making their own luck. No amount of salt over the shoulder is going to help if prices are unpalatable and the kitchen and waitstaff aren't sweetly up to par.

Coco's Sidewalk Cafe
9700 Collins Ave, Bal Harbour; 864-2626. Open daily from 10:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m.

Napolitana pizza (taster size)
$9.95
Meat loaf
$14.95
Veal piccata
$19.95
Three-berry pie
$5.95


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