Somewhere at the new Coco Palms in Encinitas there may be a basket of garlic bread with my name on it, traveling from table to table and, possibly, back to the kitchen every so often for a quick rewarming.
This basket of bread is something like the man in the Kingston Trio song who descended into the Boston subway, never to return. The lyrics supposed that he might still be riding around down there, and the same may be true of the garlic bread, ordered at the beginning of a recent Sunday dinner that stretched out and out in length until it seemed that none of the dishes ever would arrive.
Part of the problem was the succession of servers who briefly took the table and then dropped out of sight, to be replaced, sometimes much later, by another equally cheerful young person who promised the imminent arrival of the bread and, indeed, of the meal itself.
Dinner finally made its way to the table, but, alas, in a bread-less state.
The wait provided a more than ample opportunity to get the feel of the place, which makes an effort of sorts to recreate the Southern California of the 1940s. A pleasant, palm-motif paper covers the walls and suggests the ocean breezes that blow outside the picture windows, some of which offer excellent views of the coast just north of old Leucadia. Coco Palms also romanticizes the Forties with a wall-length, iridescent mural of a moonlit beach. However, the familiar manners of the staff and the general rush of the place locate it very much in 1990.
Because of the emphasis on the 1940s, a decade associated with Hollywood and its stars, the menu names every dish as a particular personality's own. For example, there is John Wayne's Porterhouse steak, which sounds likely enough, but also Sophia Loren's "blackened" chicken fettuccine, a dish that one must doubt the great actress would endorse.
The menu in general is a hodgepodge of dishes and the lack of focus suggests that the menu writer said to himself, "Well, Cajun stuff is kinda popular these days, and I guess we better have some Mexican food and some pasta, fish, salads and steaks." Needless to say, the appetizer list includes stuffed potato skins, fried zucchini and "Cajun" chicken drumettes.
Steaks may be the kitchen's great strength. A coulotte top sirloin was notable not only for the care with which it had been grilled and for its tenderness, but for fine flavor, an attribute not generally applicable to beef these days.
The crab-stuffed prawns also had the virtue of careful preparation, so that the large shrimp and their filling remained moist and tasty. However, the "lobster bisque sauce" that purportedly moistened these was a mysterious but utterly tasteless composition that may have been nothing more than flour cooked in butter. A saute of squashes in fiercely flavored tomato sauce accompanied both entrees and added quite the wrong note to each.
Meals also include the choice of a typical green salad or clam chowder, the latter flavorful but, as is often the case in these parts, so thick that it seemed more a white sauce than a soup. The list of prepared-on-premises desserts is brief but does include a light, sprightly flavored strawberry mousse.
At its calmer moments, the entree list includes prime rib, teriyaki steak or chicken, baby back ribs and Cobb salad. Further afield are the Jackson Square Caesar salad (attributed to Elizabeth Taylor and garnished with hearts of palm and "Cajun" croutons); the "chicken Vista Del Mar" of chicken, shrimp, scallops, salsa, cheese and sour cream (Betty Davis rather appropriately gets the credit for this one) and the chicken Popeye, which tops a broiled breast not only with creamed spinach flavored with nutmeg, ginger and curry, but with cheese, mushrooms and the house version of sauce bearnaise. What would Olive Oyl say?
1950 N. Highway 101, Encinitas
When: Dinner served nightly.
Cost: Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $30 to $60. Credit cards accepted.