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Coconut Bay: Playing to the Crowd

by James Verde

Coconut Bay
1120 White Horse Road
(856) 783-8878
2.5 forks

There are chefs who spend lifetimes refining their mastery of a single cuisine—the stickiness of their sushi rice, their elasticity of their pasta dough, their wood-chip ratios of their barbecue. For the crew at Coconut Bay, that kind of narrow focus is for the birds. This serene, plum palace in Voorhees’ Echelon Village Plaza takes the more is more approach, dealing in the gastronomies of no less than six Asian nations. One meal at Coconut Bay took me on a tour of Japan, Malaysia, Korea and Thailand before making a connection in France for dessert.

The results are better than the massive menu might lead you to believe. Think gently warmed slices of white tuna bejeweled with glittering tobiko caviar, curled and posed over soy-splashed daikon noodles, one of the starters from the sushi section of Coconut Bay’s bill of fare. Raw-fish fanatics will find all their favorites, from salmon and squid to toro and eel, fashioned into neat nigiri rectangles, pristine sashimi and maki that range from the simple Alaska (salmon/avocado) to the elaborate yellowtail guacamole (yellowtail, scallion, guac, jalapeno tobiko and “tropical salsa”).

Sushi is Coconut Bay’s strongest suit, though a deeper selection of species—What, no scallop? No anago?—would help them keep pace with South Jersey’s elevated playing field. But it’s hard, maybe even unfair, to expect that kind of singular excellence when this pretty pomegranate-red restaurant has its chopsticks in so many different bowls.

Roti canai, a crepe composed of dozens of flaky layers of dough, channeled Malaysia, but it was greasier than other versions I’ve had, oiling my fingers so they left buttery prints on my glass and silverware. Timid green curry served as a dip for the griddled bread, sloshing about in a gravy boat. I liked it better once I added a teaspoon of fiery chili oil my warm, vigilant waiter brought over upon my request for something to boost the heat. A drizzle of the crimson oil also rained down on the wonton “ravioli” filled with goat cheese and crab meat, a curious fusion experiment that defied culinary classification. The fried dumplings were certainly crisp, their exteriors breaking open like eggshells to reveal tangy whipped chevre veined with flakes of crustacean.

Like buoys, they drifted in an orange-hued coconut sauce that possessed all the coconut flavor of marinara. Strange, but not bad.

Entrees tripped to Seoul with a Korean-style barbecue featuring thinly shaved kalbi (short rib) and bulgogi (sirloin) stir-fried with garlic, onions and peppers. The meat was tender and veggies cooked into sweet submission, but a viscous, one-note marinade covered the entire bowl of food, as if this “barbecue” had an unfortunate collision with a bottle of maple syrup. If you’re looking for Korean authenticity, you won’t find it at Coconut Bay, from the weak kimchi to the attendant iceberg lettuce cups; proper kalbi parlors use wavy red-leaf lettuce.

The lemongrass glaze lacquering the Saigon Royal Lemongrass Rock Shrimp was as brown and thick as the beef’s, but at least this one radiated flavor: exotic, citrusy and surprisingly fresh. Celery and shiitakes mingled with the shrimp, sized somewhere between the menu’s paradoxical descriptions of rocks and proper “prawns.” Regardless of semantics, the portion was a deal at $18, and value is definitely something you can count on at Coconut Bay. Though a few entrees (rack of lamb, Hunan-style bass) creep into the mid-20s, most are well below that price-point.

Coconut Bay’s affordability makes dessert a requirement rather than a question, and though the list is disappointingly American and outsourced, one house-made item, the trio of crème brulee, delivered. Classic vanilla, tart raspberry and fragrant mango custards slumbered in the separate compartments of a long, narrow plate. Silky smooth, they chilled beneath layers of textbook-torched sugar, perfect as a Parisian pastry technician’s. Maybe Coconut Bay needs to add another cuisine to its portfolio.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 2 (May, 2012).
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