From a distance, under the slightly fluorescent streetlights in front of Coco's, Jimmy Salzarulo (aka "Jimmy the Weasel") looks a bit like Jean-Robert de Cavel. Maybe it's the hair. Maybe it's the lively expressions. Maybe it's the pink shirt. But Jimmy, 94.9 "The Sound" DJ and new co-owner of Covington's reopened Coco's, won't be found toiling away in the kitchen or showering guests with les bises and flowers.
On the night we were there, he sat at an outside table, chatting with co-owner Todd Hettersimer and calmly watching his new venture unfold.
After closing in September, Coco's reopened May 30 after a renovation job, an influx of the best Blues and Funk the region has to offer and a new "beer fusion" menu.
"Beer fusion?" you might ask. Sound complex? It pretty much means cooking with beer (which, by the way, can be complex). In my humble opinion, it's acknowledging what many of the culinary powers that be have long kept hidden -- beer not only goes better than wine with cheese, it also goes better in many dishes.
Maybe it's the element of surprise -- you just don't expect a shot of Bluegrass Brewing Company's Nut Brown Ale when you bite into, say, a scallop. (Check out Coco's Louisville Scallops, $22). Or maybe it's the complexity of the dark, bitter bite, floral essence, citrus tang and herbal aroma of the hops, blended with the subtle sweetness of the malt.
The new beer-fusion menu is the creation of Coco's Chef Josh Kenneweg, formerly of the Jean-Robert Group. While he chose to keep the decades-old "Legendary Coco Salad," almost everything else on the menu has changed. While you can still get the filet mignon (The Coco Filet, $28), instead of being topped with classic sherry-mushroom sauce as it was years ago, it's now topped with roasted shitake mushrooms and served with Guinness butter, reaffirming that some things do change for the better.
My dining partner and I started the night out with the H-Bomb Shrimp ($9). The dish is named after the late H-Bomb Ferguson, an icon of the jump Blues era whose band, The Medicine Men, now plays at Coco's. While we loved the dark, bitter shot of flavor -- it was brushed with Dixie Brewing Company's Blackened Voodoo Stout -- we were a bit disappointed with the choice of shrimp. We wanted wild-caught Gulf shrimp but got Vietnamese farm-raised tiger shrimp instead. Of course, this shouldn't have been a surprise, considering that only about 10 percent of shrimp on the American market is wild-caught and most restaurants serve farm-raised, but one still hopes. When we asked Hettersimer if it was wild, he made a beeline to the kitchen to find out. He was disappointed, like us, when he discovered that it was farm-raised.
"You're making me want to fix that," he said. "We'll have to look into fixing that."
I was impressed throughout the night at how responsive and open to suggestions the owner and the staff were, but then again, the restaurant has not even been open a month.
Our second appetizer, the Lobster, Spinach and Artichoke Dip ($8), was tasty. Unlike the traditional spinach and artichoke dip one finds in bars, this had the tender touch of lobster blended with white cheddar and pimentos. While you couldn't taste the sweetness of the lobster buried in the dip, this was fine with me, because I'm more a fan of lobster's texture than taste.
When our entrées arrived, we were surprised by the lack of presentation. My partner's entrée, Sing Me A Tuna ($24), appeared as a rather lonely Ahi Tuna steak on an island of cooked spinach surrounded by a sea of white plate. Both entrées, however, had good flavor. The Ahi Tuna in a lemon pepper marinade -- it seems my partner asked for it without the Mango-Apple chutney -- was a bit tart, but when you change a dish at the last minute, this can be expected. Extremely fresh, medium-firm and perfectly cooked, my partner was pleased.
My Bourbon Barrel Chicken Penne was fun -- that's the best word to describe it. Extremely rich and flavorful, sautéed with deep Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale and crushed garlic, the entrée was so satisfying that I needed little of it to be full. Who knew such a dish would be good for a diet?
The only disappointment we experienced at Coco's was the empty stage with the lonely little Nipper dog staring down from it while we ate. While Coco's eventually wants to have music at least five nights a week, currently they have it only on Friday and Saturday nights. Given that the layout of the restaurant revolves around the stage, that's hard to do.
Let's hope more bands will be booked soon. Right now, the Dangerous Five and The Medicine Men are playing. Go, for heaven's sake. Go!
Go: 322 Greenup St., Covington
Hours: 3 p.m.-2 a.m. daily
Entrée Prices: $15-$30
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Many
Accessibility: No wheelchair-accessible entrance