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Go back to the beach by way of Kokomo's

I confess I took on this review with a little trepidation. Kokomo’s is the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Lenny’s on the Beach, which I reviewed a few years back.

It didn’t go terribly well then — spotty service, and when it started raining, we asked for an umbrella; the waitress sought Lenny’s help in erecting it; he said no. Still, the food was enjoyable enough to not earn an entirely scorched earth review over the umbrella incident.

It’s amazing what several months, new management, a full staff, and a keen decorative eye can do to chase away the vibes of yesteryear. Now, at Kokomo’s, it’s all friendly service (a staffer cheerily set up our umbrella!), comfortable seating, and waterfront views every which way you turn.

I’ll note that the physical upgrades are reflected in the prices, because you won’t find clam-shack prices at Kokomo’s. From my $14 Bermuda martini (a just-OK mix of Aviation Gin, Peach Schnapps, orange juice and grenadine) to our $12 small plate order of fried mozzarella, we blew my food review stipend pretty quickly over two visits. Yes, the fried mozz was very, very good — topped with pesto and a great marinara sauce with lots of red pepper flakes — but $12? Sidenote, the $12 cocktail dubbed the Pretty Mama (a base of Grey Goose Essence watermelon, and basil vodka) was delightful and more than made up for the meh Bermuda martini.

Overall, the execution of most of the dishes we sampled offset some of the sticker shock, and we enjoyed the variety of items available on the menu. For example, the Edamame Hummus ($8) on the Small Plates menu. Served with crispy plantain chips, the ultra-smooth hummus was a refreshing and flavorful palate cleanser during a recent meal. A zing of what we thought was vinegar or lemon added the perfect punch to this fluffy, mousse-like dip, festively dotted with whole soybeans and well-paired with the mellower-flavored sturdy and supportive plantain chips.

That same evening we dove into two items off the Craft Sandwiches section of the menu. For me, it was the Shaved Steak Sandwich ($15); for the mister, the Southern-Style Fried Chicken Sandwich ($15). Sandwiches come with fries and the option to upgrade to Parmesan truffle fries for $2, and both versions are very good. These are thick and nobbly fries, and the truffle flavor doesn’t overwhelm the specialty spuds at all. I will gladly order the shaved steak sandwich again, which satisfied from the fresh baguette to the subtle steak-to-cheese-to-onion mix therein. I encountered no sniggly bits of steak that will sometimes show up in a steak-and-cheese, and I found the steak tender and tasty, aided in part by the clever addition of lemon aioli. You get to choose your cheese, and I went with American because that is the one true cheese for this kind of sandwich. (Sue me.)

The chicken sandwich includes “buttermilk and black pepper fried chicken, sweet-hot pickles, hot honey, mayonnaise, and shredded lettuce” on a brioche bun, per the menu. We were pleased with the fresh and flavorful bun and the light-fry on the chicken patty. We could’ve used a heavier hand on the pickles and hot honey, but the little flavor pops of them we did experience added a fun layer to the mix. In short: A good sandwich, but not memorable.

Our final tasting offered lots to recommend, starting with the Caprese salad ($15 and a generous portion), which at Kokomo’s includes thin slices of prosciutto alongside the tomato, fresh mozzarella, basil pesto, aged balsamic vinegar glaze, and olive oil. Every ingredient proved fresh and delicious, and the prosciutto added texture and a little salt to each forkful. Very refreshing and a great option for a lighter dinner.

I didn’t expect to find pasta dishes at such a beachy destination, but the Short Rib Ragu entrée ($24; smaller portion than expected) is a great option for the seafood averse. What we suspected was freshly made Pappardelle pasta comes topped with a heap of delicious, full-flavored short rib steak, a dollop of smoked ricotta cheese and a sprinkle of peas. Every forkful delivered a medley of textures (the peas are a fun touch) and excellent ingredients, and it is hereby on the order-again list.

We’ve only cracked the surface of Kokomo’s extensive menu, and we’re eyeballing the Jamaican Jerk Chicken ($24) and Short Rib Tacos (two for $15) for next time (they were out of both on two different nights). Now that a new season of dining is upon us, we’re excited to have an option that is committed to the tropical experience and succeeds in putting diners right into much-needed vacation-mode.

 

Kokomo's Restaurant

88 Hartford Ave., Old Lyme

(860) 390-6403

https://kokomosrestaurant.com

Cuisine: Per the menu, "Caribbean-style dining," which includes several and varied seafood options (conch fritters, anyone? $12); plus a raw bar; lobster rolls; standard burgers, salads, and sandwiches; and some surprises along the way. Entrees include Red Snapper ($26); Jamaican Jerk Chicken ($24); and a Porcini-Crusted Ribeye ($32).

Atmosphere: Easy, breezy beach livin'. Outdoor tables are plunked on the actual beach, so consider sand-friendly footwear if you go. The tented seating area between the main building and outdoor area lets in fresh air and daylight and offers loads more space. Palm trees scattered throughout add a Caribbean touch that is most welcome after months of lockdown.

Service: Very friendly and helpful. A massive improvement in experience compared to Kokomo's earlier incarnation as Lenny's on the Beach.

Prices: Not cheap. Cocktails average around $12; the house burger will run you $16 (!); and entrees average around $24.

Hours: Seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Reservations: Yes. Diners also have the option to reserve a cabana (for a $200-$300 fee depending on the day of the week), which can seat about six people.

Handicapped access: Tricky: In the outdoor area, the floor is the sandy beach. The flat flooring inside the restaurant and tented patio might prove easier to navigate. The parking lot is next to the restaurant, but take note of the crumbly pavement on the way to the hostess stand.

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