(out of 4)
3489 W. 32nd Ave., 303-433-2535, www.coralroom.com

Must-Try New Dishes Chocolate cake
Old Favorites Coconut tempura prawns, filet mignon

When they stepped into Coral Room in the spring of 2003, 5280 critics Rachael Graves and Matthew Leary were pleasantly surprised. The restaurant, tucked between a laundry and a pizza parlor, seemed like just another strip-mall joint. But when the duo sat down to a dinner of coconut tempura tiger prawns and Asian sea scallops, they realized Coral Room had brought trendy change to Highland. Since then, however, the restaurant has faced some challenges.

When it opened in 2002, Coral Room had a clear concept: urban Asian bistro. In the last few years, though, the focus has shifted to that of an American bistro. That shift was furthered in December of last year, when chef Kevin Grossi took over the kitchen. Most recently, he’d worked as Parisi’s pastry chef, but his resume also included stints at Tamayo and Zengo. He tended toward international cuisines, and during this past year those are the flavors he added to the menu.

Knowing this, I slipped into Coral Room on a quiet Saturday evening, expecting urban-international flavors paired with farm-fresh cooking—such as the kind of exciting cuisine that Duo and Deluxe serve up. But what my date and I found was culinary mayhem. Despite Grossi’s promise, his menu offers more wild international fusion choices than simple American dishes. At our server’s suggestion, we ordered gnocchi ($8-$16), scallops rebozados (scallops, battered and fried, $11), curry ($15-$18), and Alaskan halibut ($26). The feast fell flat with imprecise cooking and odd flavor combinations. The potato dumplings were gummy, and the basic scallop and tartar sauce combo came with crunchy, batter-fried carrots and zucchini. The halibut, cooked at the recommended medium-rare, was too mushy to stand up to the large heirloom tomatoes and hearty, sweet Israeli couscous and sun-dried cranberry salad. Such imperfections made the dishes’ price tags seem especially heavy. Only the coconut-laced chicken curry stood out, commanding attention not for its presentation, which was disappointingly homestyle, but for its familiar and consistent flavors.

I returned for Sunday brunch, the restaurant’s most popular meal. On weekend mornings, residents line up early for the bottomless mimosas ($9). The hype, though, did little for the food. My chorizo scrambler torta ($9) was a bland egg sandwich that highlighted little of the sausage, cheddar cheese, and guacamole the menu touted, and my friend’s strawberry pancakes ($8), which were unexpectedly laden with rhubarb compote, were dry.

A good meal can be had at Coral Room, though. If you wander in on a Monday night, when all bottles of wine are half-priced, order the coconut tempura prawns ($9.50). When you’ve dragged the last of the jumbo shrimp, crusted with sweet, toasted coconut, through the peanut sauce, order the tender filet mignon, which is slightly spicy with a sambal demi-glace ($30). Both the shrimp and the steak have been on the menu since Graves and Leary ate at the Coral Room, and both are worthy of repeat visits. Also, save room for the towering chocolate cake ($10). Above all, Grossi considers himself a pastry chef, and the cake’s chocolate flavor and dollop of vanilla gelato taste of childhood.

While Grossi has added an array of fun desserts—and flawlessly turns out the menu’s stars—his new dishes range from lackluster to bizarre. But I doubt this will always be the case. Grossi has incredible passion for his kitchen and says he constantly circles the dining room talking to his customers. If he listens to what they say and refines his flavor combinations and cooking techniques, he may yet turn out meals consistently as good as Coral Room’s originals.