I'll admit it: I didn't walk into Coconutz ( CoconutzChicago.com; 13 W. Division St. ) with the highest of expectations.
There were at least a couple of reasons, ranging from the "z" in the restaurant's name to the fact that it's located along a stretch of Division Street that's known primarily for Jager bombs and the occasional thong contest.
However, general manager Josh King told me that the Coconutz aims to "draw the area's condo owners" to the stretch that some have termed a "frat boy's fantasy."
Call the island-inspired Coconutz an oasis that's off to a good start. It's divided into three areas ( a front bar, a dining room and a lounge in the back ), and offers "cabana bites" as well as a cornucopia of cocktails ( including the cringeworthy-sounding Punch in the Nutz ) and wines. By the way, Coconutz makes sure everything is as fresh as possible; even the pineapple juice is squeezed straight from the fruit.
An amuse bouche of tomato with jicama and serrano jam got the evening off to a kicky start, and I really liked the zabouca choka ( Trini-style guacamole and tortilla chips ), which sounded more exotic than it actually was.
I'm always a little cautious around shishito peppers; however, I fortunately didn't encounter any spicy ones with Coconutz's bacon-wrapped offerings. And as for the entrees, my dining partner adored the hot-and-sweet shrimp ( although the heat from the habanero-laced mother-in-law slaw stayed with her for a while ); I had a Malta-braised pork that was certainly satisfying.
Coconutz recently opened, and there are a few kinks ( as with the danger pie, which is a little too sweet ). However, I definitely deem this a promising place ( with kick-ass staff and sangria )and a nice alternative to the usual Gold Coast Division Street scene.
Maple & Ash
Meanwhile, literally a couple blocks away from Coconutz is Maple & Ash ( 8 W. Maple St.; MapleAndAsh.com ), a recently opened steakhouse that has gotten quite a bit of buzz.
It is an impressive spot, overallalthough does pay for the experience.
Maple & Ash is a two-story restaurant. The first floor houses a cocktail bar and a more informal ( but still attractive ) menu. Offerings include salmon tartare, shellfish chowder, roasted lamb chops, apple-cider doughnuts and even grilled cheese ( albeit with brioche, dijon aioli and green salad ).
My dining partners and I dined upstairs, which is more formal. ( Sartorial note: Collared shirts are fine. I wore a shirt and jacket, sans tie, and felt a tad overdressed. ) The decor is pretty elegant, with a variety of seats ( plush and otherwise ).
The service was spot-on, with our server being supremely attentive. Also, the restaurant kept one of my friends' food allergies in mind, suggesting alternatives for her. As for the food itself, it's quite good: The foie gras ( with strawberry preserves and brioche ) was the best I'd had since Sepia last year, and the pork chop was pretty tasty, although it seemed a bit small for the price. Also, the drink list was most impressive; sommelier Belinda Chang knows what she's doing.
As for cost, be prepared to shell out some cash if you dine upstairs. The 40-ounce Eisenhower is $115, grilled whole branzino is $55, caviar ( as expected ) is $100-$220and the "I Don't Give A F*@k" option costs $145. However, if you have the dime, make the time for Maple & Ash.