The Los Angeles Trader Vic's now has sushi on the menu, along with familiar old appetizers like pork spareribs, crispy prawns and a combination platter that's still called Cosmo Tidbits. My L.A. friends Bob and Nancy grew pleasantly woozy on rum cocktails garnished with fresh pineapple and maraschino cherries. They were excessively chatty until we walked out of the restaurant and their jaws dropped at the sight of an ebullient Robert Wagner and a bored-looking Jill St. John climbing into an SUV. I was even more excited to see my favorite '70s TV cop, Joe Mannix, in the flesh: the incredibly well-preserved Mike Connors. It didn't matter that Mannix had been off the air since 1975; he was a star!
It was Tinsel Town that made Hawaiian-themed restaurants popular throughout the country. Movie magazines gushed with stories about stars hanging out at Don the Beachcomber or the Luau. Back in the late 1950s, the style of food we now call Pacific Rim cuisine was known much more simply as "Polynesian." Polyglot might have been a better word; the stuff served in Kansas City's earliest "tropical" restaurants -- like the Bali Hai Room (in the long-gone Bretton's Restaurant downtown) or the Kona Kai at the old Plaza Hilton -- was a wacky blend of Cantonese, Hawaiian and Hollywood.
In those dining rooms the food was much less important than the exotic drinks in festive glasses -- the Boo Loo Bowls, Mai Tais and sticky-sweet Singapore Slings. It didn't matter that we were in the Midwest; the décor had to live up to the theme, so even the lowliest of local joints -- the Kon Tiki on Main Street -- had bamboo walls and tiki statues. When the Kona Kai opened in the 1960s, it employed a strolling ukulele player wearing a lei.
But the novelty wore thin. The Kon Tiki morphed into a gay bar (serving fried chicken on Sundays) before it met the wrecking ball. And the beloved Kona Kai was merely a wreck; by the end, the service was incompetent and the food stank. When Trader Vic's was unceremoniously ripped out of the Westin Hotel in 1996, it seemed that Kansas City's love affair with the Pacific Rim had soured for good.
But wait! Could the islands' siren songs once again be wafting in our midst? Well, maybe not the songs. Diners who score one of the dark booths at the Plaza's new Kona Grill are likely to hear Evelyn "Champagne" King's 1978 disco classic "Shame" or the latest Christina Aguilera. The Kona Grill, all dim and sexy and modern, does for the Pacific Rim what P.F. Chang's does for Chinese-American, making it hip, accessible and fresh.
That's not a random comparison. Michael McDermott, the Arizona-based founder of Kona Grill, wasn't just inspired by the wildly successful Chang's concept; he hired P.F. Chang's marketing partner to be the Kona Grill Inc.'s president and chief operating officer.
Once you escape the bustling, noisy and cruisy bar near the entrance, the Kona Grill's dining room is very much in the Chang's motif of blond wood and black ceilings with floating light fixtures. (Here they're shaped like organic flowers.) Tables are uncloaked, and you'll wish the waiters were, too -- clearly they've all been hired based on good cheekbones and pecs, their tight-fitting black uniforms seemingly ordered from International Male.
Waitresses are stuck with the same outfit, which is considerably less flattering on them. Still, the best server here, a Renée Zellweger look-alike named Andrea (a P.F. Chang's veteran, natch), accessorizes her ensemble with a handful of Hello Kitty pens and does her best to answer every question about a menu that's cross-cultural at its zaniest -- Hawaiian fish shack meets Mexican coastline resort, with periodic stops in Italy, Thailand and New Orleans. Thick, fried sweet-onion rings share space on the appetizer list with chicken satay, avocado egg rolls and Szechwan beans. The dinner menu reveals that the meatloaf is made with andouille sausage, but then again, so is the basil-pesto linguine.
I'm not sure where one would find the culinary roots of one of the restaurant's dullest signature dishes, the Macadamia Nut Chicken. It tastes like any greasy spoon's deep-fried patty ... with nuts. And the Pan-Asian Noodles, made with lowbrow ramen, were seriously overdrenched in spicy black-bean garlic sauce. But those were among the few low points for a restaurant that's trying hard to crank out moderately priced, tasty pan-ethnic fare.
In this new breed of slickly packaged chain restaurant, the appetizers are often better than the main courses; at the Kona Grill, many are so generous they could pass as complete entrées. I was happily full after my encounter with a rare wasabi tuna that came wrapped in a flaky, fried tortilla and served with a mound of pineapple-and-pork-studded shrimp fried rice. A mountain of greaseless, lightly battered calamari was equally luscious.
Specialty pizzas arrive heaped with a thick blanket of mozzarella cheese and various uninspired toppings. (I yawned and passed on a Hawaiian pizza, made with pineapple and Canadian bacon.) But they aren't any better than what you'd find at Minsky's -- even the Five-Spice Barbecued Chicken version.
In fact, someone from the kitchen ought to consider topping that pizza with the tender, succulent Five-Spice Baby Back Ribs. Despite their name, these sticky ribs aren't particularly spicy -- but they're thick and tasty nonetheless. They're also easy to share, making a nice counterpoint to selections from the sushi menu or one of the seafood concoctions, such as a tangy chili-glazed salmon. (Diners should be specific with their cooking instructions, though; the kitchen tends to dry it out by keeping it on the grill too long.)
Surprisingly, however, the Kona Grill's steaks -- including a superbly grilled 8-ounce filet -- are as juicy and tender as any in this steak town. And even though the pad Thai might not hold its own against the fragrant, sensuous versions at local Thai establishments (again, too much black-bean sauce!), you get an awful lot of it. The kitchen staff eagerly piles plates with food, but it's oddly stingy in other ways. A roasted asparagus salad, for example, contained only a few woody stalks. There were, however, plenty of crunchy Macadamia Nut Chicken cubes tossed in the vinegary Oriental Salad -- but that didn't stop it from being unbearably dull.
So I was hoping that a dessert called Chocolate Eruption would look like a pastry volcano instead of just a hefty slab of creamy chocolate mousse cake. But for desserts that actually flame, I suppose you have to go to Hollywood. There, unlike at the Kona Grill, the valet parking at Trader Vic's is free.