The big kahuna

Feb 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

For about a year now, the Kona Grill at the corner of Big Beaver and Livernois roads in Troy has been packing them in for a taste of Hawaiian cuisine, which, as on the Big Island itself, is more accurately described as pan-Asian. Part of an 18-unit chain, the stand-alone brick building flaunts two impressive 1,000-gallon aquariums behind the sushi bar and a sprawling, bustling space that seats more than 300 amid handsome brick, mahogany and granite accents and unusual fabric light fixtures that suggest jellyfish.

The moderately priced fare, which ranges from sushi, noodles and pizza to beef and seafood, features ahi, Maui onions and macadamia nuts as a genuflection to the islands' culinary culture. As for taro, an acquired taste, you can find it in the chips served with the sandwiches.

Throughout the menu, the portions are large and the lively seasonings unsubtle. Among the appetizers, which average around $8, the crunchy calamari tidbits, enlivened by a zingy aioli dipping sauce, are a winner. The crisp, pan-seared chicken and vegetable dumplings with a soy-based sauce are meritorious as well. Chef Troy Howser's kitchen prepares 40 different sauces from scratch — only a few of them appear on more than one preparation.

The roasted asparagus salad is something of a disappointment considering the meager number of stalks and the soggy greens drenched by an overdose of honey-balsamic vinaigrette. Moreover, why do restaurants insist on using drab off-season tomatoes just to add color when the same effect can be achieved with perennially succulent grape tomatoes?

Also disappointing is the sweet Maui onion soup, which is a bit thin. Other starters are tuna sashimi, Maui onion rings, tuna with wasabi in a tortilla, and an oriental salad of cabbage, onions and ramen noodles.

The sushi-sampler appetizer offers those moving on to the cooked entrées an opportunity to try the raw delicacy that has won awards at other Kona Grill outlets. The children's menu also presents adventurous little gourmets with a sushi option. We're clearly on our way to adopting sushi as the pizza of the 21st century when you can find it on tots' menus, although according to manager Tom Przybylski, it hasn't yet caught on with our younger set.

Both Przybylski and Howser previously worked at the Palm, which was much more formal than the bare-tabled Kona Grill. Most of their mains cost less than $20, with the "signature dish" being macadamia chicken combined with a soy-based shoyu-cream sauce and adorned with pineapple-papaya marmalade, accompanied by a huge mound of mashed potatoes dotted with white cheddar and wok-tossed vegetables. This dish's complexity is characteristic of most of the chain's creations, and all the ingredients work well together, except for the bland vegetables. Another crowd favorite is the savory Big Island meat loaf, composed of Angus beef and Italian and andouille sausage, which comes with mashed potatoes, and alas, those wok-tossed vegetables.

The accoutrements with the carefully prepared sweet-chili glazed salmon, shrimp and pork fried rice, Szechuan beans and a coconut-curry vinaigrette, are just right, however. The other three pan-Asian influenced seafood entrées are lemongrass-crusted halibut with bok choy, pan-seared ahi and baked sea bass marinated for three days (!) in a miso-sake sauce.

As for the noodle platters, the spicy black-bean garlic sauce that's slathered on the pan-Asian noodles, mixed vegetables and tender beef bits, is mildly incendiary but again laid on with too heavy a hand. Basil pesto linguine, pad Thai noodles and Thai-peanut chicken noodles round out the noodle selections, while baby-back ribs, Kona steaks and two pork dishes are available for carnivores. Except for the Hawaiian variant that involves pineapple, Kona Grill's seven pizzas betray no link to the islands.

The small and versatile wine list, which unfortunately omits Hawaii's interesting pineapple varietals, is well-selected, with a handful of decent buys in the $28-$35 range. Even better buys are the very long traditional happy hours (3-7 p.m.) and "reverse" happy hours after dinner, when appetizers, sushi rolls and pizzas are half-price and you can score a margarita for $4. The Kona Grill's lively happy hours have won scores of awards at its other locations.

The only made-in-house dessert is a gargantuan fudge brownie ($6.95), bathed in caramel and chocolate sauce and topped with vanilla bean ice cream, which, on one recent occasion, our party of four could not finish.

The generally young staff is enthusiastic and helpful, although I wish management could restrain the vacuumers while patrons are still eating.

The fact that the Kona Grill does not have an outlet in the islands does not mean that it is inauthentic. Its colorful mélange of Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Filipino and native ingredients is close to what diners experience in moderately upscale "Hawaiian" restaurants in Kona. Now you can have a comparable gustatory experience in Troy and save the airfare.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].