TAMPA — The tagline is genius: "East meets West. They party." It's irreverent, with a twinkle in its eye and bubblegum saketini on its breath. The concept started in 1994, a wild hair for the people who developed Champps. Begun in Scottsdale, Ariz., Kona Grill now owns and operates 24 restaurants in 15 states, Tampa getting its first in November. • It's mostly Asian food for people who are scared of Asian food. It's chopsticks-optional, training-wheels sushi with none of the menacing stuff (uni fans, tough luck). It's exotic accents rather than anything full-throttle foreign. And if all else fails, it's meat loaf and pizza, too.
That all may sound snide, but this food is scientifically calibrated to maximize enjoyment of the greatest dining cross section. Corporate chef Zach Bredemann (formerly culinary supervisor for Buca di Beppo) and corporate sushi chef Takeshi Trinitapoli have tinkered with menu items and sauces such that there is seriously something for everyone. Think Cheesecake Factory, but with more hoisin and sweet chili glaze.
Visually, Kona Grill is sprawling and pretty, comparable in attractiveness and bustle to a P.F. Chang's. A few things stand out: A glassed-off kitchen and bar, as well as huge canvas jellyfish on the ceiling, keep the noise level moderate while creating visual drama and movement. An oversized saltwater fish tank at the front vies with Dale Chihuly-inspired sea creature lamps at the rear for most-stunning design feature. The building itself, across from International Plaza at the corner of Boy Scout and Lois, looks like Reagan National Airport with a savvy use of blue neon.
Who will like it? Girls' night outers, your book club, Grandma, first dates, 13-year-old birthday partiers — it covers some ground. Service is lively and fresh-faced, a little saucy and willing to kibbitz. A phalanx of food bussers move the goods (but, alas, hold plates aloft and wait for diners to claim ownership) and management trolls the dining room like so many well-dressed sharks.
Pizzas are better at California Pizza Kitchen, steaks are better at Fleming's, but there's still a whole lot to recommend on a menu of unusual bedfellows. Good-quality pan-seared ahi ($21) gets a blush of sweet chili glaze and is paired simply with white rice and garlic-flecked sauteed spinach. That same lovely spinach appears alongside another nice fish entree, a pan-seared halibut ($23) in a pool of coconut curry sauce with the perfume of lemongrass. I was equally besotted with a side of braised baby bok choy that accompanied a sweet chili-glazed chicken breast ($18), but somehow its chili glaze was less flavorful and punchy than the one on the ahi.
A misnamed chicken satay ($9.75) was in fact teriyaki-glazed chicken skewers with a hint of five-spice powder, perfectly pleasant, but its accompanying cabbage slaw hit the spot. Less creamy, but with a similar flavor profile, was a crowd-pleasing Oriental napa cabbage salad ($9). The Bang Bang shrimp at Bonefish beats Kona's very similar sweet and spicy shrimp ($10, but its bed of daikon is an unusual touch), and most halfway decent Chinese restaurants will stomp the Kona potstickers ($8.50).
Fine, but look around the huge room and see how many people are having a great time. The cocktail list is a kind of shorthand: Signature cocktails are goofy, one with pumpkin schnapps, another with melon liqueur, and, yes, there is a bubblegum saketini, I didn't make it up — these call out for umbrellas or those little plastic mermaids. Still, they're fun, as are the individual-sized desserts like red velvet cupcake ($3.75) or green tea mochi ($2.75, an ice cream ball coated in a chewy rice confection, very Japanese). Cupcakes and mochi, that's exactly where East meets West and they party.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.