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Review: Tahitian Inn's cafe, Kon Tiki, serves artful Latin-Asian fusion in South Tampa

TAMPA

“Fusion" can be a tricky thing.

First, it has been the gastronomic rule for long enough that it is almost more surprising when a menu is pointed at a particular cuisine instead of a mix of them.

And if the merging of cuisines isn't done well, then the separate profiles get muddied into a nondescript third. It can be a rationalization for a lack of focus.

But when it works, the disparate cuisines harmonize, with each taking opportunities to star without overwhelming the other.

For an example of how it can work, read the menu at Kon Tiki, the dinner-only venture in the cafe of Tampa's Tahitian Inn. The cafe is still open for breakfast and lunch, as it has been for years, but since October, chef Erin Van Zandt Guggino has taken over the space after 5 p.m. and created a Latin-Asian menu that works as well on the plate as it does on paper.

For a case study, look at the scallops ($21). The shellfish is dusted with cumin and chili, spices that are at home in both Latin and Asian cuisines. The scallops sit on a succotash, a very New World dish, but Guggino uses edamame with corn, and adds shiitake mushrooms and ginger. The result is a dish that looks like succotash but tastes like a unique new thing. And all that brushes over the fact that the scallops themselves are big, firm, juicy, spicy and perfectly seared.

It is a fun menu to take in, because careful inspection shows that there are a number of dishes that smartly repurpose similar elements. Tender, complex braised short ribs show up on fried wonton chips in a composed nacho appetizer ($10) and also on fresh corn tortillas as tacos ($9). A fresh, crisp tiki slaw of cabbage, papaya and jicama comes as a side, a salad and a condiment on the Asian mojo pork sandwich ($10). And the braised pork on that sandwich is one of two braised pork applications that show up throughout the menu. In addition to the sandwich, which gets crispy bacon and crumbled queso with the slaw, the mojo pork also turns up in an appetizer, rolled with black sticky rice and plantain chips ($9). There is also a braised pork flavored with chipotle that's used in a fried spring roll, on a wonton skin with jicama and cabbage as a taco ($9) and on a tortilla pizza with corn, tomato and cheddar, dubbed the "Piggy Bueno" ($10).

It was only after dining there twice that I noticed how those things pop up around the menu. It is a testament to good execution that these elements are re-purposed in ways that seem new each time they show up.

The tuna poki tacos ($11.50) also share elements with another menu item, a tartare appetizer. For the tacos, the sashimi tuna is dressed with chili, sesame, lime, ginger and coconut — and some of the slaw — and served "open face" on crisp wonton chips. It comes across more as a nacho tartare, but that is a minor criticism of semantics. Whatever it is called, it tastes great.

The only stumble came at dessert on one trip. There are a couple of options that change daily, and one night, both of the options had textural issues. A plate of three "Popsicles" — a frozen chocolate-covered banana, a kiwi ice pop and an almond-milk cube — were all difficult to eat because they were so hard. The other option was an ice cream sandwich, with a good coconut ice cream in between two sesame cookies. Sesame cookies are hard, and the ice cream made them harder, so biting through the layers was a challenge.

But on another night, the options were dark chocolate mini cupcakes, which were warm, soft and delicious with a hit of candied jalapeno on top, and a espresso rice pudding. The espresso seemed missing in action, but the pudding was otherwise nice.

The wine list is limited, with about half a dozen each reds and whites, the reds mostly from the West Coast, the whites mostly abroad. But a good deal of thought has been put into the cocktail list ($8 to $10), particularly a list of "bubble-teanis," most of which have infused tapioca pearls. A vodka and vermouth "Dirty Teani" includes olive-flavored bubbles, and a mojito-based drink has lime bubbles. It's fun, and the drinks are good, but the bubbles carry only a hint of flavor.

Kon Tiki represents a bit of a return for Guggino, who earned praise for her work on the menus at Water sushi and Mad Dogs and Englishmen before taking time to concentrate on her family. It will be fun to watch what happens once she gets warmed up.

Jim Webster can be reached at jwebster@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.

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Kon Tiki

601 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; toll-free 1-800-876-1397; kontikitampa.com

Cuisine: Latin-Asian fusion

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Details: Amex, V, MC;

reservations accepted, full bar, live music.

Prices: Entrees $9 to $23, appetizers $5 to $11

Rating out of four stars:

Food: ★★★ Service: ★★1/2 Atmosphere: ★★★

Overall: ★★★

Review: Tahitian Inn's cafe, Kon Tiki, serves artful Latin-Asian fusion in South Tampa 12/28/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 28, 2010 3:30am]

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