by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
November 22, 2009
WORLD LEADERS FIDDLE WHILE THE PLANET BURNS
TAMPA, Fla., Nov. 24, 2009 -- The greatest achievement of Kona Grill, the stunning new 7,900-foot restaurant beside the upscale International Plaza on Boy Scout Blvd. here - a few blocks from the 2009 Super Bowl XLIII venue, Raymond James Stadium - is that it exists at all in an economy tighter than a snare drum and a city as badly battered by the recession as any in America.
The publicly traded Kona Grill (Nasdaq: KONA) hired 75 employees and built out a large and beautiful dining room that serves seafood, steaks, sushi, pizza and tacos from an Americanand international menu at prices comparable to an Outback and other national restaurants that have far less impressive menus.
And daunting it is, even for a hungry journalist determined to try a variety of entrees in a range of genres. Sharing half-portions of entrees with Deane Corneil, a discerning friend from Nova Scotia, was an experience unlike any I've had in a lifetime of eating well.
We tried the assorted sushi, lemon grass-crusted halibut, miso-sake marinated sea bass, pork tenderloin, fresh Gulf grilled grouper, a charbroiled New York steak known as the Kona strip. And then came platefuls of appetizers including potstickers, Kona calamari, chicken and shrimp Romaine wraps, sweet and spicy shrimp soaked in the juice from the bottom of a bucket of ginger, an avocado egg roll, ahi tuna slices on wonton crisps, miso soup and a truly memorable 12-inch white pizza. Besides fresh fare, some 40 different sauces are used to make the dishes special.
You would think a meal like that, with half-portions for each of us that were the size as full portions elsewhere, would cause you to bust a gut. But Deane, a slender woman, and myself, a 310-lb. behemoth, reported to each other as we left that neither of us was uncomfortably full. How does that happen after a meal like that?
Well, yes, we took a lot home, mostly pieces of each appetizer, albeit in a large number of handsome bags and take-out boxes. The food was uniformly delicious but surprisingly light despite the generosity of Kona Grill portions. That was the second big surprise. The third was the high quality of the food.
Frankly, I was not prepared for the incredible braized citrus tang of the hearty and fresh grilled grouper - Tampa's own culinary star - the infinite delicacy of the fresh sea bass, the superb lemon grass crust of the halibut and the crisp savory fullness of the avocado egg roll. The delicious Romaine wraps of a spicy sautéed chicken and shrimp blew us both away, and I loved the big white pizza with its chewy thin crust and healthy portions of crumbled bacon, sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms in a wonderfully light spinach Alfredo sauce.
The assorted sushi - tuna, yellowtail, salmon, whitefish, octopus, mackerel and shrimp - were unbeatable, fresh and beautifully presented, and the sweet and spicy shrimp not only filled the plate and pleased the palate but served in enormous quantity. Kona's Las Vegas roll of salmon, crab mix, cream cheese and tempura fried eel sauce was a knockout once I had acquired the taste.
For dessert, we tried a huge caramel-crisped and crusted apple-cinnamon dish topped with delicious vanilla ice cream, and a combination green tea, mango and chocolate ice cream in a delicate mochi (a thin rice paste) veneer. The Kona Grill also serves a specially prepared Roastery blend of rich, dark Costa Rican coffee with fresh cream.
We didn't try any cocktails, but the restaurant has a happy hour from 3 P.M. to 7 P.m., and for the folks who can't make it then, a "reverse" happy hour from Monday to Thursday from 9P.M. to 11 P.M. and on Friday and Saturday from 10 P.M. to midnight.
When I asked Deane Corneil to rate each appetizer and entree on a scale of one to five, with five being the best, i couldn't dissuade her from rating every single dish a five. I threw in a single two and several threes and fours, but her authentic appreciation was contagious, and with time I bumped my numbers up. It was all terrific on any scale - including the one I got on at home. I kid you not: by the end of the day, I'd lost half a pound.
We enjoyed this repast amid splendidly attentive service that was swift, unobtrusive and graceful. We had a chance to speak to the 25-year-old head chef, Sean Biggs, of Fort Myers, Fla., a graduate of the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach. Biggs served his apprenticeship in several kitchens at the Palm Beach Ritz-Carlton, and for three years was the personal chef of publisher Steve Forbes aboard his 150-ft. yacht. General manager Tom Fellin, 37, is a veteran food and beverage manager from the luxury Kimpton boutique hotel chain. Both explained in separate interviews that the restaurant was, to risk a pun, a consuming passion for them. Working 12-hour days, they have gone far beyond the call of duty to do it right. The results honor them.
"I'm in this business because of the passion I have for it. You have to wake up every morning and want to change it for the better," Fellin told us.
The Kona Grill originated in Scottsdale Ariz., a state that can now boast sites in Phoenix, Chandler and Gilbert, in 1997. It has slowly spread across the country, an expansion now fueled by a public offering of its stock.
It is one of 24 restaurants in the Kona firmament, and one of six or seven that will be completed this year. Others are in key cities from Denver to Las Vegas, with five in Texas and several in the Northeast, including Woodbridge, N.J., and Stamford, Conn. The other Florida site is in West Palm Beach. Both Denver and Baton Rouge have one. They are in Oak Park and Lincolnshire, Ill., Omaha and Carmel, Ind. Kansas City and Eden Prairie, minn, are among the blessed, as are Richmond, Va., Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Sugar land, Texas.
Asked about the pace and cost of expansion, a Kona executive said, "I'm absolutely confident. Kona has a great track record." And, in my opinion, the Kona Grill's food is the perfect fuel for that.
The Kona Grill is located at 4134 W. Boy Scout Blvd, No. 8, in Tampa. The Zip Code is 33607. Call (813)877-5938 for reservations (recommended) and information. The restaurant is open from 11:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. Sunday through Thursday and from 11:00 A.M. to 12:00 A.M. on Friday and Saturday. A lavish and modestly priced Sunday brunch is served from 11 A.M. to 4 P.M. For additional information, visit the helpful Kona Grill Website. Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of the American Reporter. The Kona Grill food was complimentary. Our party left a $20 tip.