Dining review: Kona Grill is sweet, salty, safe — and sorta spendy

The restaurant at The Village at Meridian aims to please the crowds.

SPECIAL TO THE IDAHO STATESMANDecember 13, 2013 

  • KONA GRILL

    Address: 3573 E. Longwing Lane, Suite 140, Meridian

    Phone: (208) 922-6511

    Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

    Menu price range: appetizers $5.50-$13; sandwiches and full salads $9-$14.25; entrees $15.50-$31; sushi $4.75-$14.25

    Libation situation: full bar

    Kid friendly? Yes, there is a broad kids menu.

    Wheelchair accessible? Yes, all ground level.

    Opened: October 2013

Kona Grill opened in October with the kind of immediate success that must make local restaurateurs pull out their hair.

Part of that popularity certainly comes with the location, dead-center in The Village at Meridian, which has the feel of a big city's tourist district. The enclosed patio of Kona Grill looks out on The Village's fountain, where shoppers gather hourly to watch choreographed waterworks.

Inside, the restaurant is large, contemporary and loud, with three distinct dining areas. Slats of light wood and clear Lucite shelving frame the bar and lounge, full of flatscreens. In the back of the room is a sushi counter. And along the open galley of the kitchen and around the corner is the main dining area, lit by an aquarium.

The anchor of the appeal is that the menu is approachable, and there are plenty of options. The full page of sushi offerings covers cooked, raw, familiar and specialty Kona Grill signature items. The rest of the menu houses crowd-pleasing appetizers like calamari and lettuce wraps, flatbread pizzas, salads, sandwiches and entrees. Though Hawaiian in name, the food is designed to appeal to a wider American audience. (Kona Grill is a national chain based in Arizona, and the Meridian location is its only unit in the Northwest.)

One example of the broad approach is the sweet-chili glazed salmon ($20.25), a good-sized piece of grilled fish with a crisp, sugared exterior. The salmon — farmed Atlantic — was mild and cooked nicely. But my wife and I didn't care much for the oily fried rice, whose flavors did not meld. On the side were lobes of bok choy. As a dish, this hits these notes: salt, sugar, fat. But the bass line here and throughout the menu was one of playing it safe.

Another example of sweet, salty and rich was the soft-shell crab po' boy sliders ($14.25) served with sweet potato fries. Bigger than average sliders, this is a pair of sandwiches with bibb lettuce, Andouille sausage, grilled pineapple, slaw, chipotle mayo and good, sweet brioche buns. Each crab was battered and fried. Not in the least spicy as advertised, the end result is pretty delicious. But I could not help but wonder what justified the price tag.

While we were told everything is made from scratch on premise, the pricing structure is out of sync with the local market — generally, this is what you would expect to pay for local, wild or organic, though none of these are utilized here.

One busy night, we headed to the bar for a drink and an appetizer while we waited for a table. The bartenders acted disinterested, and we were lucky to get an avocado egg roll ($9.75) in the 45 minutes before we were seated. This came as advertised — slices of avocado in an egg roll wrapper, fried, sliced end to end, and served with a ramekin of sweet cilantro dip, exactly the sum of its parts.

Staff will suggest the signature cocktails, whose flavors are boosted not by fruit juices or purees but Monin syrups, like you would find in a coffeehouse. Both the pineapple honey mojito and strawberry basil lemonade were fine, if weak-tasting based on the alcohol pour. I am always dubious of a cocktail menu that doesn't list prices, a standard practice at chain restaurants. And when we found that our bill for the egg roll and two cocktails was just shy of $30 before tip, we felt suckered.

Our server in the dining room, Emily, was personable and attentive, letting us know about half-price wine on Wednesdays, getting us extra sides of Sriracha and ginger for our sushi.

We tried two rolls, each eight pieces. The signature Picasso roll ($14.25) was tasty but unmemorable, with minced yellowtail, avocado and cream cheese, and a slice of tuna and jalapeno on top.

The menu described it as "spicy" — also mentioning tagarashi, a Japanese pepper similar to cayenne — but as a whole, heat was absent. And we couldn't discern any ponzu sauce, a distinctive mixture of citrus and soy. The Dragon roll ($10.50) was better, more straightforward, with crab, eel and sweet eel sauce.

The fish was noticeably fresh in the sashimi flight ($13.50), your choice of three preparations of raw fish. I tried the whitefish ceviche with crunchy sea salt, albacore tataki and ahi poke, and all were lightly dressed and flavorful.

Everything we tried was competent and relatively error-free. But the sum total of dinner one night was over $100 for the two of us before tip; that included two cocktails, a beer, a glass of wine, one appetizer, one entree and two sushi rolls. A solo lunch a few days later was $30 before tip.

While Kona Grill is an above-average chain, price does not translate to a memorable experience.

Email Alex Kiesig: scene@idahostatesman.com

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