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After I finished, the proprietor wandered by. "You the one with the bad fish?" I nodded. "I'm very sorry. We're going to comp you a dessert."
He needn't have bothered. There's nothing remotely Pacific Rim about any of these sweets, and they close the meal on a heavy, jarring note. Under other circumstances, I might have enjoyed the tart Key lime pie, the creamy chocolate mousse with the dark chocolate coating or the rich chocolate cheesecake. But not after sushi and sake steamed fish. You're better off with a pot of steaming green tea.
Inevitably, a new hot spot will come along to replace Zen 32. But in the restaurant business, geography is often destiny. With its great location and play-it-safe fare, this place looks ready to settle in for a long, unremarkable run.
3160 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Region: East Phoenix
Kiawe Grill, 10402 North Metro Parkway, Phoenix, 997-8281. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.
Let's hope geography isn't destiny for Kiawe Grill. That's because the west side, the Metrocenter area in particular, has the same effect on culinary creativity as the Bermuda Triangle has on airplanes: Both soon fly off the screen. (Restaurants aren't the only fine-foods victims. The Metrocenter branch of Trader Joe's is the weakest link in the company's Arizona chain.)
Maybe the folks behind Kiawe Grill can change enough west-side tastes to make a go of it. I'm rooting for them, because this place serves some of the most provocative fare west of I-17.
The Pacific Rim menu tilts heavily toward seafood, and the skilled kitchen knows what to do with it. Lobster pot stickers are a tasty way to edge into dinner, six dumplings filled with lobster, peppers and chives, then teamed with a sweet and pungent pepper-ginger-plum sauce. The plump, delicately battered fried oysters have an almost tempuralike quality. Crunchy spring rolls, filled with a thimbleful of crab, cucumber and carrot, deliver deep-fried pleasure. But Island poki takes appetizer honors. It's raw chunks of ahi tuna, steeped in a marinade of soy sauce, sesame oil and chile and served with crisp jasmine rice cakes. There's nothing like this anywhere else along the avenues.
Kiawe Grill also puts together a superb pre-dinner salad, notable for its fresh mixed greens and knockout coconut dressing.
If you're attracted to aquatic fare, Kiawe Grill is worth a visit even if you live east of Central Avenue. I'd certainly make the drive for the intriguing Dancing Chile Lime Scallops. They're a revelation, eight big, juicy scallops tarted up with a zesty chile lime marinade, served over angel hair and topped with grated cheese. The combination of flavors is irresistible.
Wok-seared prawns are equally compelling. This platter features eight jumbo shrimp tossed in a catchy garlic-black-bean sauce. At $15.95, you get your money's worth, too.
Kiawe Grill unleashes its creative energies on salmon, reminding us why we liked this overused fish in the first place. It's expertly grilled--slightly charred on the outside, moist on the inside. Then it's paired with cappellini that's been aromatically bathed in an Asian-inspired lemongrass cream sauce tinged with basil. If salmon has been putting you to sleep for the past several years, this platter will revive your enthusiasm.
The kitchen also understands the virtues of simplicity. Escalar, a delicate, white-fleshed Pacific Ocean fish that's turning up on more and more menus, gets steamed and gently seasoned in a soy/balsamic-vinegar sauce. Portabella mushrooms, baby bok choy and jasmice rice round off this tempting plate. Mahimahi also gets first-class treatment. It's seared and coated with a fetching hoisin-raspberry glaze, accompanied by rice, a pineapple/bean salsa and wonderful wood-grilled veggies doused in a sweet, Asian-accented sauce.
Two homemade desserts complete the menu. The thick, creamy cheesecake doesn't mesh very well with the preceding courses. But the refreshing puff pastry tart, filled with coconut custard and gilded with diced pineapple, kiwi and papaya, is right on target.
Kiawe Grill is too good to languish. To those west-siders who bemoan the area's paucity of fine-dining options, let me point out: Someone has built it; now it's up to you to come.
Sake steamed fish
New York steak
Key lime pie
Dancing Chile Lime Scallops
Coconut custard tart