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Fortunately, the dividing line between on and off couldn't be clearer had it been drawn on the menu in red crayon: Entrees that at one time splashed in water are what Kona Grill does best. Land-based dishes, in contrast, never really get off the ground.
The chef has an unmistakable gift for preparing seafood. As with the spicy tuna chimichanga, several dishes get an unconventional south-of-the-border boost.
That's surely true for the hibachi-grilled swordfish, a substantial, meaty slab grilled to a crisp edge and adroitly coated with an ancho chile sauce, an unusual combination that's unusually tasty. A mound of Asian-flavored "Island rice" and terrific greens complete this outstanding platter.
7014 E. Camelback Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Region: Central Scottsdale
Pan-seared sea bass is in the same class. This time the chef takes a more strictly Asian path, marinating the fish in a sweet miso sake marinade that underscores the charms of the mild sea bass. But I'm not nearly so enamored of the accompanying pesto mashed potatoes, an off-putting, anvil-heavy side that seems to have wandered into Kona Grill from another planet. The sea bass cries out to be teamed with a grain (rice? quinoa?), not spuds.
Naturally, there's no escaping salmon, which Valley diners never seem to tire of. (But I sure have. I've eaten so much salmon that last spring I got a nearly uncontrollable urge to jump in the Salt River and spawn.)
Kona Grill's salmon should keep locals happy. That's because it's topped with a sweet chile glaze that figures to maintain the interest of salmon lovers until the last bite.
At first glance, Shanghai shrimp seems to resemble scores of other shrimp dishes around town: shrimp and stir-fried veggies tossed over noodles. But what distinguishes Kona Grill's version is the orange-mango broth it's moistened with, a peppy, sweet/tart sauce that gives this hackneyed dish a jolt of unexpected energy.
The kitchen also has a knack with duck. The proof: Peking duck enchiladas. They're a cutting-edge combination of duck, shiitake mushrooms, roasted corn, chile and goat cheese drizzled with a hoisin-style sauce, all folded into corn tortillas and paired with a mound of shrimp-studded fried rice. Try to find something this dazzling at the Fashion Square Food Court.
When it comes to beef and chicken, though, the kitchen loses the magic. The New York steak, served with mushrooms and mashed potatoes, is competently prepared, but that's all the praise I can muster. Clearly, the only reason this unremarkable beef is even here is to mollify unadventurous diners who won't eat anything except red meat, no matter what kind of restaurant they're in.
A big sign outside the door advertises one local critic's enthusiastic endorsement of the Big Island meatloaf. Don't look for mine there. The meatloaf itself, flecked with sausage, has potential. But that potential will be forever unrealized until the kitchen retools the inedible sauce. If you'd like to duplicate the taste at home, pour yourself a cup of salt.
Thai chicken noodles sounded promising, but it was a promise Kona Grill couldn't keep. In the first place, the proportions seemed off: I expected a noodle dish embellished with chicken. Instead, this platter was top-heavy with poultry. But the coconut peanut sauce made the question of proportion moot: No matter what the ratio of chicken to noodles, the heavy-handed coconut peanut sauce made enjoyment impossible. There's a well-defined line between robust and overpowering, and this sauce took a flying leap over it.
The desserts aren't as creative as some of the appetizer and main-dish fare, but they're pleasant enough. The velvety passion fruit creme brulee is the best option, but the refreshing lime tart and rich chocolate layer cake are worthy alternatives.
At the moment, Kona Grill is unsteadily balanced. It's hardly a typical shopping mall restaurant, though it's not quite a destination-dining spot. But, with a little less timidity and a little more consistency, it could be.
Spicy tuna chimichanga
Peking duck enchiladas
Passion fruit creme brulee