Empires don't spring up overnight. Rome wasn't built in a day: It took centuries of warfare to destroy Carthage, conquer Gaul and march triumphantly to the east. The British spent 300 years making sure that the sun never set on their colonies. Our own 20th-century American empire also developed slowly, almost by default, as the world's great powers exhausted themselves in two ruinous wars and disastrous totalitarian social experiments.
Building a restaurant empire is no different from building a national empire: It, too, requires patience, planning, pluck and a bit of luck. Michael McDermott, the entrepreneurial force behind Sushi on Shea, Saki's Pacific Rim Cafe, and, most recently, Kona Grill, apparently knows what it takes. No, he's hardly a Caesar, Elizabeth I or Teddy Roosevelt, at least not yet. But he seems to be learning from them. If I were in the restaurant business, I'd be keeping my eye on him.
Riding the 1990s Asian-food wave, he's built shrewdly and carefully, well-positioned to take advantage of the Valley's economic vitality and mania for Pacific Rim fare.
Perhaps his keenest strategic move has been maneuvering each of his restaurants into a distinctive niche. These three places aren't copycat, chain-restaurant clones, cannibalizing customers from each other. Each has its own Asian identity. Sushi on Shea, a popular and critical success from the moment it opened five years ago, is primarily a sushi house. Saki's Pacific Rim Cafe, plugged into the Mill Avenue revival, delivers crowd-pleasing, slice-and-dice-before-your-eyes teppanaki. And now Kona Grill, installed about 10 months ago at swanky, renovated Scottsdale Fashion Square shopping mall, spins another variation on the Far Eastern theme.
It's an ambitious concept--McDermott hopes to have six other Kona Grills up and running around the country within two years.
Maybe, however, it's too ambitious. The concept is not nearly as tightly focused as the others. Kona Grill tries to be many things, to many people, all at the same time: an authentic sushi bar; a cool watering hole; and a casual, knife-and-fork haven for hungry, risk-averse shoppers, offering the likes of pizza, barbecued ribs and steak and mashed potatoes.
On occasion, the kitchen aims at foodies, too. And, at times, it hits its target with dishes so singular, and so ingenious, that they can keep thrill-seeking diners on the edge of their seats. You might plausibly wonder if Kona Grill has two different kitchens. If it does, this second kitchen needs to be given more scope.
Set in the space that used to house Aldo Baldo, Kona Grill hasn't stretched the boundaries of restaurant design. The most striking part of the room is the huge salt-water aquarium behind the sushi bar. Other touches include oversize mirrors, vases filled with brightly colored tropical silk flowers and an open kitchen. Upstairs is a buzzing bar where nicotine addicts generate enough cigarette smoke to give you second-hand emphysema.
Your first inkling that Kona Grill isn't shy about mixing, matching and fusing concepts comes moments after you sit down. After all, there aren't many places in town where the servers bring over both a plate of crusty sourdough bread and a sushi list.
The sushi, as you might expect from the operators of Sushi on Shea, is absolutely first-rate. Whitefish, yellowtail and unagi will make you consider turning dinner here into a purely sushi experience. The silky, six-piece crab roll and albacore tataki are especially fetching.
But if you want to see a sign of higher culinary intelligence, scan the appetizer list. There you'll spot the spicy tuna chimichanga, one of the most artfully designed and delicious starters in all of Maricopa County.
At first thought, Asian-Mexican fusion doesn't sound like an idea whose time has come. But this dish could start a trend here. A crispy tortilla is rolled up with rare tuna, then cut into six thin slices. Each is topped with wasabi-accented sour cream and drizzled with what I'd call a hoisin salsa. The result is scrumptious, a senses-clearing combination of big, bold flavors and textures. In a few years, I predict, trendy hostesses will be serving these chimis as canapes at fancy dinner parties.
The rest of the appetizer list, alas, can't begin to match the spicy tuna chimichanga's flair. Maui tacos might have, if the kitchen had been a little more generous with the ingredients. Three soft tortillas are ostensibly filled with blackened-spiced catfish, avocado and tomato. But I couldn't taste anything except tomato, and a tableside autopsy showed me why: You could have put the catfish and avocado I dug out in a thimble and still have had room for your thumb. The bland "Hawaiian" dipping sauce alongside didn't help much, either.
Fried calamari don't push the appetizer envelope, but at least the ones here had the proper texture and tasted freshly battered. The baby back ribs, brushed with a five-spice glaze, are pleasant enough, but won't create any lasting memories.
The main dishes are a schizophrenic lot. When the kitchen is on, Kona Grill generates the kind of genuine excitement that can get diners salivating. But when it's off, Kona Grill seems like just another shopping mall refueling station, a place for weary folks to rest their bags and regather their forces.
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.
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