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The Weekly Eater

BY NADINE KAM

Sunday, October 21, 2001


Weekly Eater restaurant photo
KEN IGE / KIGE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Grilla's owner Mike Tudisco offers up some fare, much
like the guy behind him on the window.



Grilla’s a culinary thrilla
in the heart of town


nadine kam
nkam@starbulletin.com

Never underestimate humans' primitive instincts. Restaurateurs can spend thousands of dollars trying to come up with the words and images that will drive people to hunger, when really, human beings will respond to the oddest, unstudied phenomena. Appeals to the intellect are wasted when the easy laugh will get 'em every time.

So it was when I first passed Grilla's downtown, near Liberty House/Macy's, where a strange sign caught my eye. Most restaurants will try to sell pedestrians with pictures of yummy-looking food (most times failing because of the poorly lighted, flat photography). It's not a typical restaurant that would try to lure people in with a cartoony image of a gorilla, but Grilla's is not your average hole in the wall.

Unfortunately, that was back when they opened in April, and the restaurant was closed, only open by day when it is extremely difficult to escape the confines of the workplace for the luxury of lunch. Again, it is not your typical downtown hole in the wall that can continue to draw people in past 4 or 5 o'clock, which Grilla's now does, having extended its hours to 8 p.m. last month.

It turns out to be the kind of place where querying the customers about the food will earn you stock responses like: "Everything's good" and "The sandwiches are good."

How exciting. Pardon my cynicism, but writers have a tendency to be nonbelievers until witnessing phenomena firsthand.

Well, I haven't tried everything here, but I can say that what I have tasted so far has indeed been "good," if not excellent at times, but before we get to the food, what's with this gorilla business anyway?

Owner Mike Tudisco's been called "Gorilla" ever since he moved to Hawaii 20 years ago. Compared to the slight bodies all around him, he is, he describes, "a big hairy Italian guy," and a maitre d' at the restaurant that employed him noticed, giving him the moniker he doesn't mind at all. He fills his restaurant now with posters from "The Planet of the Apes," "King Kong" and "Mighty Joe Young."


Grilla's

12 S. King St. (between Bethel Street and Nuuanu Avenue / 545-7444

Food 1/2

Service 1/2

Ambience 1/2

Value

Hours: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays

Cost: $6 to $10 per person


Now, if that maitre d' happened to be a woman, he more likely would have been called teddy bear, but Teddy's or Bear's wouldn't have the punch of a name like Grilla's.

Tudisco's from Philadelphia, which explains the presence of Philly Gorilly steak sandwiches ($5.25-$5.50). As popular as they are (this was a bit dry for my taste), they are no match for the Gourmet Gorilla ($6.99), a 12-inch sub filled with home-roasted roast beef and turkey, plus Swiss-style Jarlsberg cheese, prosciutto, roasted peppers, baby greens and a basil aioli with plenty of garlic.

The cheese is also prominent in specials of quiches that are wicked in their richness.

While the menu of sandwiches ($4.25 to $6.99) is not as extensive as a full-size deli, Grilla's is a welcome addition to those who don't live in Kailua (home of Brent's and Doug's Gee A Deli) and have noticed the vacuum left since the disappearance of Bernard's.

Tudisco, who worked at restaurants in Philadelphia, the Hilton and most recently at Baci at Restaurant Row, also puts his skills to use in some amazing shrimp salads ($6.99) with balsamic vinegar and oil dressing. Try it with spinach, mushrooms and bacon, or on a bed of baby greens. And shrimp salad ($6.99) is wonderful. Even something as basic as shrimp fried rice ($6.50) is a treat, made with whole shrimp, straying from the local drive-in or chop suey concept of chopping the shellfish into dinky pieces you can't taste.

All those shrimp shells don't go to waste. An occasional special of a velvety shrimp bisque is made from scratch and priced like any other of Grilla's soups of the day, at an extremely low $1.50 per cup or $2.50 per bowl. You'd pay $6 for it at any fine dining restaurant. Incredible!

Tudisco also makes his own cheesecakes and desserts, and although carrot cake ($2.50/slice) would not be my first choice of dessert, this one is so moist and textured that a slice brought back to the office resulted in a rush for whole cakes later.

Service is slow at lunch time, but that's to be expected when there's a crowd. Those who frequent the place know better. They order, then run errands, before returning for the pick up.

I continue to be amazed at the work being done at our smaller restaurants. They're making it easier, in these uncertain times, to save on dining costs without much sacrifice. The big guys had better be paying attention. There will always be room for the top restaurants, but there are many that do not back their prices with as much substance as Grilla's.



See some past restaurant reviews in the
Do It Electric!

section online. Click the logo to go!




Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

excellent;
very good, exceeds expectations;
average;
below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to nkam@starbulletin.com



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