The Weekly Eater
Nadine Kam

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Setting roots isn’t
easy in Kahala

MANY restaurants have passed through 4614 Kilauea Ave., behind Kahala Mall, over the past decade: Hajibaba's, Kahala Moon, Donato's, Troy's Kahala Bar & Grill, and a couple of others I never bothered to visit or whose names I can't remember.

Funny, over the same time period, Olive Tree Cafe has remained, a perennial hit due to its combination of the right cuisine (Greek) at the right price (cheap) and the right ambience (casual).

The 4614 spot has always been reserved for something more upscale. Reasonable assumption, right? We're talking patrons from Kahala, Waialae and neighboring Hawaii Kai, presumably home to some of Honolulu's ritziest addresses. Unfortunately for restaurateurs, they are, more importantly, the most finicky of patrons disinclined to part with their dollars recklessly, and the message they seem to have been sending all the way to Koko Marina over the years is, "If you're not Roy's, don't bother."

Which puts the newly open Tropical Garden Restaurant in the hot seat.

So far, the restaurant has been attracting a breakfast and lunch crowd of area residents and businessmen looking for basics of Eggs Benedict ($7.75), rice-and-kim chee scrambled eggs ($6.50) and local-boy burgers ($7.95).

At night, the menu is more ambitious, and while staffers here are earnest and would like to project an upscale aura, a coffee-shop sensibility prevails. This makes it very comfortable for the casual girls' night out gangs and old-timer get-togethers. People can feel free to lounge and spread themselves out in a way you don't see much anymore, except at bars or such family restaurants as Flamingo's or Columbia Inn. But the foodies are conspicuously absent, even though there's no way a restaurant could go unnoticed in this high-profile spot.

While Tropical Garden's prices are in line by day, there's a disconnect between the prices and the setting by night. The ambience might be described as Thai restaurant meets coffee shop, but instead of the $7 to $15 pricing common to such eateries, you get dinner prices of $15.95 to $25.95 per entree.

I hate to harp on prices, which I've done for two weeks now, but higher prices raise expectations, and it's much easier to leave people enchanted when they think they're getting the better deal than vice versa. Maybe this is one of the trickle-down effects we have to accept as a result of rising real estate values and rents. I hope not. I'm too young to be lamenting the good old days, when food prices seemed fair.

Tropical Garden server and bartender Hong Lam holds up specials of pasta with scallops and prawns, and ahi salad.

FOR THOSE WHO don't make a sport of following trends, a lot of what Tropical Garden offers will be new and exciting. You won't go wrong sharing a handful of appetizers like a trio of "Surfa Style Poke" of ahi with limu, green and Maui onions, cooked mussels with cucumber and chili oil, and poached shrimp tossed with kim chee sauce; the dynamite soft-shell crab ($9.95) drizzled with a sweet hot chili sauce that goes down like candy; or cool caponata (roasted eggplant and veggie salad, $7.95) served with toasted garlic ciabatta slices. T.G.'s ahi sushi tempura ($11.95) is packed with crabmeat and avocado in addition to the fish, then drizzled with wasabi aioli, balsamic soy syrup and topped with ikura.

The shrimp and avocado supreme ($8.95) is a tidy and tame salad of sliced onions, tomato wedges, a trio of poached shrimp and skinny slivers of avocado sitting atop Manoa lettuce, all drizzled with papaya seed dressing.

When it comes to entrees, it's best to stick to meat, which is more tamper-proof than seafood. Some kind of butterfish was substituted for the crab-crusted moi ($24.95), and instead of a buttery consistency expected, it was like chewing on a rubber slipper. This was accompanied by a textbook lilikoi-citrus buerre blanc that many will appreciate for being delicious in itself, but it had little to do with enhancing the fish, which was also accompanied by string beans and carrots, a throwback to 1970's hotel fare. All that was missing was the sprig of parsley on top.

The match was better with New York striploin ($24.95), grilled to a perfect medium rare and served with a rich fig-and-port demi sauce.

I didn't get to try the filet mignon ($25.95), but assume that would be just as good, and also wish I had tried the lehua honey-mustard-crusted lamb chop ($25.95) instead of the fish.

Tropical Garden Restaurant

4614 Kilauea Ave., Suite 102 / 734-1727

Food Star Star

Service Star Star Star Half-star

Ambience Star Star

Value Star Star Half-star

Hours: Breakfast 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., lunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m.

Cost: About $20 for two for breakfast, $20 to $25 for two for lunch, and $60 to $75 for two for dinner. BYOB, no corkage.

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

very good, exceeds expectations;
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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