The Weekly Eater
Nadine Kam

Homey eatery calls for
more attention to detail

Lately I've been meeting a lot of snowbirds who lament that in sunny Hawaii it's been hard for them to get into the Christmas spirit.

Maybe they should head to Kaimuki, where it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas inside 12th Ave. Grill. Newly "iced" windows and the warmth emanating from its semi-open kitchen gives the impression of a small and cozy little lodge, at least to someone who's never wintered in a wintery place.

It's fitting ambience for the restaurant that brings "contemporary American cooking" to the table. I'd call it comfort food, of the sort that leaves patrons walking out with a warm afterglow of being coddled and contented.

Therefore, it's also a restaurant that's difficult to criticize, which in this era, when no one's shy about letting their opinions loose, is difficult to fathom. I've heard a lot of praise about this restaurant, but also a lot of ambivalence from those who fret that they may be blind in not seeing why others love it so much. At the same time, they can't figure out what it is they don't like about it.

Well, let's just say I agree with ... both. It's a perfectly middle of the road response to a perfectly middle of the road restaurant. Naturally, the masses have responded, so the restaurant's typically filled, and you may end up sitting at the bar, with its view of the bustling kitchen.

In bistro fashion, this is that quaint neighborhood restaurant that is friendly and inviting, serving food with homey touches, though at a level just above what most people are willing or able to produce at their own stoves and ovens.

Patrons at 12th Avenue Grill in Kaimuki can sit at a bar where they have a view of the busy kitchen.

FOR A RESTAURANT of its size the menu is compact, in favor of introducing daily specials, a very smart move in keeping patrons coming back to see what's new. If you tire of 12th Ave.'s Wedge ($8.95) of iceberg lettuce topped with Maytag blue cheese, tomatoes, croutons and bacon vinaigrette, or basic Caesar ($7.95, with chicken $10.95, with grilled shrimp $12.95 -- the latter steamed and chilled when I tried it), you might be interested in specials of a tomato-garlic soup or petite, yet plump Prince Edward Island mussels, steamed in no-fail fashion with white wine, butter and garlic.

Too bad the latter two are not always on the menu. The trio of salad, soup and mussels, plus the restaurant's homemade breads, would be just right for light eaters.

The kid in you may also find the baked macaroni and cheese ($6.95) appealing, with its smoky Parmesan aroma. For an added touch, you can also have this dish with sauteed Alii mushrooms ($3) or Black Forest ham ($3.50), or both.

The restaurant's signature dish of kim chee sauce-marinated and char-broiled steak ($8.95) is offered up as an appetizer, which is fine if you've stopped in for pupus only. If you're having dinner, I'd save this as an entree selection because it really is one of the best dishes here. It's not spicy at all, but manages to be slightly sweet, slightly sour to suit the local palate, while allowing the full flavor of the beef to star.

Recently the restaurant has been touting specials of venison, though it's drenched in a strong cranberry sauce that doesn't really enhance the meat. I'd prefer something savory instead.

And unless you really love pasta or are planning to share the dish with someone else, you might want to avoid the penne pasta ($15.95), which is given equal billing with roasted butternut squash, chewy Alii mushrooms and goat cheese. It's almost all pasta, and could have used an equal amount of the diced squash to make it worthwhile.

Part of the problem is the way the menu is written. Sure, elevating the squash to headline status makes the pasta more enticing, but when it's such a small part of the dish, it's best to leave it in smaller, italic type. The same goes for the hunter's chicken ($15.95), described as a half chicken, but actually served in much smaller pieces. The beauty of a rich herb and red wine reduction sauce doesn't compensate for the initial disappointment when one sees the dish. An accompaniment of roasted vegetables is wonderful, but added tangle of linguini lacked imagination.

The minuses start to add up for the few who are finicky about the total restaurant experience, continuing with ever-changing desserts that may include lovely strawberry-and-pear, or apple, crisps. These just scream for ice cream, but come topped with whipped cream. The first time I had this, I had to ask for a scoop of ice cream, and the waiter obliged, but neglected to say that would cost $1.50 more. The second time, our waiter simply asked if we would like ice cream with that, without mentioning the additional cost. It's a minor point because the small change isn't going to make anyone change their minds, but not giving patrons that option could leave them feeling pinched. It's just not very hospitable, and it's attention to such details that separate the good from the great.

12th Ave. Grill

1145C 12th Ave. (former Mongolian B-B-Q spot) / 732-9469

Food Star Star Half-star

Service Star Star Star

Ambience Star Star Star Half-star

Value Star Star Half-star

Hours: Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, and dinner from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Cost: Dinner for two about $45 to $50; B.Y.O.B.<

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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