Bonsai should make a go in Row


POSTED: Sunday, November 23, 2008

In all the years I've been writing about restaurants, some of the greatest turnover has been in our building at Restaurant Row, and particularly, the space just below us, which has housed Touch the East, Baci, Meritage and Carnaval Las Palmas, to name some.

Knowing the site's track record, Burt Kawasaki still decided to go ahead and make the leap from the club world to the restaurant business. While I initially had doubts about the kind of foolhardiness that leads to thinking one will succeed where others have not, after trying Bonsai, I think the restaurant has a good chance of breaking past cycles of bad luck, if only because I don't think luck bears on a restaurant's success or failure.






        Restaurant Row / 525-5080


Food: HHH1/2


Service: HHH1/2


Ambience: HHH1/2


Value: HHH1/2


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


Cost: About $10 per person for lunch, and $40 to $50 for two for dinner


Ratings compare similar restaurants: HHHH - excellent; HHH - very good; exceeds expectations; HH - average; H - below average.



I'd consider it a little unlucky to open in the midst of an economic downturn, but for the most part, restaurants succeed because they are able to offer food people want at the price they want to pay, and there's no luck involved in that. Just good planning.

The sleek, dark ultra-lounge environment exudes a young sophisticated vibe that is not so cooler-than-thou so as to deter those who've outgrown their club-hopping days. It's comfortable upstairs or down.

There's also an anything-goes spirit accepting of non-traditional dining habits. They really understand that most people don't have time for a prolonged sit-down dinner, or may be dropping in just for a snack before heading off to their next destination, so you can feel at home whether you want that sit-down meal or just a couple of pupu and a beer.

  FOR LUNCH, there is a small selection of steak ($9.75), salmon ($8.50) and chicken karaage ($7.75) plates and salads ($7 to $7.75).

If you're short on cash, show up at happy hour, from 5 to 7 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, when a handful of appetizers are discounted, such as grilled eggplant or chicken karaage for $4 instead of $6. Both are well worth trying and the eggplant might even send you back to your kitchen to experiment in achieving the same result. It had the perfect combination of firmness and moisture I have never seen elsewhere, appearing either undercooked or transformed into burnt mush.

Those who like a bit of spice might try an appetizer trio of jumbo seared scallops ($8) coated with ichimi peper and accompanied by a balsamic butter sauce. The pepper is nearly invisible so may catch you by surprise because of the scallops tame exterior.

The pepper also figures into an appetizer of garlic shrimp ($8), but the heat doesn't register as strongly as it does with the scallops, perhaps due to the more potent mix of garlic, patis and butter.

Yes, butter and cream appears quite frequently on the menu, which might explain the restaurant's mass appeal. An entree of pork medallions ($18) topped with a creamy mushroom and onion sauce is definitely among the diner-friendly dishes, as is black cod ($21) misoyaki that was more sweet than I prefer, but well suited to the Hawaii palate.

The restaurant also presents a twist on the idea of a creamy seafood chowder by serving edamame chowder ($6) with the soybeans pureed into the mix—pea soup style—to give it more body and a slight green tinge.

There's definitely an attempt—through dishes like a jumbo scallop saute with natto butter sauce ($20) and seafood nabeyaki with spicy lemongrass broth ($22)—at cultural fusion, which can be annoying when it's done in a heavy-handed, typically '90s over-the-top way. Here, it's done just right. There's enough restraint to prevent dishes from crossing over into the realm of ridiculousness. I love a chef who knows when to stop.

Dessert offerings consisted mainly of ice cream and a trio of cheesecake options. Hmmm. Ladies, we need more options than that for girls' night out, right?


Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin.