Fort Worth’s recent restaurant boom has been fueled by the successful launch of highly individualized, locally run eateries spinning out a variety of ethnically diverse cuisines. It’s against this backdrop that Kona Grill, with its more than 20 locations nationwide from Idaho to Connecticut (and one in Dallas), has arrived here, eager to carve out its own niche among Cowtown’s culinary elite.
The restaurant itself, located in a prime location at the corner of University Drive and Seventh Street in the Cultural District, is a showstopper. A stunning aquarium, which stretches high toward the 35-foot ceiling, serves as the opening splash to the sprawling, whimsically designed interior space that includes cocktail and sushi bars and flat-screens, which set the place aglow.
Architectural Digest could devote an entire photo spread to Kona’s light fixtures, from a Liberace-worthy candelabra to massive ceiling lights that could have been part of the production design for Gravity. There are also two outdoor patios filled with the kind of wicker furniture and coral-colored umbrellas one might enjoy at an exclusive Caribbean getaway.
Kona’s menu is impressive, too, if only for its sheer size: More than 100 items run the gamut from calamari and lettuce wraps to meatloaf and more than 30 sushi rolls.
The food arrives from the kitchen with machinelike velocity, and the starters were quantity personified.
For our first, 15 or so sweet and spicy shrimp ($11) all but engulfed the plate, sitting atop an avalanche of haylike fried noodles. These crustaceans actually pulled off the high-wire walk between sweet and heat. Potstickers ($10) were five hefty dumplings that encased a nice combination of seared chicken and minced vegetables, though they erred on the side of greasy rather than crisp.
The appetizer star, however, was the avocado egg roll ($10), a nifty riff on the classic roll with four flawlessly crispy shells cut on a bias to reveal an interior of avocado marrying well with a honey-cilantro dipping sauce.
Continuing Kona Grill’s M.O. that more is more, the six-piece spider roll portion ($12.75) had plenty of the much-anticipated deep-fried soft-shell crab, mixed with a duo of avocado and crunchy cucumber, but they were embedded in such a large round of soy paper that they often collapsed when traveling from plate to soy-wasabi dipping sauce.
The Picasso roll’s ($14.50) interior of yellowtail plus avocado was perfectly respectable, but it was the heat-seeking duo of a jalapeño topped with a hot-spot of sriracha that really got my tastebuds’ attention.
Three major proteins — chicken, pork and salmon — were attractively presented in three different entrees. The salmon ($21.50) easily rose above the others. Bearing a ruddy exterior thanks to repeated encounters with a sweet-chili glaze, this fish fillet packed deep, complex flavor.
The macadamia nut chicken ($19.50) was the least impressive. Its two chicken breasts, with a wingspan of a Navy jet fighter, did not benefit from a wan “shoyu cream.”
The pork tenderloin ($20) — more than a half-dozen mini medallions — were appropriately tender, yet inexplicably timid on taste. The dish was salvaged by an assertive, wine-based mushroom sauce.
While the entrees were a bit uneven, the sides — with special kudos to the butter-glossed, wilted baby bok choy — rescued many of the underperforming main events.
For dessert, Kona’s key lime pie ($7) was massive, 3 inches tall and close to 5 inches deep. It managed to achieve the right balance of custardy lime filling and paper-thin graham cracker crust. The butter cake ($7) measured about two times the depth of your average hockey puck, yet it managed to feel light — more like an airy pound cake, with its nearby slash of acidic raspberry sauce cutting through the butter.
On a recent Tuesday night, not exactly a hot night out in Fort Worth, Kona Grill had a 25-minute wait for a table, which seems to indicate that the restaurant’s mix of big portions, solid seafood and sushi, and an opulent dining space has attracted more than a few new “Konavores” in Cowtown.