Kona Jack"s cooked dishes vary in quality
When a restaurant becomes an institution, does its food by necessity become institutional? This was the question I tried heroically, but unsuccessfully, to fight off about halfway through a recent meal at Kona Jack"s downtown location. Some of the other questions I endeavored equally hard to repel were "Do they do this deliberately?" and, "Why do I continually have to throw good money after bad in the quest for something even remotely decent to eat around here?" If this sounds unreasonably tetchy, let me say that I"m getting just a little bit frustrated with paying increasingly hefty restaurant bills in exchange for food that even my own grandmother would have spurned. And she was a lousy cook, to boot.
Now, I know there are readers out there who are fans of our city"s institutional restaurants, fans who will forgive any transgression up to and including mediocre food and an impossibly slow kitchen. Mediocrity should be unacceptable to anyone who thrives on the good things in life, but there"s no accounting for taste. As you enter Kona Jack"s downtown, there"s an amusing little sign on the wall that reads, "Friends don"t let friends eat at chains," or something very similar. A noble sentiment, to be sure, but one I have to disagree with in this case. If independent restaurants are to maintain their position in an increasingly competitive market, they have to take on the chains at their own game. Either that or risk alienating their clientele for good. Now, I understand that it"s difficult without the infrastructure and financial support of a chain for an independent restaurant to survive these days, but that is still not an excuse for expensive mediocrity. Customers should be entitled to reasonable value for money on a consistent basis, wherever they happen to eat.
Kona Jack"s, an offshoot of the immensely successful Daddy Jack"s complex of restaurants at 96th and Meridian, bills itself as a fish market and sushi bar. I"ve had good sushi here in the past, and, in fact, I had some just a few days ago. No complaints about the freshness of the fish or about the quality and presentation of the sushi. When the subject is cooked fish, however, a different story unfolds.
On a recent visit, my friend Sandra Kay and I arrived at approximately 8 p.m. to find the restaurant about half full. Once we were seated, our very affable server took care of our drinks order with commendable efficiency. For a restaurant that specializes primarily in fish, I found the short wine list somewhat baffling and not particularly fish-friendly. Call me old-fashioned, but I"d like to see a good selection of light, crisp and unoaked whites rather than the woody, domestic reds and heavy-handed chardonnays with which the list is liberally peppered. Only one riesling? At a restaurant that boasts such a fish-focused menu, I find this, frankly, absurd. Surely the management must realize that if they had even a handful of wines that actually complemented their food, their wine sales would improve significantly. I strongly recommend a field trip to the outstanding Slanted Door restaurant in San Francisco, where there are so many elegant, food-friendly, reasonably-priced and brilliantly-chosen wines that you find yourself absolutely spoiled for choice. At Kona Jack"s, I found myself hard-pushed to pick anything at all, a sad state of affairs, indeed.
Ordering some yellow tail, smoked eel sushi (each $4.25) and some Maryland crab cakes ($11.45), we started in on our wine and the most unusual loaf of bread, which deflated like a ruptured football as soon as we set about it with a knife. It took around 20 minutes for the appetizers to arrive. When they did, I pointed out that we had been served the wrong sushi, an oversight that was corrected with commendable rapidity. As I mentioned above, the sushi was just fine. The crab cakes, however, were some of the meanest little specimens I think I"ve ever encountered. Roughly the size and consistency of a silver dollar, they probably weighed in at about an ounce and a half apiece. That"s some pretty expensive crab meat, even assuming that there was absolutely no filler - an assumption I"m reluctant to make.
Next was the soup. S.K. had a most agreeable New England clam chowder, which our server perkily informed us was one of the best items on the menu, while I had an unusual but quite tasty bowl of seafood gumbo.
After the soup, a very long wait ensued, necessitating the ordering of a second bottle of wine and numerous visits by our server, who anxiously and repeatedly informed us that our main courses were "on their way" before disappearing for another few minutes and then returning, once again, empty handed. I got the distinct impression that all was not right in the kingdom of the kitchen, an impression more than adequately borne out when the main courses finally arrived at the table. They had taken 40 minutes to get to us, and one look at my fish, a piece of Mahi-Mahi ($19.95), conveyed the immediate impression that it had spent the entire 40 minutes under the broiler. To give you an impression of the texture and flavor of this particular piece of fish, I shall invite you to imagine a plate of mashed potatoes that has been left uncovered in the refrigerator for three or four days and then reheated in the microwave.
Sandra K"s dish was even less successful. Exotically entitled the Seafood Luau ($22.95), this was essentially a simple dish of langostino tails, crab and (in this case) shrimp, tossed with fettucine, olive oil, saffron and Parmesan. Now, saffron, especially not very good quality saffron, needs to be handled very carefully and used sparingly, or else it tends to dominate a dish and impart some rather off aromas. To say that this dish smelt like chopped grass and damp dishtowels would be to do it a massive service. It was, quite simply, ghastly. In addition, the ratio of seafood to pasta was absurdly small, making the already hefty price tag seem even more over-inflated. Our poor server, upon seeing our largely untouched plates and expressions of abject misery, was quick to offer a replacement dish. There comes a time in every disappointing meal, however, when you just want to get the heck out and forget the experience as quickly as possible, hoping against hope that you"ve experienced an unfortunate anomaly, and keeping your fingers crossed for the next time.
N. Pennsylvania St.
Food : 3 stars
Atmosphere : 3 stars
Service : 3 stars