While all restaurateurs share dreams of longevity for their establishments, some aspire to truly integrate their eatery into the surrounding neighborhood as a crossroads for gathering by providing an accessible atmosphere and menu. Tom and Amy Elliot are on their way with their user-friendly Kona Bistro, a casual urban-contemporary restaurant in the former Big Sky Bread site on Oakley Square.
Bright, bold whimsy in a big, open room keeps the atmosphere fast-paced and lively, and the something-for-everyone menu invites quick lunches, business meetings, first dates or family dinners — which is just what we decided on one weeknight with four adults and two teenagers.
Since the teens are strict vegetarians and more comfortable in low-key, ethnic restaurants, they were pushing for Mexi-can or Indian. After convincing them the online version of Kona's menu looked interesting with its large variety of dishes — 17 of them vegetarian — they decided it was worth the trip, despite the dreadfully embarrassing company of parents.
A weeknight at Kona Bistro was as crowded as most restaurants experience on a weekend night, supported by a cast of young and friendly servers and casual/cool patrons in a welcoming environment vibrant with walls of pumpkin and gold and hand-painted murals.
The open, high-ceiling design of the former bakery coupled with a full-to-capacity room made it difficult to have conversation at our round table of six. Since we had to shout to talk, we veered away from typical family discussions of recent surgical procedures or gossiping about the crazy relative who changed professions from prim church secretary to a leather-clad pole dancing dominatrix. I think the teens were quietly relieved.
I'm not usually a big fan of menus that are too large and varied — it's rare to find a kitchen that executes everything equally well — but we were excited by the possibilities of Kona Bistro's delightful blend of some familiar favorites and intriguing combinations.
In addition, the entire menu is surprisingly low-priced: The most expensive item tops out at $13. What's more, nine of the dishes are advertised as "made vegan upon request," a choice sorely lacking in Cincinnati restaurants.
Sounds nearly perfect and would be, except that the food is unfortunately hit-and-miss.
Three Cheese Artichoke Dip with Blue Corn Chips ($5.50) is a definite hit, a big, warm crock of "gooey yumminess" (description provided by one of the teens); as is Mediterranean Munchies ($6.50) a perfect sharing platter of hummus, baba ghannouj, feta olives, tomato and pita.
Thai Noodle Salad ($6.5) — chilled rice noodles, tofu (a chicken option is listed as well), peanuts, green pepper, water chestnuts, sesame seeds and spicy hoisin dressing over spring greens — is light and flavorful, if a little on the oily side. But the tofu is unprepared and bland.
Entrées were also hit-and-miss: We ordered six; two were very good; the rest fell short. Very good went to Coconut Crusted Tilapia with Sambal Sauce and Macadamia Rice ($11), and a Pork Tenderloin roulade of fresh spinach, dried cherries and brie with roasted shallot reduction and a baked sweet potato ($13). Portions are ample without being gluttonous, and presentation is fuss-free family style.
Good, but just missing the mark is Ginger Glazed Scallops with Chilled Asian Slaw and Scallion Mashed Potatoes ($13). The scallops were overcooked to a medium-well, and the mashed potatoes lukewarm and under-seasoned. When I mentioned to the server the potatoes were barely warm, she agreed to bring me another serving, but they did not arrive until the rest of my plate was finished and received such a zapping that they actually burned my tongue.
"Good, but ..." also went to Chipotle Barbecued Tofu served with White Cheddar Mashed Potatoes and a cilantro, red pepper and corn sauté ($9), as well as the Garbanzo Burger on a toasted baguette with lettuce and sweet tomato chutney ($7). The tofu could benefit from a marinade before it's grilled and sauced — it is just too indistinctive without it. We would have never guessed there was any cheese in the potatoes, and they were as lukewarm and under-seasoned as the scallion potatoes.
It's good to see a kitchen making their own veggie burgers and not using black beans, but this one was a bit unmanageable to eat on a thick, chewy baguette. A bun would suit it better.
Desserts such as carrot cake and a brownie with espresso cream appear to be house-made as well and were satisfying if a little on the sugary sweet side.
The Elliots opened the original Kona Bistro in 1997 in Oxford, and it has become a staple of the community with a loyal customer base. If they can bring consistency to the Cincinnati kitchen, their sense of celebration and commitment to the community (they run weekly fund-raising "community night" programs pairing a guest bartender with a charity and host monthly theme days to create unique fun), should indeed achieve the their goal of Kona Bistro becoming a "fixture" in the neighborhood. ©
Go: 3102 Madison Road, Oakley
Hours: 11 a.m.11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday
Payment: American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa
Red Meat Alternatives: Many choices, including vegan
Accessibility: Completely accessible
Miscellaneous: Kona is a no-smoking establishment; a private party room available.