Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Tai One On

My first tiki experience was my senior prom way back in the day. We all piled into a limo and headed to Trader Vic’s in Washington D.C., the OG of Polynesian-themed restaurants. I recall lots of pineapple chunks and syrupy sweet drinks—non-alcoholic, of course. Very Old Hollywood, with dark wood and deep booths; the wall niches glistened with faux volcano fire effects.

The whole Polynesian tiki vibe started in the early-’30s with Hollywood’s Don the Beachcomber restaurant, opened by a Louisiana boy who sailed the South Pacific, returned to the U.S., promptly changed his name to Donn Beach, and started the whole rum punch, flower lei, and flaming torch shebang. The Beachcomber was followed by Trader Vic’s, which became an international chain. Though its popularity has waxed and waned over the years, tiki torches and rum punches guarantee a crowd.

My second experience was right here in the 614 on a visit to the much-missed, much-rhapsodized about Kahiki. Whereas Trader Vic’s was East Coast-slick with a few décor nods to the theme, the Kahiki was tiki run amok. Waterfalls, bird calls, koi ponds, erupting volcanoes; I mean, the entire building was shaped like an Easter Island canoe, statues and everything. It was a Polynesian amusement park that both enthralled and freaked me out.

Tai Tiki, which recently opened in the Short North, finds its center somewhere in between: not dark and swanky enough to be Trader Vic’s, but also not tchotchked-out enough to be the Kahiki. It is streamlined and pleasant, with an open-air wall facing High Street that lets the sound of the city in, making diners feel connected to its energy, and also adds a look of roominess to the space.

Featuring exposed brick and dark wood, splashes of orange and yellow punctuate the seat covers and walls. Colorful paintings act as square portholes to the South Pacific, and a modern take on the fire-mouthed moai greets visitors at the door.

While the décor might not be all out tiki-tastic, the “classic” drink menu certainly is, what with its Mai Tais and Head Hunter offerings. Printed in a retro format, with old-school fonts and tiny pictures of each drink, it’s a throwback to the days when fruity drinks reigned and there was an ashtray on each table. If you’re lucky, your drink will come in a skull cup—the Zombie—or will actually be trailing smoke through the restaurant before it stops at your table—the Smoking Eruption—and veils your face in mystery and dry ice. The cocktails are kinda interchangeable in a sense: lots of rum and coconut, or lots of rum and no coconut.  But they’re fun and will blindside you with their potency. There is also a “modern” tiki drink menu featuring the de rigeur Moscow Mule and a variety of martinis.

And, really, once you’ve got a smoking drink sending tendrils of white around your head, how important is the food?

If you’re going for the food, though, you won’t be blown away, but you’ll be pleased. It’s a bit on the pricey side, but that’s the new Short North reality.

Lately, with my dining partner du jour, I’ve been prodding said partner to try new things. First it was foie gras—what is it? You don’t want to know—and on this evening it was escargot ($12). Tai Tiki serves the snails sans shell, which takes away some of the fun, but they are still full of garlicky glory. Green peppercorns enliven the butter sauce with just enough zip to make a point, but they overwhelm the gastropods. A piece of garlic-buttered crostini accompanies the little morsels, amping up the garlic flavor and providing a bit of crunch to offset the naturally chewy texture. Other notable appetizers include an ahi tuna wasabi ($14) that is pan-seared with a sprinkle of nanami tongarashi, a Japanese chili seasoning.

There is also an extensive sushi and sashimi menu, which includes some vegetarian options. The Kobacha roll ($6) stars tempura pumpkin alongside onion and cream-cheese (which can be found everywhere on the menu; for real, I’ve never seen a restaurant so cream cheese happy). There are specialty rolls that nod to local heroes, such as the Blue Jacket roll of eel, asparagus, cream cheese, torched yellowtail, eel sauce, and tobiko ($11) as well as the Columbus Crew roll ($10), composed of shrimp tempura, eel, cream cheese, asparagus and eel sauce.

The main courses hit all the poultry, fish, and meat zones—from duck to pork, steak to salmon. The Aloha Porkie ($26) came highly recommended by the server and lived up to the hype. A stand-up pork shank, cooked to off-the-bone tenderness, presented with a moat of Parmesan risotto and red wine au jus, was deeply flavorful. The carrots and asparagus gave the dish a touch of color and garden freshness. If you’re looking for the full kitsch experience order the Hawaiian pineapple shrimp ($16), served in a pineapple boat. In every case, the plating is thoughtful and lovely.

Go a little out of your comfort zone for dessert and try the Crazy Monkey on Fire roll ($10). Slices of tempura banana, with cream cheese and a cherry-ginger butter sauce, set aflame tableside. I mean, it’s deep-fried, you know.

Tai Tiki is the new face of Polynesian restaurants, less emphasis on the kitsch, more emphasis on the drinks and food. With the proliferation of burgers and pizza in the Short North, it’s a new hemisphere of flavors for diners. ν

Tai Tiki is located at 1014 N High St. and is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Visit their website at taitiki.com.

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