Thursday, December 4, 2008
Behold the power of the won ton. Wielded by Mr. Bill Lee, the local restaurant legend who brought the area Billy Kwon’s, Bahama Billy’s, Volcano Grill and about a half dozen other local hot spots over the years, it does things that average bits of fried crispiness do not.
The Hawaiian Nachos ($9.95) at the new Kula Ranch in Marina pile cheddar and jack cheese, chicken, and sweet peanut sauce onto a big plate of won ton shells. The dish, though heavy, works with the smoky and flavorful grilled chicken getting a sweet but subtle accent from the sauce, and the cheese blanketing the affair with appropriate depth. But the dish’s powers don’t stop there: The nachos also supply key insights into Kula Ranch’s wider character, and Bill Lee’s now-familiar recipe for his restaurants.
Here’s how:1. THEY’RE FUN AND MEANT FOR SHARING.
Same goes for the elaborate setting and extensive drinks here, which Lee is adept at conjuring at all of his spots. Big, gorgeous fire pits dot the sea-breezed western side of the deck; a long bar area with 16 stools, appointed with faux fireplaces and alligator skins is well frequented by the social set. Palms and dark polished wood tables pull together a chic-feeling dining space with lots of thickly cushioned booths.
On a dinner visit where Monday Night Football helped fill the bar, a friend and I tried the Kula Ranch Island Paradise Punch (with Tommy Bahama Golden Sun Rum, Grand Marnier, pineapple and orange juice) and a Mai Tai (Cruzan Rum, orange curacao, Orgeat syrup and a float of Cruzan Dark Rum) – tasty, strong and spendy at $9. Other beverages recommended by our young and sweet server include the Kula Kryptonite (Midori Melon Liqueur, Parrot Bay Rum, 151 Rum and pineapple juice, shaken and strained into a rocks glass); seven draft beers – including Longboard, Stella and EA Fatlip ($4) and 14 bottled choices ($4-$5) – are a less expensive play. The wine list is almost 50 bottles deep, with a lot of whites and bubblies and a handful of Hahn half bottles ($13, $18). Eighteen wines are available by the glass ($7-$12)
The happy hour deals (3:30-6pm Monday through Friday) also help folks find their way to a good time – $3 Coors drafts, well drinks; $3 house margaritas, $4 Kula mai tais and deals on six of the most popular appetizers (like the Hawaiian nachos, the Paniola Chicken Quesadilla and a slow-roasted, pulled-pork sandwich for about $4 or $5 each). But employees claim the wildest night here is $1 Taco Tuesdays, when they report that 300 college kids descend on the place for beef and chicken tacos and shots of Patrón.2. THEY REFLECT LEE’S EVER-ACTIVE, OFTEN-INVENTIVE AFFAIR WITH ISLAND-GRILL FUSION FARE.
Elsewhere on an entertaining menu diverse enough to satisfy varied tastes, steak bites get a miso glaze, a North Shore iceberg wedge receives a ginger blue cheese dressing, and lamb chops and sanddabs are crusted with macadamia nuts and panko, respectively. (I wasn’t thrilled with the sanddabs, $12.95, during a lunch visit given the fact that their coating was fried hard enough to eliminate any nuanced texture or flavor.)
A smoked salmon-avocado-buffalo mozzarella sushi roll ($11.95), blackened tequila chicken sandwich ($11.95) and a seared ahi with mango-papaya salsa and pineapple burre blanc ($22.95) also take the island tides to the tastebuds. The barbecue pulled-pork sandwich is nicely saucy-sloppy and tropics-sweet at $10.95 (with some ginger island slaw and a can’t-lose choice of sweet potato or French fries). The roll I tried – a coconut prawn, carrots, pickled ginger roll – was good but poorly presented and overpriced at $12.95.
The tasty “house-ground” Kula Ranch Island Burger ($12.95) gets a teriyaki glaze itself, plus a layer of pineapple (and some welcome pepper jack for good measure).3. THEY’RE BIG AND FILLING.
Like many of the platters here (note the King Kamehameha 16-ounce cut of all-natural prime rib), the former A.J. Spur’s is not small – manager Joe Loeffler, who ran Carmel Valley’s Baja Cantina for years, says the wraparound deck covers 3,000 square feet by itself. The nachos, meanwhile, are ravishingly rich. Kula Ranch Pineapple BBQ Pork Ribs, a bone-in ribeye and the certified Angus New York Strip with sautéed sweet Maui onions, a baked potato and fresh vegetables ($25.95/12-ounce; $31.95/16-ounce) pack some prodigiousness themselves. The Island Crab Bisque ($6.95), meanwhile, delivers a different sort of satisfying, buttery richness, with full-bodied fresh crab flavor tinged with lime and cilantro – and immaculately presented in a shallow square bowl. Worth trying.
On a third visit I test-drove the macadamia-crusted mahi mahi ($21.95) – the “Thai coconut cream sauce” is code for a sweet orange curry-like treatment. I liked the nutty crust and the perched-on-a-rice-cake presentation, but wished I had gone for the best-selling Big Island Fish Tacos ($15.95), built around blackened seasonal fish with black beans and steamed rice. Unfortunately, like most of the dishes here, rich or not, these two feel overpriced.
The “decadent chocolate mousse” is another deliciously rich dish for the rather rich set (like almost all of the desserts, it’s $8.95). Topped with a chantilly cream and toasted macadamia nuts, it’s a suprisingly dense way to end an entertaining night.
KULA RANCH ISLAND STEAKHOUSE 3295 Dunes Road, Marina • 11:30am-9pm daily; until 10pm Fri-Sat. • 883-9479.