Not Tiki, Just Freaky

Leave your grass skirt at home if you venture to the Islander.

The Islander, a downtown Polynesian restaurant and lounge owned by Chinoise Café's Thoa Nguyen, bills itself as a tiki joint, but it seems her team could only muster a halfhearted effort to actually be one. Simply hanging a sign that says "Tiki Lounge" and playing Finding Nemo on an endless loop on the bar TV doesn't exactly establish that one is on island time. Instead the Islander's brash, cartoon-tropical rooms feel like they were ordered from a catalog and shipped direct from somewhere in Indiana. Perhaps the Islander is going for a more grown-up, restrained version of tiki chic, but what they've got is chain restaurant bogus. This would probably be OK if the food was great, and with Chinoise as a kissing cousin, I expected that it might be really good. As it turned out, lunch at the Islander was anything but great. The hula noodles ($10), wide thin noodles stir-fried with green peppers and, in this case, chicken, were mediocre at best. The noodles were overwhelmingly bland; if pressed to identify a flavor, I'd have to go with salty. The chicken was tough and skimpy, like something you would expect from a subpar Asian take-out shop. We ordered the Spam fried rice ($6.50), because in recalling how the Hawaiians make even sushi with the near-ham product, it seemed like the right thing to do. When the plate arrived, I was completely turned off by the gray, greasy mound and thought immediately of a smoke-stained Holiday Inn. Again, there was an issue of flavor, or rather, flavorlessness. "Does that Spam taste like ham?" I asked my friend. He shook his head. "Does it taste like anything?" Another no. Moreover, the pile of rice didn't taste like much, either. How had the kitchen managed this? I had the beach plate ($12.95), grilled miso-rubbed salmon served on pineapple fried rice and topped with mango salsa. The salmon itself was prepared quite well; tender and juicy, it probably would have been fairly good had it not been railroaded by its mango topping and paled by the same gray, greasy fried rice that carried the flavorless Spam. And if any miso touched that salmon, it was a very brief brush, not a rub. It might be that the Islander places more emphasis on their evening meals. My friend and I devoured a plate of coconut shrimp ($5.95) from the pu pu (the Hawaiian term for small plates or snacks) menu, while he got sauced on one of the Islander's oversized signature cocktails, the Zombie ($8). The prawns were cov ered with sweet shaved coconut and the accompanying peanut sauce was thick and rich. I wouldn't expect something this indulgent and sweet tooth–friendly at Chinoise, but I wasn't at Chinoise. The lonely, near-vacant teal-themed dining room and violently cheerful service kept me mindful of that, but the ahi ($17.95) almost fooled me. The tuna itself was wonderful, a thick slab of high-grade fish grilled perfectly to a warm medium rare. Even the purple mound of Okinawa sweet potato mash it sat on was delicious and refreshingly different. It's just too bad that the kitchen finds it necessary to drown the whole affair in a too-heavy ginger cream sauce. Even more unfortunate was my friend's Paia eggplant ($10.95), a limp and lifeless dish of eggplant and tofu stir-fry in bean sauce named for a plantation town on Maui. On the way out, I asked him if the bean sauce was sweet or spicy (the menu claims it's both), and he thought for a moment before replying, "Um, neither?" The Islander does two things well: They select great fish and cook it with care, and they make drinks that have you feeling like a coconut hit you on the head. It's best if you don't expect too much more than that. The Islander, 206-344-8088, DOWNTOWN; Lunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri., Sat. noon–3 p.m.; dinner 5–9 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 5–10 p.m. Fri.–Sat., noon-8:30 p.m. Sun.

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