First Look: Kona Grill in Waikīkī

This Arizona-based chain earns points for its service, selection and classic American food but falls short with sushi.
Kona Grill opened in September in the newly renovated International Market Place. It specializes in modern American food with an extensive selection of sushi.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox


Don’t let the name fool you: There’s really nothing “Kona” about Kona Grill, a new Arizona-based chain restaurant that opened in September in the newly renovated International Market Place.


But that didn’t stop us from trying the expansive restaurant on the third-floor Grand Lānai of the new shopping and restaurant complex.


I’ll be honest: I didn’t know much about Kona Grill until I heard the announcement it was opening its first Hawai‘i location at IMP. The company, based in Scottsdale, owns and operates more than 40 casual-upscale restaurants in 23 states and in one U.S. territory. Its focus is modern American food with an extensive selection of award-winning sushi, according to the company’s website.


The restaurant is located on the ‘Ewa end of the lānai, right next to Herringbone, an ocean-to-table restaurant that’s opening soon. It’s an inviting space, with sizeable dining areas both inside and outdoors that can seat up to 295 guests. (This is the design concept for the chain, so all Kona Grill restaurants look something like this.)


The dining area inside is very modern and much more upscale that I’d imagine for a menu that features potstickers, flatbreads and key lime pie. It was strange to dine here at lunchtime with club-dance-electronic music wafting overhead. (Think SG Lewis and you get the vibe.)


Our server was friendly and helpful, offering up her favorite dishes and most popular items on the menu to us. While she highly recommended the smoked gouda fondue with salted pretzel bites and Granny Smith apple slices ($12.50)—one of the restaurant’s signature appetizers—and the popular taco trio, with braised kālua pork, shrimp and Asian slaw, and tempura black cod ($14.50), we decided to try one of the flatbreads, instead.


I had heard you can’t go wrong with the flatbreads here, and it’s true. I feel this is where Kona Grill excelled, in as much as you can with flatbreads. These are large and shareable and run between $14.75 for a straight-foward pepperoni flatbread to $17.50 for one with lobster, ‘ahi, avocado and citrus aioli.  We tried the barbecue chicken version ($15.25), considered one of the restaurant’s most popular. I thoroughly enjoyed the crispy bread slathered in sweet, house-made barbecue sauce,  chunks of chicken, cheddar and gouda cheeses, red onion and cilantro. In fact, this would have been a solid lunch—maybe with a margarita.


Kona Grill offers a range of salads, too, which we skipped for a bowl of clam chowder ($6.50). (The tomato-basil bisque is the restaurant’s most ordered.) It was a decent bowl; the chowder wasn’t sludgy or stewlike but creamy and filling.


One of our favorite dishes at Kona Grill is this barbecue chicken flatbread with a sweet, house-made barbecue sauce, red onions and fresh cilantro.


The classic clam chowder here was creamy and tasty.


We decided to finally listen to our server for entrées. We ordered the signature macadamia nut-crusted chicken ($18), which comes with house mashed potatoes, seasonal vegetables (in this case, long green beans), a very tasty shoyu cream sauce and pineapple-papaya marmalade that tied the whole dish together. My friend got the miso-sake sea bass ($31.25). The fish is marinated in a miso-sake sauce—also house-made, like the more than 40 sauces and dressings served here—for 72 hours so the meat is soft and tender. The result was a very soft but rather tasteless fish. The side of shrimp-and-pork fried rice—despite the bites of pineapple that, let’s be real, don’t necessarily appeal to local eaters—brought in some much-needed flavor.


Kona Grill also serves sandwiches and burgers. On a previous visit, I tried the cheeseburger sliders ($15.25), a trio of mini burgers topped with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and house-made pickles on brioche buns. Opt for the sweet potato fries ($2.25 extra). These are delicious and addictive.


One of the restaurant’s signature dishes is this macadamia nut-crusted chicken with a shoyu cream sauce and pineapple-papaya marmalade.


Another signature entrée is the miso-sake sea bass, which was soft but fairly tasteless. The shrimp-and-pork fried rice, though, brought some much-needed flavor to this dish.


Now, this is where the menu gets strange to me. One of the restaurant’s specialties is sushi, which, according to the company, has earned awards. You can order basic sushi—king crab, smoked salmon, smelt roe (or masago)—and sashimi. There are traditional rolls including California roll, eel-cucumber roll and shrimp tempura roll, as well as specialty rolls that seem to be the most popular—and most interesting. We tried the wave roll ($12.75), several pieces of maki sushi filled with a not-so-spicy ‘ahi, shrimp tempura, avocado and cucumber wrapped in soy paper. There was nothing really wrong with it, but there wasn’t anything mind-blowing, either. Granted, we didn’t try anything else on this side of the menu, but it also didn’t seem necessary. What Kona Grill does best is the modern American bistro stuff, the burgers and flatbreads and salads. I feel like the sushi is a bit of a disconnect for the restaurant, and especially in Hawai‘i, where we can get innovative, fresh nigiri, maki sushi and sashimi at restaurants and izakaya that actually specialize in this.


The restaurant boasts a wide selection of sushi, sashimi and rolls, including this wave roll with spicy ‘ahi, avocado, shrimp tempura and cucumber.


Don’t skip the Snickers ice cream pie. This was a fun throwback to our candy-bar obsession and love for ice cream.


Good news is, though, that we ordered dessert. We split the Snickers ice cream pie, a giant piece of Snickers and vanilla bean ice cream pie with an Oreo crust and topped with chocolate and caramel sauce and fresh whipped cream. It’s like eating a frozen Snickers bar, though the crust was too hard to break with our forks. The restaurant only makes a couple of pies at a time, so for lunch, we got one of the last slices left. It was such a fun dessert, we walked out fully satisfied and even toying with the idea of coming back. After we try the other restaurants at the mall first, of course.


International Market Place, 2330 Kalākaua Ave., 756-9591,