There’s been much ado about the Grass Skirt Tiki Room this year, and for many good reasons. It’s a tiki bar with fun fruity cocktails, and everyone misses The Kahiki; It’s a Columbus Food League Restaurant from Elizabeth Lessner, and she has amassed a large fan base; and it’s located in a part of Downtown Columbus where there’s not much of anything to do. I could go on and on, but you get the idea as to why the buzz has been so loud.
Typically, I try to give restaurants at least two months in business before visiting for a review, but I just couldn’t wait any longer to provide my take on the cuisine at Grass Skirt. The Polynesian-meets-Columbus descriptions caught my attention before the restaurant opened and I was eager to see how it would stack up to something like Aloha (which was my very first review on Columbus Underground).
Early reviews of the Grass Skirt have been positive, centering on the unique decor and atmosphere as well as the professionally made cocktails. So when I thought about reviewing the food on its own, I decided that getting take out would be the best way to judge it without letting the ambiance color my perceptions. I should note that when Walker stopped by to pick up my order (thanks again, Walker!) he was told that it was the first take out order anyone has placed at the Grass Skirt. Which I think says a lot about the atmosphere of the restaurant being the biggest selling point. (I wonder if anyone ever ordered take out from The Kahiki?)
The Grass Skirt offers a variety of mini sandwiches known as Menehunes, which according to Hawaiian folklore are small woodland creatures similar to Gnomes. Whatever you do, just don’t call them sliders. The Hawaiian Burgers (2 for $5) are small hamburger patties topped with Swiss cheese, green onions, grilled pineapple served on a Hawaiian sweet roll bun. The beef itself isn’t anything noteworthy, though the saltiness complements the sweetness of the pineapple and the sprinkle of cinnamon on top. I found the burger could use some sort of sauce condiment, and while the menu states they are topped with a Teriyaki mayo, I believe it was omitted from my sandwich. What elevates these burgers is the toasted insides of the bun. Slathered in butter and browned on a stove top, the sweet rolls really turn these li’l ones into something a regular bun could not achieve.
You can’t go polynesian without at least one menu item containing Spam, and The Grass Skirt does just that with their Spam & Swiss (2 for $5) sandwiches. Similar to the burger, they’re served on toasted Hawaiian rolls with melted Swiss cheese, green onions and spicy Chinese mustard in addition to the slices of Spam. I found this dish to be most representative of the cross between Asian, Hawaiian and Midwest cuisines, taking something as basic and comforting as a ham and cheese sandwich and introducing twists with cross-culture ingredients. Similar to the burger, I found the sandwich to be slightly dry, though the small amount of mustard applied went a long way as the horseradish heat hits pretty well with only a small dollop.
The last gnomish sandwich I tried was the Curry Chicken Salad (2 for $5) which includes a scoop of chicken salad made with shredded chicken, yellow curry, red peppers, jalapeños and crushed cashews that is topped with a pineapple slice. The chicken salad is served cold, which I thought was a bit of an odd choice to go on a toasted bun as a disparity in temperatures doesn’t usually work well in a sandwich. Regardless, the chicken salad itself was good, though the curry certainly dominated the other flavors in the mix. I’d love to see a slightly larger slice of pineapple on all of these sandwiches as well.
There’s only two large plates on the menu at Grass Skirt, one of which is the Loco Moco ($8), a traditional Hawaiian meal consisting of a hamburger patty, brown gravy and a fried egg on a bed of rice. Essentially, the dish isn’t that far removed from a Salisbury steak, which may either be the type of comfort food you’re looking for, or a dish that in no way resembles your notions of what Hawaiians should be consuming on a regular basis. There are many different variations of this dish that can be found throughout the Pacific Basin, some that include fish, barbecued meats, macaroni salad and other condiments. The Grass Skirt version is fairly basic with the addition of green onions, which is likely to satisfy your craving for the dish, but could be stellar with a bit of deviation from the norm.
The Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down Salad ($6) is the one and only salad on the menu, which contains a bed of romaine lettuce topped with with strips of red bell peppers, cucumber slices, mandarin oranges, mint, cilantro, sesame seeds, crispy rice noodles and topped with a sweet and spicy peanut dressing. (You can also opt for Ginger dressing). This salad was my least favorite item that I’ve tried at the Grass Skirt. The mix of ingredients all sound like they should work well together, but something is keeping this salad from adding up to become more than the sum of its parts. The peanut dressing isn’t able to bring the ingredients together. It’s not a bad salad, just not remarkable or worthy of recommendation. Which came as a surprise as many of the other Columbus Food League restaurants have crafted some celebrated salads (Betty’s, Surly Girl and Tip Top come to mind). The menu also indicated this salad should come with a veggie spring roll, but that was missing.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, there’s a lot to like about The Grass Skirt: the decor, the location, the cocktails, the Hawaiian-shirt-clad employees, et cetera. Some of the food items can certainly be added to that list (any of the mini sandwiches are worth your dollars) while some of the other dishes still need refinement and revision (the salad), which should hopefully come with the evolution of a restaurant that has only been open for around a month to date. That being said, the menu at the Grass Skirt is headed in the right direction with affordable price points and portion sizes that allow for a lot of sampling, sharing, and experimenting.
The Grass Skirt Tiki Room is located at 105 N Grant Street in Downtown Columbus. They’re currently open Tuesday through Saturday from 4pm to Midnight. More information can be found online at www.grassskirttiki.com.