Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Tonga Room!

Not surprisingly to people who know us well (and know our first priority when we moved into our house was to build a tiki bar), the reason for our trip to San Francisco wasn't to see the sights or try hot new restaurants... it was to visit The Tonga Room.

Created in 1945 when the Fairmont Hotel turned their swimming pool into a lagoon, the Tonga Room is about as over-the-top as you can get. In the pool is a boat that move forward and back in the lagoon, while musicians plan on board and people dance nearby on the deck of an actual ship (the SS Forester) reclaimed as part of the remodel. And every so often, rain pours down on the lagoon while simulated thunder and lightning overtake the restaurant.

And all around the lagoon, the restaurant is decorated in full-tilt-tiki splendor. Thatch huts. Wall hangings. Lava rock. Bamboo everywhere. And of course, some tikis.

Before flying in, Dan booked reservations for Friday & Saturday nights, and once we settled into our room Thursday, our first stop was the bar. One fun touch is that every seat in the restaurant (though not the bar) has a lei on the chair - bringing all the guests a little further into the theme.

The Cocktails
A lot of people know the Tonga Room for it's cocktail lounge, and it regularly appears on lists of the best Happy Hours in San Francisco. Our first drink was a Scorpion bowl for two ($17) - a potent mix of rum, brandy and fruit juices that wasn't my favorite, but certainly got us relaxed after our flight in.

After that, I switched to Blue Hawaiians ($10) and Dan went for the Tonga Itch ($10). My drinks were blended - or perhaps just mixed with crushed ice - and more to my liking than the Scorpion. I like a sweeter drink, and the brandy and perhaps just the amount of liquor in the Scorpion pushed the cocktail into a more bitter zone I didn't adore.

The next night, I switched to Pina Coladas ($10) - one of my favorite indulgences, but one I have to be careful about indulging too much in, given they have like 300 calories each. Their version was mild and subtle, thanks to the use of only light rum and the combination of coconut syrup and cream, rather than coconut cream.

Although we'd hoped to try more cocktails on the menu, our 35 year old bodies just don't allow us to go crazy anymore - so our last night we tried the Mai Tais ($10). The Mai Tai is known for being made a little different every place you go - with fervent competition about who makes the best, or most 'authentic' version. The Tonga Room's rendition, however, diverges more from what Dan & I have come to expect than any other place we've had them. They forego many of the signature ingredients (orgeat, light rum, and grenadine) and instead mix dark rum, triple sec and fruit juices. Although it was pretty good, it was so different that I hesitate to even call it a Mai Tai.

The big surprise of the cocktails for us both was actually the garnish. The ubiquitous pineapple wedges on the edge of every glass weren't just there for show - they were fresh, delicious and incredibly sweet. I'm glad our server urged us to try them the first night.

The Food
The dinner menu at Tonga is a mix of traditional Hawaiian dishes (kalua pig, huli huli chicken, loco moco) and various Asian dishes (hot pots, curry, Mongolian beef) - like the cuisine of Hawaii itself.

The first night, we failed to starve ourselves beforehand (even having to push our reservation back a bit) so we opted out of appetizers and went straight to entrees.

I'd never had Kalbi Ribs before, so picked that. Served like a Hawaiian plate lunch, the ribs came with a scoop of white rice, a scoop of macaroni salad (featuring black truffle) and a bit of delicious, spicy kimchee. The ribs themselves were really flavorful, and I resorted to eating them with my hands to get all the meat off the bones - since my attempt at using a knife and fork was failing miserably.

Dan went for the Seared Divers Scallops ($27), which came with bacon and sweet corn, giving the lighter scallops some heavier balance.

The next night, we skipped lunch to make sure we'd have appetites worthy of the Tonga room.

We started out with the Ahi Poke ($16), which was dressed simply with a little ponzu sauce, and came with beautiful, crisp taro chips.

For my entree, I was waffling between the Dragon Fire Chicken ($23) and the Fire Cracker Prawns ($25) - wanting something spicy. Our waiter (who took great care of us all three nights) let me know the prawns were a bit spicier, and also brought me a dish of chili sauce to help kick it up a bit more.

There wasn't a lot of heat in the dish (until me and the chili sauce stepped in), but the veggies and shrimp were stir fried well and the served in a great sauce.

Dan chose the Chicken Katsu for his entree - which was simple but satisfying.

During our first dinner, we ordered the signature Tonga Room dessert: the Flaming Tonga Volcano - a combination of cake, ice cream, and meringue topped with actual flame. Based on previous menus, I believe the exact flavors change over time, but our version featured an amazing passion fruit tapioca mixed with mango chunks, and was topped with a ultra thin fortune cookie tuile (which caught on fire).

Our last night, we were stuffed after the poke and our entrees - and decided not to do dessert - but our wonderful waiter brought us another Volcano to enjoy, and we couldn't say no.

Our experiences all three nights were great - from the drinks to the food to the service to the ambiance. It was just what we were hoping for when we booked the trip. We could've tried other restaurants, or other bars, but I'm glad we spent our evenings at The Tonga Room. It was fun to be a regular by our third night, and to try as much of the menu as we did. With so many Polynesian restaurants closing their doors in the past year or two, I'm also glad we got to check out the Tonga - in case it, God forbid, falls prey to the same trend.

Tonga Room on Urbanspoon

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