Tiki cuisine never has been and never will be considered one of the great cuisines of the world, but somehow it never goes away. It has survived mainly by serving the boozing generation of the '50s and '60s (and those who admire them) slightly exotic, though non-scary fare and a party atmosphere to go with those tropical drinkie-winkies.
Though Luau is not your mother's tiki lounge (or your grandparents', for that matter), its attempts to update and upgrade sometimes please but sometimes disappoint. After all, a nouvelle pupu platter is still a pupu platter, even though it may not be as much fun as the one we remember as kids.
The Luau is modeled after the original hipster tiki in Beverly Hills, also called Luau. Its comeback has been orchestrated by rock 'n' roll promoter Andrew Hewitt, who co-owns Il Sole on Sunset Boulevard.
Jewelry designer Loree Rodkin, known for her glam goth pieces, has taken the old Ginger Man space (which has been so many restaurants over the years, most recently the moribund Colors) and, without changing the layout, transformed it into a sexy and surprisingly sophisticated tropical dive, minus the overflowing bar scene.
To do it, she worked with Ben Bassham, known as Bamboo Ben in the world of custom tiki decor and grandson of the original Luau's designer and builder. It has everything you'd expect. A flotilla of blowfish has been turned into a candelabra that casts an eerie undersea light off the tiny rectangular shards of mirror that cover the walls. Rattan chairs? Check. Tropical vegetation? Check. Papua New Guinea masks and Easter Island heads? Check. But nothing is gaudy or over the top (though that might seem to be the point in a place like this).
Hewitt has updated the typical tiki lounge menu too, bringing in Makoto "Mako" Tanaka of Mako as a partner. Tanaka, who was executive chef at both Chinois on Main and the original Spago, has come up with an appealing fusion of Pacific Rim and Polynesian cuisines that references tiki land without getting boxed into the kinds of silly dishes Trader Vic's proposed. Maybe it's less fun, but it's also more edible.
Of course, you'll want some pupu platter items. From the classic side, try the tamarind-glazed ribs, with a nice balance of tart to sweet. Crisp light spring rolls are filled with pulled Kurobuta pork for a change of pace, ready to dip in a sweet pineapple hoisin sauce. Firecracker shrimp in a tempura batter are fine too, but nothing to go into raptures over. I'd say the same about the crab Rangoon -- crisp fried wonton skins stuffed with finely shredded crab.
On the "nouvelle pupu" side, go with the char siu pork, in this case slender slices of sautéed guanciale in a dark sweet glaze. Clams and black mussels steamed with lemon grass and kaffir lime in a coconut broth make another appealing starter. Japanese shima aji carpaccio, though, is overwhelmed by a strong black soy vinaigrette. And that tendency to over-sauce and over-reduce shows up throughout the menu.
And certainly you'll want to accompany your pupu items with a tropical cocktail. Luau's beverage consultant is mixologist Jeff Berry, author of "Beachbum Berry's Grog Log" and other books on vintage drinks.
He decoded the ingredients of the original Luau's drinks to create a cocktail menu that riffs on the genre. Of particular note, the delicious Blue Loree, based on the original 1957 Blue Hawaii. Look around the room: Women sip from straws poked into pineapples and coconut shells, drinking in that tropical vibe.
As for the wine list, prices are high, and who wants to drink Cabernet Sauvignon with salmon steamed in a banana leaf, or lamb with Thai peanut sauce? The selection needs to be more tailored to the menu.
That salmon is lovely, steamed in a banana leaf packet with coconut rice and slivered vegetables. Skip the jidori chicken with a boring yellow curry sauce in favor of the Ping Pei chicken, a poussin cooked Peking duck-style with a crispy skin. And if you crave beef, splurge on the true Japanese Wagyu. Its $105 price tag is a shock, but you don't need to eat too much of this marvelously rich and buttery beef. Share it with two or three.
Luau does seem to be having its share of new restaurant staffing problems. Only once during my visits did anybody explain that the dishes were actually served family-style. That time the waiter paced the dishes in an intelligent way. But at every other visit, main courses came out all at once, with no place to set them all down on the table. One time our waiter failed to mention the market price of the wok lobster special, which turned out to be a whopping $85 for overcooked lobster in a mossy Thai basil sauce that left little of the herb's flavor intact.
On my first visit, when Tanaka was there supervising the kitchen, the food was innovative and good. But on subsequent visits, dishes didn't always have the focus and polish they had early on.
However, Hewitt and Tanaka are still tweaking the menu. Dry halibut has been replaced with salmon in the banana leaf. The Wagyu beef and Peking duck "tacos" are new -- evidence the menu is heading in the right direction.