Years ago, when I was a college student in Boston, I frequented a restaurant in Harvard Square called the Hong Kong. Done up in red Naugahyde booths and fringed souvenirs from the Orient, the place was usually packed, which meant that I often had to wait on line for a table, sometimes outside the building in zero-degree weather. The food at Hong Kong was pretty lousy, but most folks went to the restaurant for the sole purpose of "bowling" -- ordering a monstrous drink called a "scorpion bowl," which was shared among patrons using extra-long straws. Perfumed with about seven different kinds of rum and fruit juices, the bowl was about the size and depth of a flower pot and so powerful that the restaurant imposed a limit: one bowl per patron.
I'd always considered Mai-Kai, a 43-year-old Polynesian restaurant on North Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, a Southern version of the Hong Kong. The enormous restaurant, with its bamboo-this and thatched-roof-that, doesn't lack in the kitsch department. With its engineered gardens, waterfalls, ponds, and bridges, it's hardly Gauguin's view of Polynesia. Hosts wear white suits à la Ricardo Montalban, and chandeliers are made from lobster traps. Tables are so close together you wind up eating with strangers, just like at Benihana. That is, if you wind up eating.
Like the Hong Kong, Mai-Kai is best known as a drinker's paradise. College kids flock to the Molokai Bar for the "barrel o' rum" -- like the scorpion bowl, a near-deadly combo of rums and juices -- and a host of other tropically designed drinks with names like "wahine delight," "gardenia lei," and "Mai-Kai blizzard." In fact, the restaurant is so highly regarded for its refreshments that a full-color, multipage menu is devoted to drinks alone, and diners are seated with this menu first. (A wine list is also available and offers mostly California vintages at reasonable prices -- a Markham chardonnay for $24, for example.) With so much emphasis placed on alcohol, I just figured that the Cantonese, Continental, and Hawaiian fare offered at Mai-Kai would not even be worth mentioning.
Not so, I discovered on a recent Friday evening. Mai-Kai apparently takes its cooking as seriously as it does its drink-mixing. Some of the Cantonese-inspired, pan-Asian dishes were a bit flawed; a Peking duck sushi roll appetizer, for instance, was soggy and stale, and a main course of macadamia-crusted grouper was overly sweet. But for the most part, even the blatantly American items, such as a bowl of lobster bisque and an entree of prime rib, were decently prepared. The bisque was delicious, with bits of Maine lobster resting in the thick, pink cream; and the prime rib, which had been roasted in a Chinese-style oven and served with horseradish sauce, was a generous cut.
The vaguely Polynesian dishes -- what most Americans think of when they picture the islands -- are the most fun, however. While stereotypical luau fare, such as roast pig and poi, wasn't available, we did enjoy the pupu platter, a plate of deep-fried goodies kept warm over a controlled flame. The assortment included some fabulous pork-enhanced egg rolls, which weren't at all greasy, and crab Rangoon dumplings featuring rich centers of cream cheese and crab. For a main course, the more sophisticated Maine lobster Tahitienne was the biggest treat. Smaller and cheaper than the lobster Bora-Bora -- which at two pounds and $52 is overwhelming -- the pound-and-a-quarter Tahitienne was more than satisfying. Shelled and sauced with a buttery cream, the lobster was rich and filling.
Mai-Kai does attempt to raise the level of dining with inventive dishes that evoke rather than typify the more pedestrian fare of Hawaii. For instance, a tabbouleh salad comprising couscous and tropical fruits, including lush mangoes and papayas, was a delightful textural surprise. And a Thai-inspired main course of chicken and jumbo shrimp simmered in a coconut-curry sauce was unexpectedly lively, with white-meat chicken, fresh jumbo shrimp, and sweet onions.
Desserts can be as fussy and elaborate as an $11 barrel o' rum, as the Polynesian surprise -- tropical fruit mounded over shaved ice and garnished with, yes, sparklers -- demonstrates. Or they can be as simple and delicious as bananas Bengali. Flambeed in rum and spooned over vanilla ice cream, the bananas were pleasantly addictive, the burned-off rum making a nice sugary coating for the fruit. Unfortunately our waiter couldn't flambe the bananas at the table; the flames, he explained, might distract from the dancers, who were twirling burning torches on a nearby stage.
Which brings me to the biggest glitch of the evening. Mai-Kai hosts the "Mai-Kai Islander Revue," a nightly show that features traditional Polynesian dance and music. Like the restaurant itself, the revue isn't as banal as the decor might indicate; the musicians are well trained, and the three women hula dancers are particularly impressive. (The men could use a few lessons on how to shake those hips.)
Still, I could give a gardenia lei about watching the floor show when I'm really there to partake of the not-inexpensive food and drink, which for our party of four included three courses, a bottle of wine, and a few rum barrels. The tab came to about $200. So we were annoyed when we were told we'd be charged roughly another $40 as a cover for watching the revue. The cover, which is $9.95 a person, was not mentioned at all when I made the reservation.
"Impossible," said the maitre d' when we called him over to discuss the issue. "My staff is well trained."
We begged to differ, and while the maitre d' was incredibly snotty (after his staff had been sweetly solicitous), he eventually reduced the $40 cover to $30 -- the price of a lobster at the restaurant. (I did call back, incidentally, and gave the hostess who answered the phone ample opportunity to mention a cover charge; she did not.) Add the cover to the price of the entrees, and suddenly Mai-Kai doesn't seem so tasty. You can, however, request a table that doesn't have a view of the show and therefore avoid the cover. Or you can eat for free on Wednesday nights: A sushi buffet, complimentary with the purchase of cocktails, is laid out in the Molokai Bar. Next time I go to Mai-Kai, I'll skip the show and head straight for the bar.
Mai-Kai. 3599 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale, 954-563-3272. Open nightly for dinner from 6 p.m.; call for showtimes and appropriate seatings.
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Bananas Bengali (for two)