As we haven’t yet found a Chinese place we really like (though there are plenty of Thai options), we were excited to try Kon Asian Bistro, flung way out on Brighton Avenue. We figured that even if we couldn’t get our basic steamed-pork-dumpling-beef-and-broccoli-white-paper-box-takeout needs met, we could at least count on some kind of “Asian Fusion”-type of establishment, remembering fondly past experiences in such restaurants who, it seems, make up for a lack of inspiration for traditional dishes with, I dunno, General Tso’s Chicken Flatbread with Creamy Five-Spice Sesame Slaw, or Crispy Buffalo Chicken Kickin’ Fried Wontons.
When you first step into Kon, it seems like your expectations will be met, and the restaurant’s interior belies its outer-Brighton abandoned-strip-mall environment. The cavernous, dark interior is decorated with classic P.F. Chang’s over-the-top enthusiasm, with lots of low hanging pendant lighting, a sleek bar, lit from the inside, and a large central wishing-pond, overseen by a giant gold Buddha. It’s the kind of place that you know is dying to turn itself into a full-blown pseudo nightclub, with D.J. Loop Daddy Slim on the ones and twos, and a bunch of beautiful people sipping Sake martinis at midnight on a Saturday. (Actually, a cruise through the website reveals this…they have an “Events” section filled with a bunch of dummy text.) The dining room is separated into thirds, with the bar and regular dining room taking up the bulk of the space, and then a glass-walled hibachi area, with several large, square counter areas surrounding a central hibachi cooktop.
After ordering from our energetic, though oddly mumbly waitress, we sipped our sake and Sapporo and watched the jam-packed hibachi room pulse with delight. We browsed the martini menu, and talked about the phenomenon of the hibachi room; how, no matter how many times you see someone catch a shrimp in their mouth, or see the hibachi chef do the “Chinese fireman” routine with his volcano of sliced onions, it’s hard to begrudge people a good time. I’ve never seen a hibachi table that wasn’t surrounded by smiling faces, save for the occasional embarrassed, grumpy teenager, and I think it’s great. The whole atmosphere put us in a good mood, and we looked forward to our meals arriving.
[pullquote]The overall effect was that of some rubbery movie theater popcorn chicken, tossed in a day-old Orange Julius.[/pullquote] The first thing you need to know about Kon Asian Bistro, is that all food presentation will make you think you are in a cocaine-fueled nightclub in Los Angeles circa 1983. We started with the “Rock Shrimp” appetizer, billed as tempura-battered rock shrimp in an orange cream sauce. The dish, served in half a hollowed-out orange, with a half-moon of sliced strawberries on the side, was just okay. The tiny little frozen cocktail shrimp were mushy, and the tempura batter was heavy and soggy. The overall effect was that of some rubbery movie theater popcorn chicken, tossed in a day-old Orange Julius.
Jillian didn’t fare much better with her “Chicken Coconut Soup,” a personal favorite when served almost anywhere else. At Kon, this soup consists of a thin, watery coconut gruel, with a fistful of diced dark meat chicken, and oddly, kernels of corn languishing on the bottom of the bowl. The soup was utterly lifeless, devoid of any spice or, actually, any flavor whatsoever. It was enormously disappointing.
A second course of tuna, salmon, and shrimp sashimi doesn’t warrant notice or mention, save for the presentation, which was, true to Kon form, exciting and interesting in a 1980s way: a slanted soup bowl, filled with a solid chunk of ice, an explosion of garnish, and a few thin slices of fish. At around $2 a piece, this may represent Kon’s best value; unfortunately, it ranks on the quality scale somewhere around the kind of sushi you would expect at a Raddison “Jap-O ‘Splode-O Sunday Special Buffet!” Jillian’s spicy tuna roll wasn’t much better, with mushy fish, and peculiarly chewy nori.
We were most disappointed by our main courses: for Jillian, the “Mini Bejing Duck” starter, and for me, the “Orange Ginger Duck.” What unsettled me immediately was that my dish simply smelled. There’s no polite way to say it. As the hot plate of duck, bok choy, and mushrooms was laid before me, I was overcome by a terrible, sewery smell, borne aloft in a cloud of steam. It got in my nose, it got in my eyes, and I couldn’t get away from it. It wasn’t a rotten food smell, exactly, but it was not the way you want your dinner to smell. At all. Pushing through it, I tried a piece of the duck. The sauce didn’t contain any of the flavors that the terrible smell suggested, but it certainly didn’t contain any orange flavors, either. The dominant flavor was an occasional hit of very strong ginger, spooned over rubber-skinned duck parts and huge, whole pieces of bok choy.
Jillian’s “Mini Bejing Duck” was better, with sliced duck served with a heavy hoisin sauce and three miniature pancakes. It wasn’t bad, but mostly, made you wish it had been so, so much better; if only the duck had been hot, if only the skin had been crispy, if only the sauce was something more interesting than raw, jarred hoisin sauce, if only the pancakes hadn’t been so gummy. At least the long rectangular plate was pretty.
It doesn’t bring us any joy to give a restaurant a negative review. It’s not why we started this site, and it doesn’t make us happy. We are way more interested in bringing off-the-beaten-path gems to people’s attention, than we are in trashing a place. We tried to figure out the circumstances under which you would want to go to Kon: maybe on a first date, or maybe to sip martinis, suck on edamame, and chew on a few pieces of reasonably-priced sushi. The staff is attentive, and the service is good. The hibachi room also looks like a lot of fun, for a larger group or a birthday (complete with singing waitresses!), though we didn’t try it on this trip, and won’t be returning. If what you are after, though, is any kind of acceptable take on Chinese, Thai, or Japanese food, or even any kind of self-aware, kitschy “Asian fusion” cuisine, you are going to be sorely disappointed in Kon. It is, quite simply, really bad food.
Photo: Kon Asian Bistro