Kona Cafe

THE CZARINA'S ROYAL TABLE

(EXPLANATION OF SORTS: The Czarina is a Real Person who eats -- a lot at Disney World. She takes sole responsibility for all opinions stated below. Do let us know what you think about this column at eureka@eurekajim.org.)

Dateline, December 2000!

Beloved Public, as the election mess dragged on in the Real World, your Czar and Czarina made a blissful escape to Disney World and to the Polynesian, home of the wonderful Kona Café. We had lunch there even as the hanging chads and recounts were going on elsewhere in the state of Florida, and I can assure you there was no contest Kona is a hands-down winner.

Kona Café', located on the second floor of the Polynesian lobby, and steps away from the monorail station, used to be the hotel's coffee shop. A couple of years ago, it was rehabbed into a modern, casual, Asian-influenced bistro open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The beloved Tonga Toast, a banana-stuffed French toast with cinnamon sugar, is still on the breakfast menu as a sentimental reminder of the old place, but just about everything else has changed.

Kona has an open, updated look with lots of tile work and glass. As you enter the space, the dessert station with its huge chocolate dragon and chefs creating lucscious items such as KoKo Puffs (profiteroles with chocolate sauce) and Kilauea Torte are sure to waylay you. The tables and banquettes are dark wood without tablecloths; patrons range from couples to large family groups. It's a very comfortable space for everyone.

"If it doesn't have ginger, we won't serve it!" this is what the Kona chefs jokingly say about their new menu, according to our server at lunch. Her name is Gina and she was excellent, very willing to steer us through the menu and taking time to chat. The ginger quote is not strictly true, of course; but it does serve to illustrate the emphasis on fresh tastes and Asian cooking techniques found on the menu.

For appetizers, I began with a creamy curried chicken soup with black mushrooms, an outright winner at $4.25. It was perfectly spiced but not incendiary. It was also quite filling; and if you are lunching at Kona, you might consider ordering exclusively from the appetizer menu, as I did. I paired my soup with a Caesar side salad with Pecorino Romano cheese, served with a crisp flatbread ($4.50) and the Czar had the Seafood Pot Stickers crisp shrimp dumplings with a creamy ginger-soy sauce. The Czar noted their thin wrappers with pleasure these are not your neighborhood Chinese egg rolls, but more like thin Thai-style crunchies. Other appetizer options include Kona Crab Cakes served with chipotle-pepper mayo ($8.99), and "Sticky Wings" Chinese chicken wings with a sesame-mustard sauce ($6.99).

The Czar then ventured into the main-course menu, choosing a Blackened Salmon Sandwich ($9.99) served on a toasted kaiser bun with home-made fries and a slice of good tomato vine-ripened, not the mushy hothouse kind we are used to putting up with in the winter months. It is just this kind of attention to detail that sets Kona apart. "M'mm!" enthused the Czar, wiping sauce off his lips, "They don't confuse blackening with burning I can really taste the salmon flavor!" Other standout items on the lunch menu include the Asian noodle soup, a huge bowl brimming with Ramen noodles, fresh veggies, steak strips and Macadamia nuts ($12.99, and large enough to share), and the Mushroom Ravioli with ginger-mushroom cream, $9.99 and a recommendation of Gina the server.

Kona has a small 11-bottle wine list and it is commendable that every wine is also available by the glass at modest prices ($4.75 to $8.25). Other beverages include Polynesian sticky drinks (Mai Tais, Lapu Lapus etc.) from the nearby Tambu Lounge (where a full bar is also available), and Kona's signature coffee specialties featuring Kona coffee from Hawaii a rare and delicious bean. If you have the strength to resist the desserts, you will be very happy with a press-pot of 100% Kona coffee ($7.99, and plenty to share). Don't miss this unusual treat, even if you are having dessert.

However, the desserts are very hard to pass up. The KoKo Puffs are a great favorite, and I have seen many adults attacking the Kiddie Kone, a kind of ice cream dream in a huge sugar cone adorned with chocolate and sprinkles. There are also Samoan Smoothies, creamy drinks made with tropical fruit juices.

At the time of our visit, Kona was in the process of hiring a new head chef. Gina pointed out that this was a good thing, since truly creative chefs often need to move on after establishing a place, making room for new talent. I told her I agreed in general, but begged to differ in the case of Chef Cliff Pleau, who has guided the superlative California Grill ever since its inception. The Czar and I toasted the new Chef, whoever he or she may be, in Kona coffee, and wish the marvelous Kona Café' a long and happy life as one of Disney World's very best "upscale casual" eateries.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Kona is right on the monorail. Go for breakfast and hop on the train to the Magic Kingdom. Go for that midday break! Get away from the Crystal Palace/Plaza craziness on a crowded day, and go back to Main St. USA refreshed.

CZARINA'S TOP TIP: Gina points out that many people come to Kona in the evening just for dessert and coffee, and then go downstairs to the Poly beach or get on the monorail to watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks. Good idea!

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