The Polynesian motif has managed to cultivate a somewhat maligned reputation over the years in the food and drink scene. Once a proud beacon of trendy coolness, the setting designed to bring the wonders of the Pacific to the ma
inland have garnered a perception of forgettable food married with tacky ambience. However, such a biased observation is rather unfair to the theme, because it can be one of the most awesomely exuberant settings to dine, drink, and hang out when it is done right. The sad thing is a lot of places that attempt this kind of venue do not take the time to do it justice. What makes their falling short more scandalous is there are only two real rules to make the tiki ambience come to life as it should. First off, you have to show respect for not only the theme, but the history and tradition behind it. Also, you have to serve really good food. On the surface, these tenants may seem a little to scarce. Yet my wife and I recently discovered a most accurate Exhibit A for my argument being solid, in the form of Don the Beachcomber in Sunset Beach.
If the name of the restaurant strikes a familiar chord with your inner foodie historian, it should. Don the Beachcomber gets its name from the legendary Hollywood watering hole and eatery that the appropriately re-named Donn Beach established back in 1933. In addition to running the hippest joint in Tinsel Town and serving the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich, Beach is credited with creating the concept of the Polynesian-themed venue, as well as the tropical essential known as the Mai Tai (Trader Vic’s up in the Bay Area will often lay claim to the drink’s genesis, but the authentic version was authored in SoCal). With all this rich history behind the name, you better believe they have a special element of respect for the theme, and it was clearly evident from the moment we walked through the doors. Yes, there are some elements within the space that in less skilled hands would be considered kitschy, such as the waiters in Hawaiian shirts, massive tiki carvings, and a propensity for bamboo.
However, I instantly got the sense that Don’s deftly plays these elements at face value, as an integral part of the culture of the land re-created as opposed to mere giggles or retro-hipster irony. We couldn’t be more pleased that Don’s has utilized the décor in this reverent spirit, as the venue has a wonderful sense of natural charm, joy, and soul that left our jaws a little sore from smiling at its awesomeness.
That sense of respect and history was also a recurring subject throughout our dinner, beginning with our libations (of course). As expected, the mildly sweet Mai Tai here was perfect. The trio of drinks we indulged in throughout the meal was perfect. And I would suspect that all the Donn Beach-invented drinks we didn’t get to on Don’s menu are perfect as well, because of two very important reasons. Firstly, they use fresh fruit juices in all of their drinks; so fresh, in fact, that they are disposed of if not used by the end of the day. Also, and perhaps even more impressively, the gentleman who tended bar at the original Hollywood location came here and tweaked the drink recipes to exactly match the way they were made back when decades of legends spanning from Chaplin to Sinatra were knocking them back. Just knowing how the drinks were crafted seems to make the already flawless potables even more pristine.
With our palates sufficiently moistened, we were eager to find out if the food matched the quality of the beverages. As the appetizers (aka “pupus”) showed, Don’s did not disappoint. The co-co nut shrimp we enjoyed were large and sufficiently sweet, and the accompanying jalepeno and mango chutney gave each bite exquisite balance. The block of sticky ribs that we also shared almost looked like a meaty Jenga when they arrived, which wasn’t too surprising – after all, the name of the pupu implies cohesiveness – and they were succulent, tender, and addictive. The only disappointment that I came away from this round of cuisine was that there was no pupu platter to be found on the menu. Then again, the phrase “pupu platter” has managed to garner such a goofy connotation the lack of one may serve to increase the respect of the overall theme.
Speaking of which, the seafaring nature of the surroundings inspired me to dive into a heaping bowl of Don’s clam chowder. Yes, I realize that New England is nowhere near Hawaii, but I was very glad that I put such geographical semantics aside, because the chowder was simply incredible. The soup was about as creamy as you can get without it crossing over the threshold of richness, and the massive clams were ideally sweet and chewy throughout. My wife’s solid beachcomber chop salad was held together by a lovely sesame ginger dressing that gave the greens, veggies, and bacon components a nicely appropriate island zing to each bite.
I continued the exploration of the surf with my main entrée, in the form of the bacon wrapped escolar. I was instantly enraptured by the beautiful presentation of the fish dish, as the mélange of sauces that the bacon-wrapped filet rested upon mingled in such a striking way, it had the appearance of stained glass. The fish itself was prepared perfectly, as its buttery, slightly sweet flavor stepped a lovely waltz with its smoky bacon scarf. Meanwhile, the braised short ribs my wife ordered were sublime, its sauce combining with the tender meat to give each bite a rich, sweet, near-fruity note that was as surprising as it was delightful. As delectable as the main entrees were, dare I say the highlight of each dish may have been the uniquely prepared mashed potatoes, which were fantastic. My wife’s short ribs came equipped with smoked mashed potatoes. Yep, you read that correctly, and it tasted just like it reads – smoky, woodsy, and transcendent, and they added balance to the plate by tempering the sweetness of the ribs. Conversely, there was no mistake that my plate came with wasabi mashed potatoes, considering the slight green shade the side possessed. Now, there are a lot of places that inject wasabi into a dish, but do it so timidly that you hardly notice. Not so with these bad boys. The wasabi is on proud display in all of its tangy, head-clearing glory here, and its bold presence adds the appropriate amount of decadent culinary danger alongside the dish’s other flavors. If you can’t handle wasabi or horseradish, steer clear of them, but if your palate is like mine, you’ll wish that you had a heaping bowl to devour.
As we were enjoying this culinary bounty, it was determined by restaurant owner Art Snyder and his wife Delia (who is also the executive chef) that we needed to try one of their crab cakes, and it took just one bite to be glad our gracious hosts felt the need to share. Believe me; they are worth your attention because they are not only delicious, but they are also quite uniquely constructed. The main force that binds the generous portions of jumbo lump crab together is olive oil, and not mayo, heavy cream, or other traditional food glues. Additionally, the amount of crab stuffed in these hockey puck sized cylinders is absurdly plentiful, which is due to the fact that there are no crackers or bread crumbs that intrude upon the cake’s insides. All you taste is the sweet lusciousness of crab and the light flavor of the panko crust. It is a true culinary masterpiece.
The gastronomic expertise concluded by the two of us sharing a pineapple upside-down cake that was nothing short of excellent. The main reason why the dessert rocked as much as it did was the cake itself, which was moist and sweet enough to be a winning treat on its own. Additionally, the pineapple was not overwhelmed by juices or syrups, allowing its natural flavor to shine through. When the fruit and cake melded together, it was pretty magical.
And really, magical is the best way to describe Don the Beachcomber, if only because the Polynesian motif is carried off so transcendently, it thoroughly disassociates itself with the places that do it wrong, and that is a good thing. Indeed, its vibe is organic and not manufactured, its cuisine top-flight and not mundane, and its passion for both is genuine and not forced. If the late Mr. Beach were still with us, he would be extremely proud of what is being done in his name and ultimately, his memory.