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Don't Pu Pu It 

Sneaky Tiki has great service and a fun atmosphere, but we'd rather sneak past the food

Wednesday, Nov 16 2005
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When a place opens that calls itself Sneaky Tiki, this is what I expect: kitschy décor, kitschy drinks, kitschy food. When I'm told the restaurant also features, in addition to its own bar, an adjacent cocktail lounge (with a separate entrance and its own name, the T Bar), nightly DJs, and private screened booths with their own server call buttons, I know I'm entering Clubland -- an area of the dining-out world that I approach with trepidation. My idea of fun rarely involves trying to talk over (or under) loud music. I like good conversation as much as I like good food; they enhance each other, I find. But when I'm asked to come up with an idea for a festive weekend dinner for a group of international cosmopolites in town for work meetings, I remember what I've been told about the taste of one of the ringleaders, Pierre from Paris, and suggest Sneaky Tiki.

In the event, the dinner party that assembles at Sneaky Tiki for Saturday night supper and cocktails is not the one for whom the reservation had been made: A number of guests deemed the hour too early, though it was selected to allow the possibility of additional clubbing after the meal. The five of us who arrive first are led to a perfectly set-up table for our party of nine. I just have time to note the sleek, shiny, silvery foyer, the clear tiki masks, and the beautiful tall stools (two shades of acidic green, upholstered seat on sculptural base, unexpected and chic) in the adjacent black and dark bar, separated from the small dining room by a black divider of stacked circles, very '50s. When we're seated in modern gray upholstered wing chairs with curved tops, I note the absence of any tiki paraphernalia in the dining room: sneaky indeed. The menu looks like a folder of classified information, very Secret Service: sneaky again.

I'm dining with a different crowd than the blasé international lowlifes I'd expected. On my left are two women who both competed in races that morning -- one who came up from L.A. for an Ironman triathlon that involved a mile-long swim in icy San Francisco bay, another who ran a 15K -- with their mates. (I spent most of the day horizontal, in a welter of magazines, newspapers, and books.) I am surprised when, as we're examining the multipage menu, the already dim lights go down a couple of notches; when I pull out the tiny menu light I rarely use, two others at the table flash their own. I am not surprised when the triathlete tells me she doesn't eat meat. Therefore, I add a couple of plates of tuna tartare to the two pu pu platters I order, almost reflexively, to accompany a riotous selection of drinks. (It's in the beverages that the tiki theme is strongest, in conception as well as in name: During the course of the evening, we consume a Hula Colada, a Peeko Punch, a Lychee Cosmo, four Tiki Tais, a Blue Lagoon, three Passion Margaritas, most adorned with a fresh tropical bloom, and a Fish Bowl, served in a plastic approximation of its name and big enough for several to share. At some point someone gives up and orders a Bombay Sapphire and tonic.)

We also get a plate of chicken wings ("island spiced") and another of barbecue ribs. If you asked me to name a few items I'd expect on a generic pu pu platter, these two would be among them -- as would, say, egg rolls and maybe rumaki, that echt-'50s cocktail nibble, here called bacon chestnut wraps. (I'm tempted to add an order of the wraps, too, but sanity intervenes. A friend who tried some tells me they're indeed tasty, no surprise since Hobbs bacon is involved.) Sneaky Tiki's pu pu platter contains what it calls island meatballs, which I find rather too big and bland; its own beef jerky, in tiny chunks, much moister than the convenience store staple and a little awkward to eat; threadlike sweet potato straws; and spider bowl calamari, described as "crispy fried calamari in a light coconut batter," tonight neither particularly crispy nor coconutty. The menu promises three dips -- mango "ketchup," cilantro-jalapeño purée, and sweet-and-sour sauce -- but the mango never materializes. The tartare, a dish found in numberless Bay Area restaurants, contains some badly trimmed, clumsy lumps of fish (in addition to the expected small cubes) and is underseasoned, to my taste. There's not much more going on here than the ginger, soy, and mirin mentioned on the menu, and to describe the tartare as "spicy" is a bit of an exaggeration. (Everything on the pu pu platter is wildly salty, however.) The best bites are the wings, divided at the joints into tiny drumsticks and another morsel, and the chunky barbecue spareribs, which are meaty and porky and the only dish, so far, that I'd order again.

The main courses are divided into two sections: half a dozen entrees, suggested for individuals, and five platters, "large portions perfect for sharing." Our party of nine gets two entrees and three platters, as well as two vegetable sides. I'm somewhat happier with this course: The coconut shrimp are nicely cooked under their sweet sauce, as is the miso-slicked grilled salmon served with baby bok choy, both entrees. The waiter expertly fillets the whole bass steamed in a banana leaf, to great acclaim, but the fish itself is soft and mushy. I think the cowboy steak is terrific: a great big thick tasty rib-eye, accurately described as "huge" and "grilled to perfection." But I'm disappointed, again, by the tiki harvest platter, two dullish slabs of tuna rubbed with nine spices, the description claims, and surrounded by garlic mussels and manila clams. (Everybody else is enjoying the food much more than I am. But I've only had one Tiki Tai.) The sugar snap peas are crunchy, and I like the sweet, lightly gingered Japanese-style eggplant, too.

The star at dessert is the ginger doughnuts, little beignets with chopped apples hiding inside. The gingerbread cake with pumpkin ice cream has its fans, too, and the chocolate fondue, with berries, cake cubes, and tiny Rice Krispies Treats to dip, is fun. We've had a fine time, and the service is so pleasant (our waiter brings us each a tiki-head swizzle stick as a souvenir when we protest after our depleted drinks are taken away before we can snag them) that I wish I had the option of tiny type to whisper what should already be clear: I don't think the food is very good.

I also find it poignant that we cluster outside to chat as a group: The noise level inside is such that you're limited to conversing only with the people adjacent to you. The music is almost as loud when I return for lunch; however, with light streaming in from the two window walls, the atmosphere is completely different. I try the Niman Ranch cheddar burger, in homage to the iconic ex-inhabitant of the space, Hamburger Mary's (which I never thought would leave this corner). I'm underwhelmed by it, as I am by my friend's grilled chicken sandwich; I taste the sandwich more than once, trying to detect the promised Asian marinade and wasabi-soy aioli. The best thing we eat is dessert -- a pineapple napoleon, three big rings of dried pineapple stacked with creamy coconut custard and scattered with tiny pineapple cubes.

But as we get ready to leave I'm confounded by a sweet gesture: A manager offers us each a free drink ticket because the fresh mix for the yummy Hula Colada, like a coconut milkshake served with a shot of Myers's rum, isn't prepared when I order it. I give my ticket to my boyish pal, saying, "Take your girlfriend here."

"We don't go to these kind of places," he replies.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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