Restaurant review: Grass Skirt

By Columbus Alive
From the November 1, 2012 edition

Exotic landscaping leads your gaze to a nondescript, puny-looking building when facing the Grass Skirt. Chuckle-junkies and outre amusement-seekers — or, hell, anyone who just likes a good time — should immediately bolt in. See, only an enjoyment-gene-deficient person could resist the wacky charms lurking behind the Grass Skirt’s oversize-knife-and-fork-handled door.

Suitably similar to many tropical fruits, the Grass Skirt — Columbus Food League’s take on a tiki room — hides most of its wildness inside. Since “wild” barely begins to describe Grass’ unique-in-Columbus, Polynesian-funhouse interior, I’ll provide a thumbnail sketch here: conjure up a boozy halloween party on Gilligan’s Island with brassy retro tunes and surf music, and you’re getting warm.

Underneath hilarious, lurid and fluorescent lighting sources — from inverted tiki torches, blowfish-trapped-in-fishnet lamps, and a skull-and-horn chandelier — is a dense and gnarly, spooky Kahiki-type assembly of largely custom-made artifacts.This includes tons of thatched palm fronds; a veined and mutably lit “lava wall”; profuse tiki god masks — at least one with glowing eyes; an explosively colorful faux tropical garden with splashing “waterfall”; and a beautiful and lengthy, snake-shaped bar inlaid with glass and stones. In the true spirit of tiki — a fake culture originally popular with escapist American WWII veterans, especially of the Pacific Theater — the Grass Skirt takes its silliness seriously.

While retrieving your jaw from the floor, you’ll be seated by a member of Grass’ knowledgeable, smiling and accommodating staff. Now it’s time to get your drink on, since another aspect of tiki culture is a deep commitment to rummy cocktails.

The Grass Skirt excels there. Instead of cloyingly sweet, parasol-poked, “girlie” quaffs, Grass’ locally distinct, mint-and-fruit-garnished libations are deceptively potent and often awash with fresh citrus and bitters. Bonus: for an extra $3, these studiously crafted headknockers can be served in souvenir tiki god glasses.

Try the java-kissed irresistible oddball called Caramelized Pineapple-Coffee Grog ($7) and Ahu’s Navy Grog #2 ($8; orange, lime, grapefruit and maple syrup tightened by a pleasurably medicinal — to me — blast of Fernet Branca). Of course Mai Tais are the ultimate tiki classic, and Grass’ two versions are definitely worth ordering. Its namesake interpretation ($6.50) is a light and bright citrus ride with a Pez-like finish. More complex is the Tikiphile ($9) variation, whose orgeat-twisted (almond syrup) citrus terminates more like Pixy Stix.

Grass’ still-evolving (and stoopid-cheap) food offerings seem designed for simple fun — and to facilitate boozing. Starter-wise, edamame ($3) are energized with a spicy salting. Even better were expertly fried — and huge! — Sweet Potato Wedges ($4.50 for a generous serving) and what ate like handmade, super cream cheesy Crab Rangoons ($5).

There are also slammable sliders (aka menehunes, two for $5) garnished with pineapple and arriving on nicely toasted, sweet little Hawaiian rolls. In descending order, my favorites were the hammy griddled Spam (with Swiss cheese and an appreciated slathering of spicy mustard); nut-enhanced, served-cold Curry Chicken Salad; and straightforward mini-burgers (thick, would benefit from pickle or chili).

Two nightly entree specials were more substantial. That traditional “Hawaiian-style Barnyard Buster,” Loco Moco ($8), tops rice with hamburgers, viscous mushroom gravy plus a fried egg and tastes exactly how that sounds (and improves with sriracha squirts). An Asian shrimp salad ($9) provided plenty of color, crunch and fine shellfish; and another reason to linger — like a happy castaway — over one more cocktail inside of Columbus’ giggliest instant getaway.