Restaurant review: Stylish new Tai Tiki Polynesian Grill & Sushi is well-designed for the 21st Century

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

Its colorful warship facade and kooky indoor rainforest are gone, but the spirit of the late, lamented Kakiki (1961-2000) - a kitschy, tropical-island-themed Columbus restaurant once nationally famous - lives on at Tai Tiki Polynesian Bar Grill and Sushi.

That's a long name for a modest-sized eatery. But the lengthy moniker lends this new Short Norther a formidable air in sync with its big-thinking aspirations: to embrace yet upgrade the Kahiki aesthetic.

A few facts: owners Tai and Gail Lieu (who also own Tai's Asian Bistro) met while working at the Kahiki. Their executive chef, Rainne Tong, is another Kahiki veteran.

Want more evidence that the Kahiki torch is being passed on here? You'll see that flaming proof - make that flaming "151 proof" - in the ignited rum of the Volcano Drink. This fun and built-to-share cocktail ($18) served in a mammoth vessel depicting hula dancers sashaying around a volcano is a recreation of the Kahiki's much-celebrated "Mystery Drink." Bonus: imbibers of the potent pineapple-and-rum concoction are adorned with leis.

A couple other fruity but not cloying, Kahiki-honoring libations in wacky chalices I sampled and recommend are the Pina Passion (in a cored-out pineapple, $8) and the Head Hunter (in a tiki god glass, $8). Tai also offers contemporary - and inspired - spins on tiki drinks, such as the stout Rhum Diaries ($10, modeled after an Old Fashioned and named after a Hunter S. Thompson novel). If you can tear yourself away from the tropical cocktails, Tai offers a smart and inviting selection of wines and sakes, too.

So don't think Tai is tacky with tiki. Its few deity carvings are tasteful accents for the stone walls bearing a couple Gauguin knock-offs plus the brown and bronze appointments anchoring the restaurant's modern and handsome design. There's an attractive little patio, too.

That's the best place to enjoy Tai's happy hour. During this cost-cutting session (3 to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday), cocktails are $3 off, and a few appetizers are half-priced, making the oniony Chicken Egg Rolls $3, and the crunchy and good Coconut Shrimp only $6.

Unlike those American-Polynesian staples - or, for that matter, the Kahiki's food, which often seemed like an afterthought - many of Tai's dishes are more ambitious. The Ahi Tuna Poke ($14), which displays Tai's flair for plating, is one such preparation.

Defying its arugula salad menu description, chopped raw tuna, avocado and rice composed the strata of an alluring timbale. Sesame oil, sesame seeds, a plantain chip, masago and togarashi added depth, texture and panache. Although the spicy togarashi became overpowering after a few bites, I still liked this sushi-inspired starter.

I also liked the Malagasy Garlic Chicken ($18), a revived Kahiki classic. Tender, pan-seared, boneless breast meat rests atop grilled asparagus and a mound of terrific whipped potatoes. Topping the poultry is a thick and garlicky "green peppercorn butter" sauce that's about as subtle as an exploding volcano.

Though a couple entrees I sampled hit immoderate dollar levels, I wouldn't call either a ripoff. For instance, the Hawaiian punch of island ingredients hit a lot of pleasure centers in the Macadamia Nut Mahi Mahi ($29). Its generous, macadamia-crowned slab of fish shellacked with a tart-and-tangy glaze was well supported by a bed of brown rice strewn with spinach, onion and pineapple.

If you prefer pig on your fork, get the Aloha Porkie ($26). Capped with a rosemary sprig, painted with a pleasantly salty sauce, the standing-upright shank resembled a pineapple. It came with good glazed carrots, grilled asparagus and excellent au gratin potatoes (my substitution for risotto). Could the meat have been juicier and more tender? Yes. But like this place in general, the dish was undeniably fun.

Tai Tiki Polynesian Grill & Sushi

1014 N. High St., Short North