Dinner at Kon Asian Bistro had its many ups and down on a recent Saturday night visit to this flashy Portland dining establishment. While the setting is gaudily opulent, the food is woefully mediocre. Instead of cooking one type of Asian cuisine well, the kitchen sends out run-of-the-mill Chinese, Thai, Japanese and Indian dishes.

But on weekend nights, there’s a sea of diners out for a fun time of food and drink.

Inside, the décor – in glossy hues of black, orange and red – is about as garish as it gets. As soon as you walk in you see a gold-plated Buddha sitting at the foot of a fountain holding a temple in his hands. It’s so lifelike you expect him to stand up and chant.

The fountain is now dry after too many incidents of certain tipsy diners taking the plunge. Another dilemma was the constant plight of cell phones slipping off the fountain-side tables into the water. Management decided it was best left drained. Now dry and filled with stones, a few potted plants are scattered helter-skelter.

The main dining room is divided into three sections. Two of the rooms are on either side of the de facto fountain with comfortable banquettes and tables for four. Beyond that are two bars – one with huge flat screen TVs and another for just drinking, where that evening a bevy of young women in skin-tight jeans and long straight hair held court over pink cocktails.

Like the cuisine, patrons run the gamut, too. From throngs of seniors to Jersey Shore type date-night couples to families with children, it’s a melting pot of regulars who covet fanciful Mai Tai cocktails and beer along with their Asian food.

While my two guests ordered glasses of white wine – a Kendall Jackson Chardonnay ($8) and a McManis Viognier ($7.50) – the cocktail specials seemed worth trying, too. My Mai Tai ($9), however, with a floater of rum was so sweet I couldn’t finish it.

We started off with an Indian pancake ($4.50) with peas and potatoes. There were no visible signs of the vegetable ingredients. We figured the menu reference was how the vegetables were incorporated into the pancake batter. It was tasty, if not a tad greasy.

We then shared two more appetizers – black and orange rolls ($12) and rock shrimp tempura in a creamy sauce ($8). The latter were not rock shrimp by any means but plain old frozen shrimp thawed and fried. It could have been a take-out dish from an Asian drive-in.

The black and orange rolls held some interest – a striking-looking dish as flamboyant as the restaurant’s color motif. It had blackened tuna with avocado, scallion and an elusive dollop of black salmon caviar.

The entrée menu is huge and it took a while to study so many options. There are sashimi and sushi bar entrees and starters, wok and grill, Japanese teriyaki, noodles and rice, an extensive hibachi menu as well as long lists of sides like crab Rangoon, spring rolls and the like.

Some of our entrees were tasty and boldly presented on the plate. One guest had sushi and sashimi for one ($22). It contained tuna, salmon and white fish amongst five pieces of sushi, eight pieces of sashimi and a crunchy spicy salmon roll. The fish was very fresh, well chilled, though the convening flavors were bland.

The basil beef ($13) from the wok and stir-fry menu was the standout dish. We asked our excellent waitress, who hailed from Shanghai, if the dish was Thai or Chinese. It could have been either. She said it was Thai. The wafting flavors of the Thai basil perfumed the platter of beef, red and green peppers and onions in the basil sauce.

The third entrée was pan-roasted Chilean sea bass ($20) topped with spicy tuna and crabmeat set on long beans with a yuzu-teriyaki sauce. It was adequate. At least the fish wasn’t overcooked and remained moist.

Served with it was a sweet potato cake, a bright orange round that was undercooked in the center. It was a striking, curious side that belonged more at a steak house than this Asian emporium.

The hibachi scene deserves some mention. It’s served in two separate dining rooms with tables around cooktops where master chefs fancy themselves as performance artists, too. It draws a carousing crowd of diners who play along with the chef’s antics. We witnessed one moment where the chef was squirting something from a squeeze bottle into a young man’s gaping mouth as flames roared up from the grill.

Sweet!

Finally, the defining moment of our meal happened at the dessert course.

“This is the worst dessert I ever had,” said one of my guests as we concluded our meal.

For the record, the offending dish was fried ice cream, one of those cliché preparations of Americanized Asian cooking. It was encased in a greasy tempura batter holding a chalky cylinder of green-tea ice cream. After one collective bite it was so repellently oily that we shoved it aside to make room for the check.

Some restaurants warrant repeat visits because they’re so good. Others are good enough to try once because they may be unique or different but ultimately not compelling enough for a second visit.

That’s the story at Kon Asian Bistro.

John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at:

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