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Fish in Water

Sometimes a restaurateur must swim with the tide.

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For more than a year, Karol Gajda and his wife, Tamara, drove from their home in Wellesley past the booming chain restaurants at Short Pump to a warehouse district in the near West End, where they were trying to revitalize La Petite France, once a premier fine-dining establishment.

Gajda wondered how business might be different in a busy part of town while he struggled to make a profit at La Petite. He was third in line, after Richmond's French founding father Paul Elbling and later a Vietnamese family, thwarted by the changing tastes of the dining public. Last May, the Gajdas reluctantly closed the restaurant.

Then began job searches. Gajda grew up in the kitchen of his parents' Italian restaurant in Winchester and had a 13-year career with Morton's steakhouses, managing outlets from Tyson's Corner (where he met Tamara, who directed marketing for a hugely successful diner in Vienna) to San Diego. After their son was born, they abandoned the frequent corporate moves and settled in Richmond.

After La Petite closed, a headhunter put Gajda in touch with the Phoenix-based Kona Grill, a small but expanding corporation that had broken ground in West Broad Street Village. After 10 weeks of training in Arizona last summer, Gajda began hiring the first of about 120 employees.

It didn't take long for Gajda to realize he made the right decision. Richmond's Kona Grill opened Jan. 22 and within a month, without spending a penny on advertising, it was the companyĆ’?~s third-highest-grossing operation.

Kona's name may connote grass skirts and leis, but it calls itself an American grill and sushi bar. Fred Yamada, a 10-year veteran of Kona, leads a four-person sushi crew that slices and dices five dozen versions of sushi and sashimi behind a sparkling brick-tile, eight-seat counter and 300-gallon aquarium.

For diners not yet addicted to the traditional raw offerings, there are Westernized dishes, including the excellent baked green mussels in half shells with motoyaki sauce, sriracha and scallions. The Asian-influenced menu ranges from pan-seared ahi with bok choy and pad Thai noodles to meat loaf and pork ribs. We like the macadamia nut chicken, served with shoyu-cream sauce (one of 70 mild-to-fiery sauces made in-house); baked sea bass marinated three days in miso and sake; and sweet-chili glazed salmon with shrimp-and-pork fried rice. 

Entrees top out at $33 for a 10-ounce filet with szechwan beans, but most items are in the teens and low 20s. Burgers and other sandwiches are about $10. With two happy hours daily, (3-7 and 9-11 p.m. weekdays and 1-5 and 10-midnight Saturdays), a patron might down sake and beer simultaneously (bring a designated driver) or soberly people watch. (Tip: Women are likely to outnumber men early in the night.) They can nosh on half-priced, but full-sized, appetizers, pizzas and sushi. Among my favorites are squid with a spicy aioli (Kona calamari); three miniburgers with onions, thyme and Swiss (Kahanu sliders) and pan-seared chicken and vegetable dumplings with soy (pot stickers). 

Bad news for those who try to avoid it: Smoking is permitted on the patio, though not at the bar, and a ventilation system will permit it to continue after the state's smoking ban goes into effect in December.

Kona is well designed and soothingly decorated, the staff is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, the food is good quality, the menu ranges from the comfortable (cheeseburgers) to unusual (blackened catfish tacos), the prices fit a variety of budgets, the enthusiasm of the clientele is contagious, and finally, as Gajda recognized, there is the location. S

Kona Grill $$$
11221 W. Broad St
364-5660
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1l p.m.;
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-midnight;
Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
www.konagrill.com.

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