Kai's is shy of dining glory, but, oh, those drinks

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Every college town needs a date restaurant, and in that grove of academe known as the U District, Kai's Bistro & Lounge wants to be the one. They've beautified a large dining room (the bistro) behind their bar area (the lounge). Unfortunately, it seems no one ever makes it past the bar.

"It gets a little lonely in there," admitted the bartender as my wife and I peeked into the dining room. Spacious, well-appointed and empty.

According to Kai's, the dining room is currently hosting private functions on the weekends and will turn into a second bar in mid-July.

Luckily, the existing bar is friendly and comfortable, and the drinks, both alcoholic and otherwise, are excellent. In fact, I'm about to let you in on the best (virgin) drink deal in town.

I dropped into Kai's for brunch and tried the cinnamon-spiced French toast ($4.25), which was average, and the fresh-squeezed orange juice. The bartender put a pint glass with a little ice underneath his juicer and began squeezing orange halves into it. Several oranges later, he passed me nearly a pint of impeccably fresh juice, for which I paid $1.50. How many times have you paid more than $3 for a tiny glass of not-so-fresh OJ?

They do just as well with juice-based cocktails (see below), and there's a decent selection of beers on tap.

Too bad the food can't live up to the standard of the drinks. Nothing I tried at Kai's was bad, and everything was reasonably priced, but many dishes were just not quite there in terms of conception, flavor or presentation. Furthermore, the menu seems to be at war with itself, offering upscale fare like wild-mushroom-and-chicken risotto (a mere $6.50) along with a meatball sub (also $6.50).

It would be great to see a place like Kai's succeed against the odds in the U District, amid the teriyaki parlors and burger joints. But they need to work on consistency, both on the menu and in the kitchen.

Go for the fruity drinks, and watch this space: that lonely dining room could make a killer bar.

Check please:

Puff pastry with wild mushrooms: My only criticism of this rich appetizer, featuring chunks of creminis and portobellos in a cream sauce atop crisp puff pastry, is that you really can't get away with calling creminis and portobellos "wild mushrooms" anymore.

Grilled flank steak: The problem: how to serve flavorful steak for $12.50? The solution: grilled and sliced flank steak. Good instincts, but this specimen (though medium-rare as requested) was sliced with the grain rather than across it, making for an unnecessarily chewy experience. The best part of the plate was more creminis and portobellos, this time luxuriating in the steak's bordelaise sauce. A side of flavorless sautéed peppers and onions was served alongside mashed potatoes.

Applewood smoked chicken sandwich: Despite smoking and grilling, this chicken sandwich was remarkably bland, and the salad was overdressed. The "crispy fries" were, however, as crispy as promised and plenty satisfying.

L'Orange martini: Grey Goose L'Orange vodka is shaken with fresh-squeezed orange juice and Cointreau for a seriously orange — and seriously delicious — cocktail.

Chocolate mousse: The menu promised a hint of Kahlua, and apparently I can't take a hint, because I couldn't taste any. What I could taste was huge chocolate chips — enough to overwhelm the texture of the mousse.

Itemized bill, meal for two

Puff pastry with wild mushrooms $7.50

Grilled flank steak $12.50

Applewood smoked chicken sandwich $8.50

L'Orange martini $6.50

Chocolate mousse $6.00

Tax $3.81

Total $44.81

Matthew Amster-Burton: mamster@mamster.net

Kai's Bistro & Lounge

1312 N.E. 43rd St., Seattle; 206-547-2784



Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11-1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

Full bar / major credit cards / smoking / no obstacles to access.

Rating: not recommended.