Dining in the rough

If Wilderness Grill's dismal food is the best nature has to offer, then thank God for civilization

Survival is no doubt a brutal struggle for a high-concept restaurant. And this place is profoundly conceptualized, right down to the staff. Hosts and hostesses are "pathfinders." Customers are "flatlanders." "Rangers" welcome patrons to their tables and "steerburners" cook the food, especially the Grill's signature item: a burger made from buffalo meat, which wasn't much different than the ground beef log I torched with Coleman fuel. It was dry, hard, without taste, barely edible. One of my companions called it an ossified buffalo turd on a bun. In all fairness, our ranger tried to steer us clear of the thing. But it was the signature item, for God's sake.

Cliffhanger combo, a heaping plate of smoked ribs with a sweet, pungent barbecue sauce, barbecued chicken, and sliced brisket, was better. The chicken was moist and tender, and the ribs were succulent and chewy. But the brisket was soggy and tough, like a hearty chew on damp cardboard. Grilled tuna steak, gray and pulpy, also could have done a respectable cardboard imitation--if it hadn't tasted like bait. The meat was fibrous and watery with virtually no flavor or aroma other than fishiness.

The menu boasts that the tuna was line-caught, and it may have been pulled from the Stoney Brook, the large open-range seating area with a 40-foot, 2,500-gallon aquarium stocked with game fish. The space is cordoned by a rough-hewn wooden fence with posts holding lanterns plugged with bulbs that gradually dim and intensify--like a Coleman-fueled flame. Faux trees grow out of the floor, right up to the blackness in the ceiling. Off to one side is a forest floor with topless fake trees, a rocky falls and stream, and ferns. The rocks and foliage are spattered with Diamond Back barbecue sauce, some of it dried and curdled. That sauce seems to come with everything, even the trail blazin' onion straws, a limp, oily tangle of battered and fried shoestring onions that looks like a clump of bog peat.

Yet good or bad, it's hard to focus on food at the Wilderness Grill because you're constantly amazed at the brazen cheesiness of the decor. The dining room is equipped with a computerized audio system triggered by motion detectors so that whenever the thing is tripped, a random selection of animal noises floods the room. We got a good dose of this wilderness gibberish in our spacious, wood paneled booth outfitted like a lodge room. Barking dogs, chirping sparrows, crying loons, roaring lions, bellowing bears, and screeching squirrels. It was as noisy as midtown Manhattan.

The noise came from a speaker imbedded in our booth ceiling, not far from one of those flickering lanterns hanging over our food, giving us a good look at the grub. Like the smoked rib eye. Though done to an acceptable medium-rare tinge, it was gristly, chewy, and pocked with great oval globules of fat. Entrees, or "Mountain Lodge Dinners," come with a choice of two sides including timber fries, cinnamon apples, seasonal vegetables, garlic mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, rice, and cole slaw. The best of the bunch were the hearty garlic mashed potatoes and the crunchy cole slaw. The worst were the dry rice and the pasty, coagulated ranchero bean mush. Just as I dipped my spoon into this cup of mash, a thunderstorm struck. Strobe lights flickered in the wilderness sky--a coarse knot of sprinkler-system plumbing, conduits, and ductwork, made breathtakingly pristine with flat black paint and tiny twinkling lights dangling from the corrugated metal mall roofing like the sequined fringe on a Las Vegas showgirl's costume. The pulsing flashes were followed by a loud whoosh of intense rain. "Sounds like they miked the damn toilets in the restrooms," said my father-in-law.

More than a few of us made our way to the Wilderness restrooms after finishing our entrees, though at least one of the dishes was decent. The achiote chicken, a half bird in an achiote and citrus marinade, though a little wimpy on spice, was tender and succulent with a clean whisper of muskiness. But the Caesar salad with grilled chicken was horrendous. The leaves were warm and wilted, and the chicken chunks were dry, as if the mass had been sitting in the desert wilderness for a long stretch.

Service was charming in a well-rehearsed park ranger sort of way, but was painfully slow, even for a wild space as uninhabited as this.

Dreamed up by the corporate brains at Ogden Entertainment Inc., Wilderness Grills are spreading as fast as mall space can be set aside and preserved. Spots can be found in Miami; Ontario, California; and Tempe, Arizona. Ogden boasts some 130 entertainment facilities around the world including themed attractions, themed nature parks, themed restaurants, and live theater, concerts, and IMAX films, which one can only hope also have a theme. But judging by the desolateness of Wilderness Grill, themed feeding may be ripe for extinction--a wildly appetizing thought.

Wilderness Grill, 3000 Grapevine Mills Parkway. (972) 724-4910. Open 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. $$

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