By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
Some restaurateurs must imagine the last thing the populace wants to do when it goes out to eat...is eat. Look at all of the counterfeit atmospheres that have been drafted in the name of recreational supping. Rain Forest Café. Wilderness Grill. Planet Hollywood. In these places, food is an adjunct to the theme, usually a brash motif molded, caked, caulked, and otherwise gilded with exaggerated fakery.
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Some concepts even seem hostile to relaxed feasting. Tinseltown Studios in Anaheim, California, a new 700-seat dinner theater from the makers of Wilderness Grill, shamelessly shovels fodder to satiate the public's hunger for fame. Diners are delivered via limo, shuffled over crimson carpet to the entrance through mock throngs of autograph seekers and photographers, and collected in a bar where they mingle with no-name actors portraying famous actors. While diners scarf their appetizers, eight "stars" are chosen from among them to perform roles that are filmed and digitally inserted into movies such as Fried Green Tomatoes, Animal House, On Golden Pond, and, if there is any justice in this world, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!"
Remaining guests enjoy a three-course dinner featuring salmon, sirloin, chicken breast, or ravioli while they watch clips of an awards show on 9-by-12-inch screens starring those dinner guests. During meals, instead of being pestered for more water or ground pepper, waiters may lean over and ask for your autograph.
Then there's Crash Café, a new theme restaurant launched by Baltimore entrepreneur Patrick Turner. Imaginative decorative touches include crumpled cars and motorcycles wrapped around poles, video screens showcasing train wrecks, imploding buildings, and demolition derbies, and walls imbedded with shards of glass and twisted metal. A DC-3 airplane plunges headlong into the front of the restaurant with sputtering sparks, ominously spinning landing gear, and smoke wisping from the plane's tail. Crash Café "seduces you, makes you indulge your undeniable fascination with the destructive, erotic nature of crashing," says company propaganda. All of this mayhem is served with things like Peking-style salmon crepes. And lest you think indulging in this "undeniable fascination" creates an atmosphere antithetical to enjoyable dining, Turner offers this personal observation: "As long as it's put on with no blood and guts, I think it's fun."
All of this theme muck may seem a far cry from Angels in the Park, a new Dallas restaurant, but it really isn't. Launched by Southland Corp. alumni Garry Lyon, his twin brother Barry, and Mary Ann Thompson, daughter of former Southland Chief Executive Officer John Thompson, Angels in the Park is a theme restaurant. Instead of tropical forests, Montana lodges, bad Hollywood footage, and smoldering wrecks, it is outfitted to resemble a city park at night. Except there are no piles of trash, muggers in the bushes, or toothless miscreants sleeping in refrigerator cartons.
What Angels in the Park does have is some bang-up fake maple and oak trees, brick paths, and a dining room floor with tiles designed to look like grass. But like most restaurants with resources strenuously directed toward atmospheric illusions, the menu seems a clumsy attachment. Food in these venues (this one in a space that was once the Wok on Cedar Springs) seems to have little more purpose than to give people something to do with their lips while they dig the ambience. Angels appears less interested in exciting the palate than in arousing eyes and ears with its kitschy -- though for the most part well-executed -- fabrications.
Panko-fried calamari with marinara sauce, though crisp, greaseless, and crafted with tender squid, was dull. The calamari is coarsely coated with Japanese bread crumbs, but the coating lacked seasoning to give it distinction. Only a dollop of zesty pico de gallo saved the tepid marinara.
A coiled strip of fish in the smoked salmon niçoise, though a bit sinuous, was rich in smoked, briny flavor. Yet the dressing over the greens had no complementary or even distinctive flavor: It tasted as it had come from a bottle found in a grocery store.
Try as it might, the menu consistently skirts success, and in some instances the reasons are painfully obvious. Gorgonzola, pear, and toasted walnut salad is littered with canned pear wedges, a stingy scattering of Gorgonzola chunks, and plain walnuts over a patch of greens. It seemed no thought was given to the assembly. Some patches of green were completely void of dressing, while others were soggy with the stuff.
Tomato mozzarella pesto salad, a plate ringed with thin, pale slices of tomato alternating with half-moon wedges of cheese was a bull's-eye with a bright red cherry tomato floret. A creamy pesto sauce puddle cut with a harsh swath of lemon, knocking whatever zest those insipid tomato slices could muster right out of the park. There was no balance here.
While the headings on Angels' menu did not resemble the hokey names on many theme restaurant menus, the fake trees had the look of the stands of phony timber at the Rain Forest Café and the Wilderness Grill, albeit without the animal grunts, fake thunderstorms, bird calls, and animated apes convulsing in the foliage.
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