In a February article in the online magazine Slate, Columbia University Professor Duncan Watts exhumed the work of the late Princeton social psychologist Solomon Asch to explain what Watts called the Kerry cascade. The phenomenon, Watts says, is the strange dynamic by which Massachusetts Senator John Kerry rapidly swept to victory through the early Democratic presidential primaries even though voters know little about him and don't seem to like him very much. "...Kerry's campaign seemed dead," writes Watts, "but then he unexpectedly won Iowa, then New Hampshire, and then primary after primary. How did this happen?"
The answer lies in the stunning work of Asch, Watts believes. In the 1950s Asch conducted a series of experiments in which he presented subjects with sets of vertical lines. Two of the lines were of the same length, while the other lines were clearly misfits. The subjects were asked to identify which pair of lines were the same. The twist in this seemingly pointless probe was that all the subjects except one were instructed to give the same bogus answer. Astoundingly, Asch discovered, one-third of the unwitting subjects against clear evidence and their own eyes went along with the crowd of false observers, offering choices they would never make on their own. Such is the power of peer pressure, which Watts believes triggered the Kerry cascade.
My mind wasn't on Asch when I bellied up to the circular bar at Elephant Bar Restaurant. Indeed, I had never heard of the fellow. Instead, I was wondering how I was going to survive this "safari through exotic destinations to find 'elephant size' portions of fresh culinary delights." But it wasn't long before I found myself in the middle of an Asch experiment.
It didn't happen right away. First I had to digest the atmosphere over a glass of listless cabernet before sanity was recovered and I ordered a listless lager. (Personal reminder: Never order wine in a restaurant that has brass elephant trunks for door handles.) There was a lot to digest: giraffes in the vestibule; metal elephant heads in the bar as big as...well...elephant heads; walls covered with bamboo; a dining nook loaded with safari trunks. I turned my attention to a contraption on the bar counter: a white metal rack holding large test tubes. It's called an "Exacto Pour," and the bartender explains it's used for practice runs before each shift. One shudders to imagine the potential for disaster if the rum pours were off in the "elephant rampage" cocktail.
Our banquette was covered in jungle print. The servers were prompt, focused and cheerful. "Well-trained," I muttered. Heads nodded. Our appetizers arrived shortly after we ordered them. This could signal one of two things: a well-oiled kitchen, or well-oiled ingredients. I was suspicious. "Immaculate," says one of my companions. "This system is impeccable." I didn't realize it then, but I was getting my first whiff of Asch.
Wok-seared pan-Asian chicken lettuce wraps arrived without incident. But I'm suspicious of lettuce wraps. In the annals of appetizer lore, lettuce wraps are like the lone house with a vaulted entryway in a suburban tract of cookie-cutter homes--the tiny dash of distinction that persuades us that we've retained our individuality amidst a storm of fabricated monotony. Iceberg lettuce, the anchor of the modern wrap, once was the Ernest Borgnine of cuisine. Borgnine appeared in virtually every movie made between 1960 and the early 1980s, and iceberg lettuce had a role in virtually every menu up through the same time period. The lettuce wedge swamped with blue cheese, a staple in steak houses, is just a wink at Ernest-ness. Lettuce wraps are nothing more than an attempt to turn Ernest Borgnine into Kevin Bacon, who has worked in every movie since the end of Borgnine's run.
Here, three cupped, crisp leaves beg to be stuffed with heaps of chicken ground into hamburger-size grains and mixed with chestnuts, cashews and flakes of toasted coconut. Load them in your cup, throw in a couple of gasket-thin marinated cucumber slices, dredge it though some mango salsa and...so what?
Then there's calamari, which floods menus of every caliber with the iceberg lettuce tenacity of yore, mostly with disastrous results. Here it is sliced into strips, flecked with sesame seeds and set off with a rémoulade that is supposed to be a soy-ginger bath if I'm reading the menu correctly.
"Delicious," says one of my dining companions; "Absolutely scrumptious," blurts another. "Enchanting," says a third.
What's going on here? Did I slip on an X-File as I passed the giraffes? Why was I utterly bored while everyone else was on the brink of speaking in tongues?
I swallowed as the entrees arrived. Fish tacos, supple corn tortilla pockets loosely cupping strips of dry tasteless fish, chopped tomato and shreds of jack and cheddar cheese in tomatillo-cilantro cream, were cold with ingredients that didn't coalesce into anything. "Awesome," says my companion. "These are the best fish tacos I've had in a long time."
If there is one dish you want dirty and aggressive, it's jambalaya. Elephant's Cajun jam was loaded with tomatoes and celery with bits of langostino, soapy shrimp, chicken and slices of andouille sausage. "I like it all," says my companion subject. "And it was $11.50, so I like it even more."
Me, I thought the spicy Cajun tomato sauce couldn't draw a wince if it was applied to a gaping wound. It seemed more at home in a Lean Cuisine tub than a restaurant plate.
Not that Lean Cuisine is dreck. It's clean, efficient and consistent, not unlike the gushing I was hearing from this band of subjects. After a hard day of fighting traffic and fearing outsourcing (with the miracle of broadband, even the French Room can be reviewed from New Delhi), a plastic tub of rigatoni under microwaves can be a lifesaver if you wash it down with lots of Chianti.
So maybe it wasn't strange that what followed the jambalaya was a flurry of hosannas one might hear given rolls of floral paper towels stacked on a pallet. "It's basic in a very, very well-presented way," one of my companions says. "I think that value comes through in a very big way."
The dullest dish on the table was mine: pan-Pacific noodle soup with fire-grilled teriyaki chicken skewers. Notice all of the torrid menu language. Notice the large bowl of rice noodles, vegetables and shrimp in a chicken broth with three savagely charred skewers of teriyaki-grilled chicken rising out of the depths. Touch the sticks, and they shed ash into the tepid, bland broth with an oddly sour finish. "That's OK," says another of my companions, blunting my complaint.
"Well you know, if I may interject, I'm really impressed with those rice domes," I say, referring to the perfect mound of white planted in the middle of the jambalaya. "The rice is separate and moist and tender." I couldn't stop. "And the rice noodles in my soup were not overcooked, which I was very surprised with."
"Huge. That's huge," assures yet another of my companions.
"And the zucchini was perfectly cooked," I say. "It was firm, not stringy or mushy. That's very, very difficult to achieve. How many times have you had well-prepared zucchini?"
"It reminds me so much of Vegas," gushes one of my cohorts. "Really nice stuff that's themed."
"Vegas," I repeat. "I love that place. Ever seen those guys who used to tease the white tigers?"
17808 Dallas Parkway, 972-831-0300. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$
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