Dining in the rough

Nature is awe-inspiring, splendidly pure, breathtakingly harmonious, gloriously elegant in its savage innocence. If you don't yet know this after a lifetime of public television nature programs, Robert Redford rants, and Free Willy sequels, you'll be stuffed with this delicious knowledge at Wilderness Grill in Grapevine Mills mall. You may even retch in the rapture of it.

Billed as this megamall's new "shoppertainment" concept, Wildnerness Grill is a tranquil respite from the barbaric brutishness of civilization. "On an average Friday, many metroplex freeways are filled with cars making a westward trek as city dwellers seek a brief escape to pristine lands and clear, expansive skies," says the press release hyping the new dining experience. "Wilderness Grill resembles an authentic Montana lodge and captures the spirit of the Rocky Mountains while providing a unique, family-oriented dining experience."

It's the kind of thing you want after a bumper-to-bumper trek from the city to pristine Grapevine: a repast with the kinfolk amongst a host of schmaltzy props in a big-sky-country lodge without mosquitoes, horseflies, or references to the Unabomber and the Montana Freemen. I guess. I personally don't get all misty-eyed and whipped up over thoughts of the wilderness or images of a backhoe digging a hole in it. The wild has too many physical dangers, things that make you itch, and excuses for bad hygiene.

I was 12 when I had my first wilderness experience, and an indelible impression it made. It was a Canadian fishing trip with my father, an escapade that was far from pristine, harmonious, or even relaxing. We were dropped into a godforsaken lake allegedly teeming with walleye and northern pike. We flew there in an old Norseman pontoon plane, a flying machine that looked like a school science project stapled together with surplus Edsel parts.

Our wilderness aviator, a loud, burly bush pilot named Art, was hours late for takeoff because of a bad case of the green-apple trots. He told us, after a detailed summary of his internal plumbing predicament, that the Norseman was one of the most rugged, durable planes in the bush. Yet the plane turned me as green as forest foliage. On takeoff, as the line of trees at the far side of the lake quickly came into bold relief while the plane cut a wake through the water, Art screamed at us to get to the right side of the cabin. This was the only way he could break a pontoon loose from the water and hope to clear the trees before our excursion turned into a treetop camping trip.

Art lifted just above them, laughing the whole time as he delivered us to our destination, where there were no roads, electricity, plumbing, or toilets. Just a Unabomber-style shack with lanterns, a leaky roof, and an outhouse missing the splintered plywood seat over the latrine pit. There was also a barbecue pit covered with a twisted iron grate. I discovered that the only difference between grilled wilderness food and the griddled fare served in your average diner is the spunkiness of the bugs.

Most of our food came from cans, Styrofoam, boxes, or plastic bags. Everything was fried except for the Wonder Bread when it wasn't used for toast. Every meal was Spam and eggs, or bacon and eggs, or eggs and fried macaroni and cheese, or pork and beans over eggs over easy, or ground beef. The insects loved everything we cooked.

Despite the menu, we weren't bad cooks as much as we were dangerous cooks. When it was my turn at the pit, I set out to cook a package of ground beef, which I opened and left intact because it roughly resembled the shape of my mother's meatloaf. I stacked a pile of kindling and logs in the campfire hole. Once the fire was going, my intention was to place the bent and mottled iron grate over the rocks around the hole and toss on the meat. Only I couldn't get the fire going, even after a book and a half of matches. The kindling was too damp. So I took a can of Coleman lantern fuel and dumped it on the measly embers I was able to muster. My appetite was consumed in a fireball, as was most of my hair. The Jimmy Page decal, the one where he plays a double-neck guitar on "Stairway to Heaven," curled right off my Led Zeppelin concert T-shirt.

Between Art, the food, and the cooking techniques, I don't know how we survived the wilderness. Then again, I don't know how we survived the Wilderness Grill either. On our first visit, the place was virtually void of humanity, an air of authenticity I'm sure was unintended. Off to the right, beyond the rocks where a giant teddy bear sits on a cliff and a stuffed prairie dog stands erect on a canyon ledge over a makeshift falls, are the remains of the Naturally Untamed retail store. The gift shop suffered extinction just a couple of weeks after the restaurant opened.

I asked the hostess what the place sold. "Things people buy to stick on their shelves," she said. "You know, stuff to dust."

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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