What I love most about Rainforest Cafe, that strenuously earth-conscious restaurant that looks like a foliage riot designed by Phillips Petroleum Co., is its seeming blindness to the juicy irony it serves up like a dribbling half-pound beef patty. This garish theme feedery and ecologically fortified gift shop was launched three years ago in Minneapolis' Mall of America by Steven Schussler, developer of the Juke Box Saturday Night nightclub chain that spread across the Midwest several years ago. The original Rainforest Cafe has since sprouted 13 siblings in places such as Phoenix, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, London, Cancun, New Jersey, Mexico City, and, this October, Grapevine.
Projected openings in 1998 include Denver, Las Vegas, and Detroit, with future locations planned for Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma--the last three locales perhaps more in need of restaurants devoted to the plights of humans rather than to the troubles of smelly, fetid jungles.
Nevertheless, Rainforest Cafe is a sight to behold. Housed in Grapevine Mills, the new 170-store, 1.5 million-square-foot outlet mall, this precious jungle replica is enveloped in endless blankets of plastic foliage. The dining-room floor is dotted with fake trees, prefab rock formations, and dozens of giant mechanical butterflies moving their wings in elegant slow motion.
At the rear of the restaurant, a noisy waterfall splashes around a golden abs-of-steel, block-headed Atlas figure. He's holding up a globe with "rescue the rain forest" blazoned in neon across its equator--as if Arnold Schwarzenegger and a couple of rocket launchers were all that is needed to preserve the world's humid eco-tourist destinations. Animated gorillas intermittently howl, beat their chests, and shake trees. Elephant heads, embedded along one wall like the trophies of big-game hunters, periodically flap their ears and trumpet. Storms rumble across the ceiling with cracks of thunder and flashes of strobe lightning, traumatizing small children. Steam rises from various knots of fake plant life, and a tinkling of rain, isolated in beds of greenery, lends credibility to the moniker.
Amazingly, the creators of this polystyrene wildlife refuge thought it necessary to inject background music into the mix, presumably to harmonize the perpetual flood of high-decibel grunts, hoots, screams and cracks.
A spokeswoman for the Rainforest Cafe says that all of this simulated lushness is designed to "raise awareness" among the public to the plight of the rain forest and inspire them to take action to protect it. Before we even get to the menu, we run smack into the wagging finger of high-minded environmentalism urging us to do our fair share. This undercurrent of sanctimony is a prime source of Rainforest indigestion. We see these same undercurrents in the hordes of limousine-riding Hollywood celebrities engaged in waking us poor saps up to the environmental swellness of recycling, going meatless, and dramatically scaling back gasoline consumption.
And we see this undercurrent in morally unbreachable folks like Sting, who launched rain forest relief concerts and a foundation that raised millions of dollars before facing accusations that a piddly 5 percent of the proceeds were spent on actually saving rain forests. (Rainforest Cafe has close ties and funnels money to the Rainforest Foundation, a group Sting helped organize.)
This hypocrisy is the source of Rainforest Cafe's most deliciously explicit ironies. It has a menu larded with beef even though the Al Gores of the world tell us that cow farts are among the most potent greenhouse gases and clear-cutting for cattle ranching is one of the most serious threats to the Amazon rain forest. (The Rainforest spokeswoman tells me this is irrelevant because Rainforest Cafe does not acquire beef from any country that has a great deal of deforestation, as if the laws of supply and demand over an entire market have no impact on local producers). And of course, Rainforest Cafe is loaded with foliage and cheesy gifts borne of a great tsunami of petrochemicals.
The thing that's robustly evident about Rainforest Cafe is that it's designed to generate an Amazon River-full of cash, a goal it is realizing at a blistering pace: Their installation near Disney World is among the top-grossing restaurants in the country. Not that there's anything wrong with honest buck-generation. It's just that they're embracing the trappings of a movement that traditionally spits buckets of vitriol on free markets, industrialization, and the profit motive.
Their shrewd attempts to siphon dollars from your wallet is evident in the laborious rituals they thrust upon you before you can even get a seat in the place to buy food. Just as you must do before you enter a real exotic rain forest, this venue requires a passport, which is obtained at the "your adventure begins here" stand. These booklets contain your safari name and the time you are to proceed to the "elephant" booth to get your passport stamped. It also has menu descriptions and the "five E's of Rainforest Cafe," which include entertainment, environment ("We...attempt to raise environmental awareness of all those around us."), education ("We are committed to educating the community regarding environmental and wildlife issues."), employees, and, of course, earnings.
Passports are issued near a pond containing a huge rubber crocodile that without warning opens its mouth, roars, and lunges at prospective diners--leaving me to hope Grapevine Mills has the staff to handle cardiac emergencies. People respond by chucking coins at the thing, assured by the management that their offerings will be collected and used for the welfare of real rain forest lizards.
At least 30 minutes, and more likely an hour, lapses from the time your passport is issued to the time you proceed to the elephant to have it validated. In between the passport issuing and stamping stations is the gift shop, a retail mecca of Rainforest-monikered shirts, caps, Day-Glo characters, shampoo toys, games, and even a Rainforest Cafe preservation kit that can be purchased to save an actual piece of rain forest--a parcel, it is hoped, that is not in a mall. The shop is also the home of Tracy tree, a tree trunk with a transplanted Thomas the Tank Engine face that moves its mouth, rolls its eyes, and spouts pithy nuggets of environmental propaganda in a smarmy Suzie homemaker voice every 30 seconds. "Reduce, reuse, recycle. We'll all do our part," she says, leaving you to wonder what percentage of Tracy timbermaid is made from recycled copies of Al Gore's Earth in the Balance.
Well after you've tired of hollowing out your personal assets with conspicuous eco-conscious consumption (many of the companies whose products are proffered donate to environmental causes), a woman with a headset announces it's time to get in line and wait for a table.
"Scorpion safari of two, please approach the elephant, your adventure is about to begin," she might say. Other safari names include turtle, waterfall, Baja, panther, and reef. The facts that Baja is a desert and that reefs don't exist in rain forests don't seem to bother anyone in this environmentally sound circus boasting education as a primary mission.
Interestingly, the entrance to the restaurant is an arching 5,000-gallon saltwater aquarium containing "humanmade" coral reefs because "removing real coral...could upset the delicate balance of our planet's fragile oceanic ecosystems." Tanks of Amazon river species such as kissing gouramis, marbled hatchet fish, electric eels, or even piranhas would be authentic and far more interesting, but that point seems lost on these rain-forest proselytizers.
When you're finally seated at a table, you're presented with the portion of the adventure that seems a footnote: the menu. And the odd thing about this experience is that the food-service end of it is respectable. The service is gracious, efficient, and attentive--remarkable considering the crowds that relentlessly stream into the place. Sure, the menu is choked with stupid names like "eyes of the ocelot" (meatloaf), "mojo bones" (ribs), and "Congo mogambo" (sauteed shrimp). But the calypso dip--a baked dip made from a blend of salmon, artichoke hearts, onions, and Parmesan cheese and served with warm, fresh pita bread--rose above its dippy moniker with a pleasantly creamy, fluffy texture, almost like a custard, and slightly smoky flavors cut by a crisp tang lent by the artichokes.
A real surprise was the very ungreen primal cut, a 21-day-aged New York strip. Done to a perfect medium-rare hue, this slab of beef topped with poblano-chile-herb butter was tender, juicy, and ripe with rich meat flavor. A side of grilled veggies, however, was over-oiled and mushy, while the waffle fries were slightly spongy. Islands in the stream--a charbroiled salmon filet marinated in a soy mustard vinaigrette and topped with scallions--was firm and succulent, and flaked delicately on the fork. But a side of soy-mustard dipping sauce added a strong sweetness that overpowered the rich nuances of the flesh and neutralized much of the subtle marinade bite. But a side of chunky herb mashed potatoes added creamy heartiness to the ensemble.
Perhaps the best way to experience this enviro-wonderland without suffering through the commercial slurry of the restaurant seating process is to capture a seat at the magic mushroom juice and coffee bar. It's a 42-foot toadstool surrounded by bar seats fashioned out of the hindquarters of zoo animals. Not only can you supplement your magic mushroom experience with alcoholic beverages, you can order anything off the menu, such as the southern cross, a vegetable lasagna layered with savoy spinach, fresh mushrooms, zucchini, sweet Bermuda onions, eggplant, and fresh peppers. This entree of green congruence was remarkably fresh, with all its ingredients neatly folded into supple lasagna noodles, assaulted with just the right amount of heat, and covered with chunky, tangy marinara salsa.
Less impressive was the Amazon burger, a half-pound charbroiled patty blanketed with sweet caramelized onions and Swiss cheese. Cooked to the appropriate medium-rare tinge, the meat was juicy but virtually flavorless, and the bun dry and chalky.
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Rainforest Rick's apple crisp proved a good cap to our exercise in jungle digestion, however. It had tart, firm slices of apple topped with a scoop of nutmeg-infused vanilla ice cream over a smooth layer of crisp that was sweet, but not sugary.
The Rainforest Cafe theme is difficult to swallow both in form and content. The food is surprisingly tight, and the service shows a high degree of training and consistent professionalism, all the more impressive when you consider that the pressure in this place never lets up. But the foul taste rendered by a potent dash of sanctimonious environmental consciousness-raising dissonantly coupled with brazen commercialism could never be remedied by even the best food. If I want to heighten my awareness of the salutary benefits of natural surroundings, I'll make myself a ham sandwich and eat it on a bench in the Dallas Arboretum, where my experience will no doubt be twice as enjoyable as anything dished up at the Rainforest Cafe.
Rainforest Cafe, A wild place to shop and eat. Grapevine Mills Mall, 635 & 121, Entrance 2. (972) 539-5001. Open Monday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. No reservations accepted.
Calypso Dip $6.96
Amazon Burger $7.95
Southern Cross $9.95
Primal Cut $15.95
Islands in the Stream $12.95
Rainforest Rick's Apple Crisp $4.95