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.
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.
Still, I half-expected crowds of cherubim, seraphim, and archangels to drop from the black sky perforated with twinkling lights and dart among the trees and shrubs and maybe bless the food or dance to the kinetic tunes throbbing from the speakers. Or maybe they could turn the wine list -- a thing dominated almost exclusively by modest Chardonnays, Cabernets, and Merlots -- into something more interesting.
There was not only twinkling at Angels. There was tinkling. A majestic three-level fountain wedged into a wall encrusted with mirrors trickled soothingly throughout the dining room. But fountain dribbles splashed and splattered all over those mirrors, creating a filmy water spot smudge. This instantly shattered the illusion that Angels is more spacious than its actual dimensions, which is what mirrors are supposed to convey, I suppose.
But other decorative touches invigorated the somewhat forced park theme. Walls done in limestone slabs crawled with fake vines. A gazebo with a transparent pyramid lid flickered weakly with luminescent flashes. It's hard to tell if this bit of illusory glimmer was an underachieving lightning bolt or an overachieving star twinkle.
Then there's the partition separating the dining room from the bar. It looks like an exterior wall pilfered from a quaint little Montana country house Ted Kaczynski might have lived in if he had spent more time reading Martha Stewart instead of The Anarchist Cookbook. The house fragment was complete with siding, paned windows, and aluminum gutters with wide downspouts. Who ever heard of a park with a house in it that wasn't a public restroom?
But this was no wee wee bungalow. On the other side of that wall is Angels' bar, an elegantly handsome space with hardwood floors, rich circular wood tables, and thick, roughly stuccoed walls resembling the frosting on a layered carrot cake. Along one wall is an extraordinarily long sofa, a thing that could sleep the entire Dallas City Council and still have room for the mayor and his golf clubs if it were a hide-a-bed.
Which is maybe where you'd want to turn in after dinner in the park, because the entrées lull you into listlessness. Grilled chicken penne pasta in sun-dried tomato thyme cream sauce had lots of juicy, bland pieces of chicken, but the dish was strangely stingy with pasta tubes, which were plugged in a veggie medley of zucchini, yellow squash, carrots, and green bell pepper. My companion enjoyed the subdued, smooth nuttiness of the sauce, but I was wishing for a more pronounced sun-dried tomato zing.
Pan-roasted center-cut pork tenderloin -- golden brown patches of meat curled from a long, harsh stay on the stove -- was a chore to chew. The thin disks of meat generously rimmed in fat required the gnawing force one might deploy on sackcloth. This is too bad, because the surrounding dishes yearned for worthy loins to frame. Spicy apple chutney with golden raisins was tender and tangy with a subtle gust of cinnamon. A smooth dollop of horseradish-whipped potatoes was heartily elegant with a light breeze of piquancy.
Varnished in a floral mango-apricot glaze, the rotisserie-roasted half-chicken was delicious save for the slight dryness of the meat. A side of garlic-roasted potatoes was moist and hearty.
Cowboy-cut bone-in rib eye, a thin patch of meat, came resoundingly gray instead of the medium rare requested. The beef was arid and shy on richness. Steamed veggies -- zucchini, yellow squash, and red bell pepper -- were perfectly prepared, striking the right balance between firmness and tenderness. Baked potato came with a ramekin of sour cream topped with shavings of yellow cheese and fresh bacon debris.
A dessert of four-berry pie seemed carelessly expulsed from a microwave. Scaldingly hot filling spilled from the edges of the pie while the crust, striped with icing, was soft, mushy, and blurred into the berry mess. Coffee kicked butt though.
So did the service. From the hosts to the servers to the bus boys everyone here was uniformly gracious and attentive, and they expended every effort to make you feel sincerely welcome. Sometimes it's easy to excuse lapses in menu execution when service is this good. But as happens too often at venues concerned with creating an environment unrelated to dining, the food seems to take a back seat to the concept. And instead of the energy being focused on the food on the plate, it seems directed into the bark on the trees.
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