Restaurant Reviews

Big Bore

Sometimes Big Bowl isn't big enough to fit all of the corn flakes that want to get in. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, they give you one of those flashing, vibrating duck calls that always seem to go off the second you get the bartender's attention. This is unfortunate, because those pagers with the little red lights, which flash and flop like part of an arcade game, would sure be a lot less alarming with a gin fizz under the belt.

Big Bowl is a new Brinker International venue that the company plans to plant from here to Timbuktu, or at least Denver. It's an Asian mare's nest with Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese strands and is located in the flat earth of Frisco across from Stonebriar Centre. The landscape out here is peculiar. Other than the mall, which hovers like Oz across the street, and the chain restaurants that have popped up like toadstools with neon fringe along the flanks, Frisco from a Big Bowl vantage point is breathtakingly flat and featureless. You could probably see clear to Myrtle Beach if it weren't for all of the crane booms and trucks blocking the view. This seems an odd place for an Asian restaurant.

Not that some of Big Bowl's offerings aren't good. It's just that if you're looking for some of the esoteric flavors or ingredients--such as bible tripe and soft tendon--you won't find them. But you will find a great laundry list of little life-enhancing sayings such as "take chances," "drink tea," "think quick," "breathe deeply," "slurp freely," "talk slow" and "run if the imperial rolls give you the trots."

Just kidding on that last one. Actually the imperial rolls aren't too bad. Saddled with an "in" crowd called the ultimate combo (tender, moist chicken pot stickers, supple vegetable wontons, juicy chicken satay given zing with a tamarind sauce, fresh Vietnamese shrimp summer rolls and a cool sesame peanut noodle salad), the imperial rolls were crispy and flavorful, with a smooth mustard curry sauce to help you forget the golden sheaths were a little greasy.

Calamari was downright killer. The rings of flesh were tender and covered with a crisp, light coating that was well-seasoned. A small dish filled with a clean dipping sauce fashioned from fish sauce, lemon, chilies and scallions gave it a little more personality. There weren't any tentacles in the mix. But then again, this is Brinker. And we're in Frisco.

One of the lines strewn on the Big Bowl's sayings accessory list is "think locally, act globally." Or is it the other way around? Anyway, make sure your local/global cognitive powers are in full swing when faced with Big Bowl's mindful rolls, and act appropriately: Run like hell. These are among the most harrowing dwellers on any menu, more frightening even than bible tripe. Oven-baked something or other is stuffed with dark green vegetable whatchamacallit. The taste comes off like a cross between a sporangium science fair project and blow-torched linoleum. There has to be a terrible mistake here somewhere, at least that's what came up when we tried to be mindful about the experience. Then again, the evening these were sampled, the service was horrendous, too, even though the dining room wasn't spilling over (we were given a duck call at the door, but this may just be a form of courtesy here). Long time lapses slipped in between each dining segment. In fact, the entrées were delivered before those mindful things made their way to our table. We were asked if we wanted to forgo the appetizer. And if there was ever a time to "think quick" and "slurp freely," this was it. Instead we thought slowly and acted foolishly and told him to bring them on. Because of the miscue, the appetizer was comped, though I think restaurants only do this with inedible things, like chopsticks, which there are plenty of, right at your table.

Items on the menu are tagged with a star to indicate spiciness. Thai basil pork with red onions had a star. It was also called out in red, indicating this was a signature dish. But it was neither spicy nor particularly worthy of signature status. The pork was fatty and gristly. The sauce was not only void of heat, the flavor had been evacuated as well. And the rice was a mammary-shaped mound of dry stickiness.

Far better was the pad Thai with grilled salmon, a special that should be a signature if it's elected for a permanent menu stay. Though just slightly dry, the salmon was still flaky and well-flavored with an interesting touch of minced spinach, basil and cilantro sprinkled with lime added as seasoning. The noodles were separate and supple, and the sauce, though a little shy on peanut taste, wisely skirted the tendency to lean into sweetness. A side of simple, sweet green beans was a skillful contrast.

What characterizes Big Bowl at this point is inconsistency. Some dishes are tight and tuned; others are loose to the point of unraveling. Service is the same. In contrast to the troubled fling above, one visit was exceptionally smooth, prompt, efficient and sprinkled with accurate menu knowledge and wit. Such wide chasms in the ebb and flow in the restaurant service pulse can perhaps be explained by the town of Frisco, a notoriously difficult locale to find qualified and reliable service help.

But this is what corporate muscle is for. Big Bowl was hatched in Chicago and created by Bruce Cost and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Cost founded the lauded Monsoon in San Francisco and Ginger Island in Berkeley, California, so Big Bowl has good pedigree. Brinker elbowed into the operation as a joint-venture partner with Lettuce before swallowing it whole earlier this year.

Eight or so Big Bowls are now in place in Chicago, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., with more slated for Dallas-Fort Worth, Phoenix and Denver, so it's primed and torqued to spread, with all of the fecundity that makes chains so much fun to watch when in the midst of a growth spurt.

Big Bowl inside is a sea of amber. The lights are amber. The wooden posts and crossbeams are amber. The lighted posts around the bar shelved in glass hold rows and rows of beer bottles that mostly glow amber, too. Red shutters hang above the open kitchen. An abacus, loaded with what appear to be bagels threaded onto the wires, serves as a backdrop to the hostess stand.

In addition to the menu highlights and lowlifes are a few solid dishes that fall somewhere north of Hades and south of Elysium. Blazing flat noodles with moist chicken, fiery green peppers and bok choy were pretty solid. Yet despite the star and the red ink, this dish was neither spicy nor particularly noteworthy.

Crunchy Sichuan sesame shrimp also had a heat star, and it, too, was noticeably tame. Plus, the mix was a little greasy, and the shrimp were a bit overcooked.

Crunchy chicken noodle soup was a simple, unexciting bit of solid footing. The coated chicken bits were moist and void of sogginess, the bok choy was crisp, and the shanghai noodles were supple. This dish was very clean, the sort of clean that feels good the day after a night of way too many gin fizzes.

Big Bowl would be a fine restaurant if it could inject some orderliness to its portfolio, or at least reorder the orderliness that one would suspect is already there. The service can be all over the place, as can the food (they do have an "interactive" stir-fry bar, so you can assemble the dishes to your own liking). There's no--if a nauseating '80s term can be applied--synergy here. Big Bowl is all bustle dressed in clean, crisp corporate duds, but the heart is in scant evidence. If this were an independent operation, it could be said Big Bowl just needs some time to evolve. But corporate restaurants don't evolve; they just get on track. And that's kind of a bore.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz