Monday, August 8, 2011

Chopsticks, napkins, water and ear plugs

It doesn’t take much to make me happy when dining out with friends. It’s always nice, of course, if the food is decent, the company good and the ambiance a euphonic blend of quiet background music, candlelight and the reverential clinking of silverware meeting fine china.

Saturday evening our weekend gang – Denise and Stan, Susan and John, the lovely Miss Wendy and me – just about struck out. The company was grand, but the food was only okay and the ambiance seemed plucked from a steel foundry. I’ll explain.

Looking for something a little different, we all agreed to try out one of those happening make-it-yourself stir-fry restaurants that are popping up across the Land of Cotton. The Big Chow Grill takes up a corner of a struggling mall complex in the northern ’burbs; an expansive space featuring high ceilings, lots of glass, pendant lights, exposed pipes and ducts.

The gimmick that you’re either gonna love or hate involves working your way around a counter filled with veggies, starches, protein – fish, meat, chicken, tofu – and sauces. The idea is that you fill your bowl with whatever captures your attention, pile it high and hand it off to a squadron of waiting cooks.

The problem begins when you start mixing and matching. Truth to tell, I have absolutely no idea what the sauces taste like and what blends well together. I’ve tried places like this before and no matter what I manage to create in my ten minutes of foraging, it always ends up tasting the same – a little spicy, a little sweet, mostly bland with a toxic aftertaste.

That pretty much describes the mound of stir-fried stuff that landed in front of me moments after we’d finished a batch of wilted and overcooked egg rolls. But, well, we still had the good company thing going on – a splendid melding of conversation and booze.

Unfortunately, the booze was a little watered down and the conversation was difficult since it seemed we were sitting smack in the middle of a foundry – at least that’s what it sounded like. Imagine a place where there are blast furnaces, huge pieces of machinery and workmen yelling above the roar of clanging, clattering gizmos. Now bottle that noise and release it inside the gym where Duke is facing off against North Carolina for the ACC championship. For good measure, add a sonic boom and the ka-thunk of a helicopter flying overhead.

After an hour of attempting to make small talk, yelling at John and Stan across the table and screaming at their wives, I had more or less lost my voice. I was reduced to using remedial sign language – shoulder shrugs, a few obscene gestures and the occasional smile – to communicate.

Okay, so I exaggerate; but not all that much. We had the misfortune of being seated next to a group of 30 or so kids, all simply out for a fun evening and all chatting very loudly. They did absolutely nothing wrong. The acoustics simply couldn’t handle the traffic. I couldn’t either.

You know that old saw about how good it feels when you quit banging your head against a wall. It works the same with noise. I’m here to tell you that the sound of silence is a treat once you’ve had a meal at the Big Chow Grill. It’s a mediocre dining experience I won’t be repeating.

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