Dining In The Wild

Restaurant: The spectacular Rainforest Cafe takes its customers on a noisy, nature-filled adventure. Here's a survival guide.

Sunday Gourmet

May 16, 1999|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Of all the theme restaurants that have opened in the area, surely the most spectacular is the new Rainforest Cafe in Towson Town Center. A large chunk of the mall's second level has been transformed into a jungle, with vegetation that almost grows while you watch; live fish and trained parrots; animated gorillas, alligators and butterflies; shooting stars and rainbows; waterfalls and threatening weather every 15 minutes or so.

On my first foray into the Rainforest Cafe, our waiter introduced himself as "your survival guide." OK, what he really said was "your safari guide," but it was noisy. It got me to thinking, though. That's exactly what you need there: a survival guide. And I'm prepared to volunteer my services.

Here are nine things to keep in mind for a good time:

1) Your table is ready, madam. Not many trendy new chain restaurants accept reservations. The Rainforest Cafe does. Take advantage of it.

2) If you can't stand the thunderstorm, get out of the jungle. What you must be prepared for above all is the noise. Just before the thunder, for instance, the animated gorillas start chittering and growling and howling in alarm. This is terrifying to small children and would make it difficult to conclude a business deal. Rock music plays and elephants trumpet. On the positive side, no one will complain if your 2-year-old throws a tantrum because he can't have a second dessert. No one will be able to hear him.

3) Read the fine print. The motto is "A Wild Place to Shop and Eat." Now if you were a restaurant owner, wouldn't you put the word "eat" before "shop"? At least they let you know right up front where the priorities are. You have no reason to be appalled at the staggering amount of jungle-related merchandise strategically placed in front of the dining-room entrance. Tell your kid before you leave home that you're going for dinner, not to buy stuffed elephants.

4) This ain't Margaritaville, hon. Don't order the house drink, the margarilla. It tastes and looks artificially orange, is very sweet and has sugar around the rim instead of salt. But don't make the mistake of ordering a traditional margarita instead. I've had worse, but not often.

5) Possession is 99 percent of possession. When you've waited a really long time and the safari guide brings you the appetizers that belong to the table next to you, just take them. Don't tell him it's a mistake, as we foolishly did. First of all, most of the appetizers are pretty good. (We know because we ordered a sampler, the Awesome Appetizer Adventure, which included chicken wings, coconut-encrusted chicken strips, bruschetta and a Mexican version of stuffed wontons.) Second, if your waiter has to go find your appetizers, you won't be finished with them when all the rest of your food gets to the table a few moments later.

6) Do as I say, not as I did. If we had ordered just the following dishes, we would have had a very good meal:

Island bruschetta. Slices of baguette are toasted with garlic butter and Parmesan cheese. They're topped with a fresh- tasting dice of ripe red tomatoes and fresh basil.

House salad. A good mesclun mix and more of those fine diced tomatoes are dressed with an excellent balsamic vinaigrette.

Filet mignon with three fat barbecued shrimp wrapped in bacon. The beef is good, and it comes cooked as ordered. You can have it blackened or with roasted red pepper basil butter. On the side are waffle fries, mixed vegetables and crisp frizzled onions that soak up the beef juices deliciously.

Coconut bread pudding. It's moist and flavorful, with a couple of small scoops of delicious vanilla ice cream on the side. And it's daintier than it sounds, so you don't feel overwhelmed. Actually, you won't go wrong with the Rainforest Cafe's sweets, whether you get the bread pudding, the Key lime pie or the tortoise ice cream pie. Someone in the kitchen knows the importance of desserts that taste and look good -- that's not always true in a family restaurant.

7) Never order something called Rasta Pasta. It sounds tempting: bow ties, strips of chicken, red peppers, broccoli and spinach in a garlic cream sauce. But the sauce is gray, which makes everything look unappetizing, and its garlic will knock you off your chair.

8) Did someone say kid-friendly? Sure, this is a great place for children -- but only within a certain age range. Small children may be taken aback by the noise; kids too old for Tracy the Talking Tree could get bored quickly. The 13-year-old who was with us fidgeted. And neither the menu nor the waiter warned her that her Siam chicken stir-fry would pack a powerful peppery wallop -- too fiery for any of us to eat. On the other hand, she loved those desserts.

9) Take the good with the bad. The food and the service could -- and should -- have been better, considering the prices. But give credit where credit is due. The tropical birds on exhibit from noon to 8 p.m. are fascinating, and maybe some child will get interested in real rainforests because of the atmosphere here. Donations to the Wishing Pond go to environmental and community causes. And finally, the Rainforest Cafe has a free educational program on the environment available to groups and schools.

RAINFOREST CAFE

Food: **

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: Level Two, Towson Town Center, Towson

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $4.99-$12.99; entrees, $8-$19

Call: 410-321-0300

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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