Design your own meal

Restaurant: Columbia's Mongolian Grill lets you choose your own ingredients -- and eat all you want.

August 22, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

I'm not sure what Mongolians have to do with it, but the concept of the Mongolian Grill is a good one. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet where the food is cooked to order, so it hasn't sat around in chafing dishes. And you get to pick exactly what ingredients are being cooked for you. The concept was so successful in Bethesda that the owners opened a second Mongolian Grill in a shopping center in Columbia.

The Columbia location has a sort of handsome minimalism to it. Some might call it bare, but it's hard to do much in the way of decor when a great deal of your dining room is filled with buffet bars and salad bars.

On one side of the dining room are tables and a bar bar, the kind that serves liquor. On the other are the grills where several cooks work, a salad bar, and a buffet table with raw meat and seafood, vegetables and 30 different sauces and condiments. That may seem like a lot, but some of them are items like sugar water, lemon water, wine, soy sauce and sesame oil.

When the hostess seats you, she gives everyone at the table a number on a little plastic rectangle. You take your number with you when you go up to the buffet. You fill a bowl with as many vegetables as you want and then place thinly sliced beef, lamb, chicken, pork, scallops, calamari, squid or fish -- or any combination thereof -- on top. Finally you add pre-mixed sauces or ingredients to make your own sauces.

You don't have to stand and wait while your food is being cooked because you turn in your number with the bowl of raw ingredients. When your meal is ready, the waitress brings the dish to your table.

It really is a fun concept; but having seen how it can be done much more successfully in a Mongolian grill in, of all places, Williamsburg, I didn't appreciate Columbia's version as much as I might have otherwise.

The problem is that no matter how full you fill your bowl with colorful vegetables, what you get back is a little brown mass at the bottom of the bowl. That's because the vegetables are cut fairly small to begin with (carrots, for instance, are grated) and the cook must chop them even further on the grill. And there are no vegetables like snow peas that might hold their shape and color.

Like other all-you-can-eat buffets, the meal is expensive if you only go up once. Dinner does come with a soup of the day (this day chicken and Asian noodle) and the salad bar, which when we were there was filled with ingredients that looked a bit tired.

I'm not sure if many people bother with appetizers because you can go up and get your entree whenever you please, but we started with an a la carte mixed platter for two. Everything on it was fried -- spring rolls, chicken fingers, pot sticker dumplings and two decidedly un-Asian jalapeno poppers(fried hot peppers stuffed with cream cheese). All of them were great, cooked to order in fresh oil.

The owners of the Mongolian Grill don't attempt to serve Asian desserts to American diners. Instead the pastry tray offers chocolate suicide, tiramisu cake, Reese's Peanut Butter pie and carrot cake. No, they aren't baked on the premises, but the kitchen does make sure they are fresh.

MONGOLIAN GRILL

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 8865 Stanford Blvd., Columbia

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-6.95; entrees, $13.95 (children under 12, $5.95)

Call: 410-290-0690

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

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