Meaty meals with a Brazilian accent

Restaurant: The Malibu Grill in Columbia embodies current trends for Latino food, lots of beef and tapas. Its lakeside setting doesn't hurt, either.

Sunday Gourmet

June 25, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

If you decided to create a restaurant from what the National Restaurant Association says are the hottest culinary trends right now, it would look something like the Malibu Grill in Columbia.

Latino food. Check.

Beef in quantity. Check.

Tapas. Check.

Throw in some margaritas and rich desserts for good measure, and put such a restaurant in one of the most pleasant settings imaginable, such as the green and peaceful waterfront of Columbia's Lake Kittamaqundi. Voila! A can't-miss prospect.

So why isn't every table filled at the Malibu Grill on a nice evening in June?

The reasons aren't readily apparent. The Malibu is a chain restaurant, but a respectable one, with an intriguing concept based on the Rio de Janeiro churrascaria, or steakhouse.

After you've been seated and ordered drinks, you can help yourself to the buffet at any time. You choose from hot and cold dishes, most but not all of which have a Brazilian accent.

You could start with a soup (this night it was a not-very-tempting meat and vegetable); make yourself an hors d'oeuvre plate of potato salad, marinated mushrooms, canned tuna fish, mussels on the half shell with snippets of pimento and the like; or simply have a very good salad, perhaps with the restaurant's gorgonzola vinaigrette.

Meanwhile meats are being grilled on 2-foot-long skewers in the back of the restaurant: sirloin steak, beef ribs, thick chunks of turkey wrapped in bacon, sausage, pork and lamb. (On a mid-week evening when the restaurant was half-empty, lamb had been taken off the menu.)

Servers in Brazilian cowboy costume wander around the tables holding skewers filled with meat. On each table is a wooden prop about the size of a croquet mallet head. Half of it is painted red, half green (as in stop and go). When you're ready for meat, you stand it on one end so the green is on top. Sooner or later a server stops by with his skewer.

Did you wonder what those tongs were that came with your silverware? The server carves a piece of meat half off, you tug at it with your tongs and place it on your plate.

We were seated at one of the outdoor tables on a beautiful June evening, which was great; but maybe because of that we weren't visited as quickly as we should have been. (My husband kept muttering, "Where's the beef?")

If the same thing happens to you, tell your waitress. (She's not the same as the meat bearers.) She'll not only get someone to you posthaste, but she'll also send you the kind of meat you want--as in rare sirloin, or chicken legs.

The meat is marinated, highly seasoned and very salty. I'd recommend the meat-falling-off-the-bone beef ribs with their crisp fat, but the rest of our table preferred the smoky-flavored turkey wrapped in bacon. The meats tend to run together because the seasonings are so similar.

While you're waiting for the next skewer to come around, go back to the buffet and get hot dishes, which might be meatballs, black beans, rice, polenta, okra, squash or fried bananas.

The only seafood that's grilled, salmon, is also on the buffet; but it goes so quickly we never got more than scraps. The buffet's 20 cold dishes and 11 hot ones rotate; not everything is available every night. Some are excellent, such as a cold green-bean salad made with fresh beans and the polenta. Some are fairly tasteless, such as the potato salad and the meatballs.

The Malibu Grill has two qualities that make it a good family restaurant. You can get something for the kids to eat right away, and they'll like the exotic way meat is served.

On the other hand, this isn't kid food: They'll have to have fairly sophisticated tastes, or they'll be limited to such things as the tuna fish, rice and salad from the buffet.

If you're lucky, the place won't be too busy and you'll get one of the outdoor tables. Not that there's anything wrong with the indoors -- a lot of money has been spent to redo the spot that was a Sgt. Pepper's restaurant. But it's basically one big room with lots of wood and little in the way of fabric. Add some jazzy Brazilian music, and it gets pretty noisy.

If you like the flavors of Latin food and can eat enough to make it worth your while, Malibu Grill is worth knowing about; but otherwise for the price you can get a pretty good-sized strip steak and two vegetables at a lot of restaurants in the area, so it's not really a bargain.

If you order dessert, it can quickly up the ante. Of the ones we tried, the homemade apple cake seemed to be made of brown sugar and very little else and the profiteroles were chewy. Both came with watery vanilla ice cream. Only the creamy, coconut-infused flan was worth the calories or the cash.

MALIBU GRILL

Food: * * 1/2

Service: * * *

Atmosphere: * * 1/2

Where: 10125 Wincopin Circle, Columbia

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner weekdays, brunch and dinner weekends

Prices: Lunch, $8.95, $5.95 for children; dinner, $15.95, $7.95 for children; weekend brunch, $11.95, $6.95 for children

Call: 410-964-5566

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

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