As dining in the Planet Hollywood-dominated Nineties continues to be more about entertainment and less about food, kitschy "theme" restaurants are all the rage. Two such New York City eateries are so hip they've drawn national attention: Jekyll & Hyde, whose horror movielike decor includes paintings with eyes that follow you and gargoyles that talk back; and Twins, where seeing double is the norm A each server has a twin also working the room (should one sibling call in sick, the other has to sit out the shift, too). For those who actually care about this sort of thing, the word about the food at these two establishments is that it's not as bad as you might expect.
Not to be outdone by our northern neighbors, Miami has spawned a few of its own kooky cafes. And after dining at two of them, I can say that while I'm not convinced they're in it for the long haul, the fun factor is fairly high. As for the cuisine, it probably would have tasted better had I been fairly high.
Take Tastes Like Chicken. Located at the top of Ocean Drive, this South Beach newcomer specializes in the gastronomically exotic. And the interior, designed by industrial-waste artist Billy Blastoff (best known for his Cherrynoble installation, which he formed exclusively from radioactive material), reflects it. My party sat beneath a sponge-painted mural of a picnic scene in which people-size ants chomped on sandwiches while humans were busily swarming the tablecloth in an industrious double row. A pair of mottoes painted in gold leaf -- "We Cook Anything" and "Tastes Like Chicken or Your Money Back" -- emblazon the mirror behind the bar.
Such provocative declarations practically demand that you test them -- especially when applied to Tastes Like Chicken's menu. Not content with preparing the venison, pheasant, quail, and rabbit other game-oriented eateries have suddenly rediscovered, chef Mike Richards reaches farther afield for atypical delicacies. Make that way farther afield. "Serving game is a trend right now, and I don't want to jump on any covered wagons," says Richards, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America with that school's top honor, the Prix de Paillard. "Sure, we've got all that ordinary nonsense on the menu A buffalo steaks, elk sausage, wood pigeon pie A but that's only because you have to make a few concessions to stay in business. I mean, it's all so redundant these days. What I'm aiming to create is a real safari for the mouth." Not surprisingly, Richards counts among his mentors Calvin W. Schwabe, author of the seminal work, Unmentionable Cuisine.
Ergo appetizers such as offal of opossum in a port wine-and-rosemary reduction. Not exactly for the faint of heart (pardon the pun) and still bearing a faint urine tinge from the kidneys, this visceral melange was rich, albeit tough. Even tougher was the $24.95 price tag. Armadillo fajitas were a bargain by comparison (though this Southwestern-inspired delicacy was a bit too chunky for our taste), topped by a smooth sour cream-based salsa spiked with a hearty puree of roasted garlic and peppers. Tricolore potato chips, a noteworthy innovation, provided an enticing counterpoint.
Shy palates might cringe at the thought of consuming Richards's signature "rain forest crunch," pan-fried Antillean pewees scattered on a bed of steamed eucalyptus leaves and topped with honey-roasted cashew dust. Crisp and grease-free, the birds were nevertheless somewhat brittle. The chef, who believes food can be found anywhere, also offers a bar menu whose more wallet-friendly pricing allows patrons to sample foods they normally wouldn't ever consider trying. We tackled with gusto the baby guinea pig carpaccio (a Peruvian import) seasoned with preserved lemon oil and a dollop of cräme frache. Our sole quibble was that we couldn't seem to forget the dish's origin, given the small circumference of the thin slices. The same went for goldfish ceviche, nicely "cooked" in a tangy-spicy marinade laced with fresh cilantro and Scotch bonnet peppers.
Main courses were slightly less eclectic than the starters -- and not nearly as successful. Intrigued by a section of the menu labeled "Chain of Command," which pairs hunter with prey before serving to the diner (who is, of course, the ultimate predator), we bypassed more beeflike grilled items such as yak, camel, and emu and ordered two entries. Alligator tenderloin was juicy and rare if a little gamy, but the smoked frogs' legs stuffed within were far too salty. An accompanying fire ant-and-basmati rice pilaf, however, was virtually inedible, unappealingly mushy and evidencing hardly any of the promised piquancy. "Backwoods Bear-and-Hare Bourgignon" proved another disappointment, relying too much on mediocre meat and not enough on a good balance of stock and spices. (The bear, which should have been a veritable carnival of carnivorous delight, was utterly flavorless; the hare nothing but sinew. And if this burgundy wasn't of the Gallo Hearty variety, Richards paid too much for it.) An unpleasant musk steamed from the dish.
As we have come to expect from the typical Beach eatery, the service at Tastes Like Chicken was as bad as the stew. A jellyfish sashimi A this and the alligator-frog duet were the only two locally based concoctions A came smothered with lubber grasshopper remoulade, which we had specifically requested on the side. Tempura leeches with sour plum sauce were cold and soggy, as was an arthropod paella. In his search for back-to-roots dining, it seems, Richards skipped the more elemental quest for fire.
Still, I've got to give the man credit for trying. He might want to rethink the restaurant's name, though. Much as I love the moniker, the only chickens we saw in the vicinity of Tastes Like Chicken were the menu-gawkers who were too scared to enter.
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Another good idea is the aptly named Natural Causes Cafe, an animal-friendly South Pointe eatery featuring only those creatures that have departed this life the way God intended them to. Fully deserving of PETA's seal of approval (which it proudly bears), Natural Causes would rather see you starve than consume an animal A or vegetable, for that matter A that perished violently (suicides and roadkill are the only exceptions). The two-month-old bistro, owned by a syndicate of supermodels, is an oddity in another way:
It manages simultaneously to be trendy and accessible.
Still, the hype is unavoidable. On a recent visit, I witnessed one of the model-proprietors autographing menus with cruelty-free lipstick. Diners at nearby tables were too excited even to taste their entrees; my own taste buds, fortunately, aren't as starstruck. My companions and I managed to down a huge sampler platter of aged A and I do mean old A Angus steak, cooked to tender pinkness over a fire that had been kindled with the creature's own skin (to prevent its being made into shoes or clothing). "After-its-prime" rib was another dish of stellar preparation, coated with a sweet barbecue sauce and roasted until the meat had fallen off the bones. A basket of day-old bread was perfect for sopping up the juices. We also tasted the Recycler meat loaf, a delicious concoction of leftover table scraps and boiled bones, whose marrow added a dense and rich flavor. The owners also have signed an exclusive contract with Hodgson Farms, the legendary spread on Michigan's Upper Peninsula that raises the world's only cruelty-free veal. (Rescued from other farms and raised as pets, most of the calves die owing to profound birth defects. Their price tags, as one might guess, are lofty.)
Natural causes aren't the restaurant's only concern. The establishment caters to every conceivable kind of political correctness. Vegetarians can sample crab grass bisque, a local delicacy. Attractively green in hue, the soup is flavored with a dollop of sherry; dandelion ruffs add a spark of sunlight, though we thought a touch of sea salt might have helped the flavor along. The light eater might prefer the "Starving Child," a pricey collection of baby vegetables finished with a savory dressing and presented imaginatively on a broken plate. (The dish's name stems from a special bonus: For each order, the restaurant donates five dollars to a famine relief fund of the diner's choice.)
One word of advice when visiting the only restaurant in Miami guaranteed to serve no din-din before its time: Don't wear feathers, fur, or leather of any kind. The hostess won't hesitate to strip you of inappropriate garments. We saw a woman wrestled out of her suede bustier before being allowed to enter.