Restaurant Reviews

Battle of the Buffets

Until recently, I couldn't remember the last time I walked out of a restaurant without at least sampling the fare. I didn't stroll out of that little German storefront in Bay Harbor Islands where the chef quit right after we'd ordered and our waiter volunteered to cook our bratwurst. I didn't leave the Haitian joint that promised the best lambi in North Miami just because a couple of pistol-packing customers were conducting a drug deal. I didn't stalk out of the sidewalk cafe in Barcelona where a roach walked over my foot right before the paella arrived, or that place in Peru where the cooks rub the food over their bodies before they send it out of the kitchen (the pheromones are supposed to connect the diner to the cook and ensure return visits).

I don't leave precipitously, and that, I've found, is an advantage. While I'm not sure I'd care to sit through another cocaine exchange, I certainly wouldn't want to draw attention to myself by leaving at the wrong moment. As for the rest of those unappetizing culinary arenas, they all turned out OK in the end. The restaurant in Peru was really terrific; aside from body odor, they also served up a great fillet of caiman and a wonderful turtle soup. The Spanish paella contained prawns that were bigger than the roaches -- and if you've seen those Southern European vermin, you'll know that the shrimp were mighty large. Even the server in the German restaurant wound up to be an accomplished line cook.

Despite all of these ultimately positive experiences, I couldn't bring myself to go through with it at the new Mongolian Grille, where you take a bowl, fill it at the "marketplace" with a variety of meats, fish, shellfish, vegetables, oils, sauces, and spices, and watch the cooks stir-fry it for you on a communal grill.

For one thing, the setting at this burgeoning Cincinnati-based chain, which recently came to South Florida via its first location in Boca Raton, is utterly unappealing. A stark interior is supposed to evoke 13th-century Mongolia, when Genghis Khan ruled most of the then-known world (Asia and Eastern Europe, from China to about Hungary). High ceilings accentuate incessantly beaten gongs. Smoke pours out from the grill, where whatever you choose for dinner is dumped next to somebody else's concoction (leftover debris is shoved toward a hole in the center) and stirred with long pieces of wood by young men in T-shirts that bear the slogan, "You pick it, we stick it." Eyes watering, we asked our waiter how many customers complained about the acrid atmosphere. "A lot," he admitted.

But I could deal with rock-concert decibel levels, dried-out contact lenses, and clothes that stank like a campfire stoked with garlic had the food in any way been reflective of a true Mongolian barbecue. The stuff the Grille presents is, much like the legend of Genghis Khan related on the back of the menu, more of a perversion than anything else. With the exception of the infamous barbarian's name, of course, which Mongolian Grille spells as Ghengis.

I acknowledge that most Americans wouldn't want to eat traditional Mongolian fare -- boiled mutton, salty tea, horse-milk liquor. But the only patrons who are going to believe that this is authentic Mongolian barbecue are the ones who learned their history watching Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. A real Mongolian grill is indeed a communal one, usually a hibachi, but it sits on the table (or, in the days of Khan, in the middle of a circle of warriors in an open field). The diners cook their own food, usually slices of lamb dipped in spices or a marinade (Korean barbecue, or bulgogi, is a direct descendent of this method). A variation on the theme is a Mongolian fire pot, which is a large pot of simmering broth; diners dip meats and vegetables in the stock like fondue.

At Mongolian Grille, the only thing in the center of your table is a tent advertising drink specials. The "fire pot" is the soup that comes with your meal -- we had the choice of the oh-so-Mongolian turkey-mushroom or broccoli -- and an American-style salad bar. The grill is where you get to stand and wait while the cooks toss your bowl of whatever around and make off-color jokes, for which you are expected to tip them (a jar with dollar bills sits on the ledge). And that's before you discover that if your meat is properly succulent, then your vegetables have gotten soggy and vice versa; stir-fry aficionados allow for the fact that some ingredients cook faster than others.

However, I still would have tried a bowl or two of lamb with peanut sauce or broccoli with hoisin (spelled hoisen on the menu) -- for $12.99, you can eat as much as you want and make as many dishes as you care to -- had I not gotten a stomach-turning glimpse of the piles of raw beef, lamb, chicken, shrimp, and tuna, to name a few. True, the goods are kept in a cold table. But not every type of meat and shellfish is actually being stored at the same temperatures, given that the flesh has been previously chopped and piled up, with pieces on top getting less refrigeration than those on the bottom. In addition, the amount of jumbled ingredients and cross-contamination going on here makes me long to rename this place Waiting to E. Coli. So in the case of Mongolian Grille, I'll go with that ancient Mongolian saying. You know the one: "Breakfast, keep for yourself; lunch, share with your friends; dinner, give to your enemies."

Or I'll just compare it to buffet places like the nearby Kyojin Buffet, a new Japanese all-you-can-eat located in the old Moran's spot in Boca. Like Mongolian Grille, the Kyojin has a grill where cooks will make you a stir-fry. One of the differences is that here, the meat, chicken, and shrimp aren't sliced until you request them, and then the whole dish is cooked properly: first oil, then meat, then veggies, then a touch of sauce. The result is a plate of tender, steaming food, full of flavor that you wind up tasting during the meal rather than smelling in your hair afterward. Best of all, you don't have to stand and wait for it. The chefs bring you the dish when it is finished -- and they don't shove a tip jar in your face for the courtesy.

Kyojin has other distinct characteristics as well. Chefs stand behind the sushi bar and continuously make the 30-odd selections fresh, replenishing them constantly as the diners deplete them. The choices range from white tuna to seared mahi-mahi to conch. Rolls are generous and inventive -- try the crunchy salmon roll with a deep-fried crust -- and hand rolls are available on request.

Soup and salad come with the meal here too, but the soup is a bowl of soba noodles with tempura shrimp. You add the broth on the spot. And the salad is seaweed, a bit more appropriate than iceberg lettuce and carrots with ranch dressing.

As with any buffet, Kyojin has one notable flaw: It's not yet busy enough to keep the hot food from becoming stale. A shrimp dish had a skin on top; spring rolls tasted refried; tempura vegetables were doughy. But items like the sesame chicken retained both moisture and heat, and fried rice and a mellow noodle dish with cabbage were pleasant companions. This problem will improve, I'd imagine, as more customers discover Kyojin's upside: The made-to-order sushi buffet, which in my opinion is pretty much the only scenario under which a diner should be handling the raw materials.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick