In the last few weeks, I’ve had an increasingly difficult time identifying with my fellow countrymen. There’s too much empty rhetoric on the street corners, and the public-opinion polls make me want to pack my bags for Iceland. Call it sadomasochism, but in a last-ditch effort to connect with my people, I went to where I knew I would find plenty of them: our city’s most garishly American tourist-trap chain restaurant.
At Wolfgang Puck’s, at lunchtime on a Thursday, the memory of a pine-scented floor cleaner lingers in the air like a footnote from the nighttime cleaning crew. A bright and enthusiastically colorful tile motif saturates the large open space and asserts a distinctly ’80s vibe. A Hall & Oates song plays through the P.A. system, and next to me, a table of casually attired businessmen discuss strategies for sales and marketing. I order Wolfgang’s Famous Mini Smoked Salmon Pizza ($9.95) as an appetizer and the meatloaf sandwich ($9.95) with a Caesar salad for lunch. We Americans do so love to overindulge.
When it arrives, I find that the pizza is not exactly mini and that the smoked salmon is more akin to brine-cured, cold-smoked slices of lox than the meaty, hot-smoked salmon fillets that one usually encounters on the West Coast. A cream, dill, and chives spread substitutes for tomato sauce, and the result is not unlike the bagel, cream cheese, lox combo popular in New York. My barbecue sauce- braised meatloaf sandwich is fineso fine, in fact, that after spending a good 20 minutes racking my brain for a more descriptive term, I come up completely empty. The meatloaf sandwich is fine.
On the Tuesday next, a friend and I re-enter this circus of chaotically arranged triangular tiles and blown-glass lamp shades in order to procure some dinner. The dining room, which folds into an L shape around the open kitchen with its line of cooks and, in the back, a loungelike bar, is nearly empty, and one of the waitresses appears to be getting a head start on her closing duties by gathering up the candles from about half of the tables. I assume this means she is not expecting a big crowd. We ask for a bowl of the tortilla soup ($5.50) because it is one of the 14 items outlined on the menu by a thin black box. We don’t know what these black boxes mean, but we hope that they mean something good. We also order the spinach and five-cheese dip ($6.95) and the garlic fries ($5.95) for starters.
The soup has a zesty flavor, its texture is a perfect balance of chunky and creamy, and the goat cheese dollops on top are a tasty touch. But the spinach and five-cheese dip is literally devoid of flavor. If cardboard could be creamed, this would be it. The fries, on the other hand, are practically screaming with strong, pungent garlic pieces and grated Parmesan cheese. Shoestring style and plenty of them, these fries are extremely popular with a co-worker whose opinions I always respect, but nonetheless, my friend crosses her eyes and takes a long, long gulp of water after a particularly garlic-heavy bite.
I often find that in place of subtle, more sophisticated flavors, many cooks will salt and garlic the crap out of just about anything in order to boldface (or obliterate) the base ingredient. This is precisely the case with the fries and the mashed potatoes that accompany my filet mignon ($23.95) and my friend’s rosemary chicken ($13.95), as well. Sure, the potatoes are billed as “garlic mashed,” but after just a few bites, I think “salt licked” would be a better descriptor.
Perhaps making up for the, um, overabundance of flavor in the side dish, both the chicken and the steak have a far, far, far more restrained essence. Rather than a “creamy three-peppercorn” sauce, I got three lonely peppercorns in some creamlike gravy. And if this chicken (a small but complete bird that’s been rotisseried till dry and utterly juiceless) was ever anywhere near some rosemary, it must have been a neutral strain, because the chicken literally doesn’t taste like anything.
The next day I wander back for lunch because I just don’t want to give up quite yet, and to my surprise, the mushroom-mushroom pizza ($9.95) is actually pretty decentexcept that the sauce is too sweet and sharp sprigs of rosemary keep getting stuck in my teeth. (Had they used a little more of this stuff on the chicken instead of the wood-fired pizza, it would have been almost perfect.) I also try the Puck Burger ($9.95) and find it to be completely desiccated. Perhaps they ought to rename it the Hockey Puck Burger.
As I’m awaiting the check, I watch an elderly couple exiting the restaurant. They stop and shake the hand of their server, and the man tells her his salmon was delicious and he’ll have it again on their next trip back. His kind words shock me. Is it possible that on all three occasions I ordered the wrong dishes? Or is it possible that I simply don’t appreciate the things that most Americans do? Maybe a little of both. Iceland is sounding better by the minute.