Monday, May 12, 2008

The Tao of Tao-- and ratings!

Saturday evening. My mother and I had walked as far as we could walk, bought as much as we could buy. My brother had joined us, coming from a marathon four-hour benefit brunch. None of us was particularly hungry. So of course, what better thing to do than gather the troops for an epic dinner at Tao?

Outside, with the huge SUVs

My father and my brother's friend were set to join us at the restaurant. Now, undoubtedly Tao is a "scene" dining destination, and they made that clear during the reservation process. When the restaurant called to confirm our reservation early Saturday afternoon, the woman on the phone curtly informed me that they "don't seat incomplete parties" and "can't guarantee the reservation after fifteen minutes." Whew. Ooookayyy, Tao, we'll play your game. So as my brother and mother and I sat in the Tao lounge and waited for the other two members of our party, the minutes ticked by and I got increasingly anxious. My father ran frantically around, trying to find money to feed the meter. My brother's friend was "ten minutes away." By my count, we all made it there just under the wire: it was 6:15 exactly when I notified the host we were all present (our 6PM reservation was a result of us trying to fit dinner in before the 8PM Celtics game). I should note that at no point while we were there did they actually threaten to give away our reservation or make us feel especially rushed, although the lounge area was packed so I'm sure they wouldn't have hesitated for long before giving us the boot...

In any case, we were led to our table on the main floor of the enormous and very loud dining room. There was a second floor that overlooked the main space, but still, the entire enormous room was dominated by the iconic giant buddha statue, which sat above a lotus pond and gazed over the diners slowly and progressively becoming as fat as he (case in point: see "giant fortune cookie" later in this post). Club-type music played over the loudspeaker, and candles flickered everywhere in the very dark room. My brother had been to the Tao club in Vegas before, and I could easily imagine how this restaurant reflected its clubby brethren.

Buddha, watching over us.

We were not seated long before our waiter came to take our drink orders. We selected a nice bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc is one of my favorite wines, and this bottle was delicious-- fruity, lively, and spicy. It went really well with the food, which began arriving soon after we had placed our order.

My father's chicken satay arrived first, which made me assume that was the "appetizer course." But the remainder of the food trickled in about two or three minutes later, so I'm not actually sure what was supposed to happen pacing-wise.

I ordered a seaweed salad sampler, which was a large platter of various types of seaweed on a bed of ice surrounding a small dish of spicy sauce (when the waiter delivered it, he announced: "It looks bigger than it is." Not sure if that's a good thing to say to a girl in reference to food she just ordered...). The sampler was-- well, comprehensive. The small portion of traditional seaweed salad (you know, the kind that you can usually get at Japanese restaurants) was really top notch, and it made me wish the rest of the platter was actually just a huge dish of that seaweed salad. Pretty much everything else on the plate was just tangles of raw seaweed, which is interesting, I guess, but not all that flavorful (with some weird textural aspects thrown in). I tried to rescue it in various ways, first by dumping on a bunch of the spicy sauce... that sort of worked. And then I began adding bits of the side dishes we had ordered: spicy eggplant, which was delicious-- tender, sweet and sour, and quite flavorful; and sake-braised shiitake mushrooms, which were pretty good but not outstanding (approaching rubbery although not quite there). The additions of bits of sides made me able to eat most of the seaweed. But not all (an important distinction).

The Seaweed Sampler. You can't see the seaweed. It was really dark in there!

Other dishes on the table fared much better. Two orders of chicken pad thai were quite well received. My mother enjoyed her salmon thoroughly. My brother's lobster wontons were pronounced only average. But overall, the majority of our party enjoyed the food more than I did, so maybe I just ordered a dud.

Pad Thai. Sorry these pics are so crappy...

Part of my ordering plan was, as always, to save room for dessert. I had heard lots of great things about Tao's signature dessert, the giant fortune cookie, and by gum, I was going to get me a giant fortune cookie. So when the dinner plates were cleared and the dessert menus arrived, I ordered two giant fortune cookies for the table to share.

The desserts took an oddly long time to arrive (I don't think they were baking the fortune cookies fresh, so not sure what was going on back there), but they were certainly worth the wait. Now THIS would be a reason to return to Tao: A huge (dare I say giant?) fortune cookie rimmed in chocolate, filled with dark chocolate mousse on one half and white chocolate mousse on the other, and surrounded by delicious fresh fruit. There were also some giant fortunes tucked in the cookie's lap. Some of these fortunes were hilarious and bawdy, and one of them ("Someone is thinking kinky thoughts about you") we contemplated giving to the party next to us, an inexplicable mishmash of 70-year-old women, 95-year-old men, and one 18-year-old boy. Sadly, we didn't, as that probably would have led to a much more interesting post.

COOKIE... with fortunes in the middle

We dug in and strode purposefully towards Dessert Coma Land. The cookie was crunchy and sweet, like a traditional fortune cookie only much better; the fruit was fresh and tart. I liked the white chocolate mousse (which tasted just like straight-up whipped cream-- hey, that's all right with me) better than the chocolate mousse, which was a little too bitter for me. The five of us demolished those cookies, leaving nothing but empty plates and distended stomachs. (N.B. I was still sickly full many, many hours later. If I ever think going house on a giant fortune cookie is a good idea, remind me it's not.)

I'd consider the giant fortune cookie the most notable thing about Tao, although there was one other unique element about the restaurant: the bathrooms. They're labeled Yin and Yang. Which one is girls? Which one is boys? Who knows-- you take your chances. I guessed that Yang was for males because it rhymed with a certain male body part, and lo and behold, I was right (about the outcome, not necessarily the reasoning). There was also a nice bathroom attendant, at least in the Yin room, to help you decide which door to choose. She got a kick out of me for reasons I cannot entirely explain and laughed at my antics throughout my time in the stall.

So now we've reached the part of the post where I give you my high-level, synthesizing thoughts of the restaurant and the experience. But this time, upon the urging of my family and friends, we're trying something new: the debut of the Official Offset Spatula Rating System. Some FAQs about the OOSRS:

Q. Why offset spatulas and not, say, stars?
A. Because offset spatulas are my favorite kitchen utensil, and that seems appropriate.

Q. What are the parameters of the ratings?
A. They will range from zero to five OSes. I don't think I'm going to do half-spatulas, because I can't really figure out how to represent that visually.

So here goes-- my inaugural rating of Tao is: Three Offset Spatulas.Why only three, especially when, in an unofficial end-of-dinner poll, all four of my dining companions gave Tao four OSes out of five? Well, first of all, because I'm writing this and they're not. But more importantly, I have other reasons: Aside from the truly awesome dessert, my food did not blow me away in the least, and it seemed that the seaweed salad sampler was actually somewhat ill-conceived, unless in traditional Asian cuisine you're supposed to eat large fist-sized tangles of unseasoned raw seaweed (which I hope they don't). And frankly, once you got past the scene-y phone reservationist attitude, the whole restaurant seemed less chichi and more... Olive Garden-y. That is, it seemed like an extremely well-oiled machine, a large operation that churned through diners at a rapid money-minting pace and thus made each individual party feel somewhat anonymous. Though the food was generally high quality and, I repeat, the fortune cookie was extravagantly delicious, Tao is never a place that I'd feel "at home" in-- it's not really a place that I'd return to again and again or go to to celebrate a special occasion. And those are the types of places for which I reserve my four- and five-OS ratings.

So there you have it-- a night at Tao, a giant fortune cookie, and three offset spatulas.

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