That's Eatertainment

Cafe Odyssey
Mall of America, South Level 3
320 South Ave., Bloomington; 854-9400

Time was $6 million could really buy you something in the restaurant business. Something big: a tropical aviary, a shark tank, a foie gras, the services of a chef. But that's all over now. Now you'd be lucky if $6 million got you anything but an inferiority complex. Let's just say you wanted to open an "eatertainment" restaurant to compete with fine-dining destinations like the Napa Valley Grille and theme-park derivatives like the Rainforest Cafe, and all you've got is a paltry $6 million. That's the kind of thing that leaves all the other restaurants laughing and pointing at you. Frankly, $6 million nowadays is just about going to put you in the league of old-fashioned kitsch palaces like Bali Hai or the Red Dragon.

When I first heard that a $6 million restaurant was coming to The Mall, created by the design team credited with such successful structures as the internationally scattered Rainforest Cafes and the Star Trek Experience and SpaceQuest Casino at the Las Vegas Hilton, I expected a lot. A whole lot. Like fireworks. Spectacle. Outrageous expense. P.T. Barnum, Amelia Earhart, and Donald Trump rolled into one. Or, as Cafe Odyssey's souvenir menu promises, "a place that would bring out the creative spirit of Leonardo da Vinci, Jules Verne, Thomas Edison, or Walt Disney." I was ready for magnificent kaleidoscopic dreamscapes, plus an array of exceedingly tasty treats.

Kristine Heykants

Cafe Odyssey, in case you missed the advance hype, has been touted as the culmination of the genre exemplified by the Rainforest Cafe, with a sophisticated twist: Unlike some theme restaurants, where dining feels like taking an amusement-park ride, this is supposed to be an "adult-destination" establishment. ("Adult," in restaurant-speak, means the kind of place you hire a sitter and go to celebrate a birthday or an anniversary, like the Mall's California Cafe and Napa Valley Grille.) To that end, the Cafe Odyssey folks have conceived of a mythic travel theme--everybody loves travel, right?--in which undersea Atlantis, the Peruvian lost city of Machu Picchu, and Africa's Serengeti Plain provide the setting for a global-fusion menu; the idea, it appears, is that both diners' grown-up passions (rare tuna and chipotle mayonnaise) and inner-child longings (furry monkeys and shiny sharks) will be surprised and delighted at every turn.

Now, as much as I distrust the insta-men's clubbiness of the Napa Valley Grille, I know they serve up a good dinner; and as much as I dislike eatertainment, I think the Rainforest Cafe's endless fish tanks are pretty nifty. If I could go to the Mall and eat Napa Valley Grille-quality food beside fish tanks on some sort of Atlantis-themed table setting, I would. But would I eat Perkins-and-worse-quality food in front of a big video screen of computer-generated fish next to some chintzy-looking concrete rocks? Would anyone?

When you first enter Cafe Odyssey, you have the option of either heading straight for the gift shop (think Nature Company with less science and more global arts and crafts) or veering left into the Explorer's Bar. The latter is an impressive room decorated with plenty of world-travel tchotchkes--a sled, painted constellations, Egyptian hieroglyphs, giraffe-print chairs, and a New York World's Fair-style metal globe illuminated with dappled, weaving light. The Explorer Bar is home to the Cafe's best offerings: fresh-fruit drinks, like daiquiris creamy with fresh bananas or bright, lively strawberry margaritas ($6). If you order your drink as a "Fogger," it will come with a deep shot glass of dry ice in the middle, creating an impressive display as fog cascades over the table. The bar also features one of the Mall's best beer selections--more than 20 brews, including some Anchor, Sierra, and James Page offerings--and more than a dozen wines by the glass, unfortunately including a number of dogs ($4.75 will get you a glass of Vendange's plodding merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, or white zinfandel).

Back behind the bar, three dining rooms spread out from the fulcrum of a waterfall. "Atlantis" is probably the best: On one end of the room, computer-generated sea life, projected from the top of a clayey clump of sting rays, flows seamlessly between three video screens. Across the room, nicely distressed petroglyph murals and piles of rocks create a Flintstones feel. Completing the underwater impression are the strips of wrinkled white material stuck along the ceiling to simulate waves, and--the nicest touch--two kinds of jellyfish lamps.

The most bafflingly unspectacular of the rooms is "Machu Picchu," which simply features big chairs like you'd find in any old-school Mexican restaurant, a couple of waterfalls (whose faint chlorine combines with the food odors to make the area surrounding them smell like a locker room), and a white 3-D panel of a presumably ancient mountain city occasionally lit up by a video-projected storm. Meanwhile in the "Serengeti," floor-to-ceiling video screens show what is supposed to be a typical savannah day, with giraffes and rhinos ambling across the landscape. (There are no pesky people in Cafe Odyssey's vision of the far-flung corners of the world, only a few stick figures in Atlantis and the very white concrete explorers out on the front facade.) In the middle is a synthetic baobab tree with roots that serve as table separators; a big sculpted monkey looks to be praying beneath a waterfall; and all around are plastic plants that look as weird, dusty, and cheap as plastic plants generally do.

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