That's Eatertainment

Kristine Heykants

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.

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.  

The food you'll be eating in these expensively decorated rooms is pretty much a shipwreck. There are more than 50 dishes, and the only things I'd return for are the drinks, the simplest sandwiches, and the desserts. Offerings range from standards like a smoked-turkey club ($7.95) to sophisticated fare like lobster ravioli ($14.95), a plate of gooey overdone ravioli in a pool of weird orange oil and the mushiest of mushy vegetables.

The worst thing I had was the Fu Goo appetizer ($7.50), a circle of beet-colored corn chips surrounding a horrible mixture of chili and cheese that tasted like something from an institutional food service, and was covered with an orange layer of processed-cheese goo and crowned with a scoop of guacamole. I tried this stuff three times, and by the end I'd developed a theory about the human tendency to test the limits of suffering, and the benefits that accrue to the body from continually testing a sprained ankle to see if it's any better. But the Fu Goo never got any better, and I think I can safely say now that our survival as a species will be served by avoiding this dish.

I've had plenty of bad and mediocre food at Odyssey, including the Barcelona spring rolls (deep-fried egg rolls filled with what is best described as a tasteless, greasy chicken chili, $7.95) and the Roasted Pancetta Prawns (thoroughly oily shrimp topped with a mealy pancetta filling on a bed of metallic-tasting tomato rice, $16.50). Among the few decent dishes were the Ebony Medallions ($18.95), thin-cut filet mignon drenched in butter and topped with a few pretty slices of portobello mushrooms. I saw no evidence of the meat having been, as the menu promised, lightly blackened--that is, dusted in Cajun spices and quickly seared at high temperature--but it was tender and tasty the way beef in butter tends to be. The accompanying basil mashed potatoes and onion straws were fine, though nothing to write home about. The New Asian salmon ($16.95) was blackened and crispy, but the accompanying udon noodles, which the menu described as having a "lemon-butter sauce," actually came with a light peanut-coconut sauce that caused my allergic companion to break out in hives. (Misappellations seem to be routine at Odyssey--the $18.95 Blackened Prime Rib described on the menu as "stuffed with onions" was not blackened, contained no onions, and was generally worth avoiding. My server said the onions were removed from it after cooking, but I couldn't taste them.)

Overall, desserts seem to be Odyssey's best course. The Chocolate Lovin' Spoonful Cake, layers of thick chocolate mousse and chocolate cake ($4.95), was quite good. I had reservations about the Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ($4.95) which my server described to me as "dough served hot" (so exactly when does cookie dough become a cookie?), but it turned out to be a reasonably tasty wedge of sweetness that you might know as a blondie (a nonchocolate brownie; the menu fails to mention that the chocolate chips in it are white). I also liked the banana crème brûlée ($4.95), a custard enriched with fresh bananas, some of which get caramelized when the top is broiled. I've always liked caramelized bananas, and little things like a good drink or a good dessert make you feel particularly grateful at the end of an otherwise disastrous meal.

All that said, I should point out that I visited Odyssey during its first week, which perhaps was unfair. Still, the restaurant's real problem seems to be a structural one--there is no chef, which is fine if you're only pushing burgers and souvenirs, but a disaster if you're going for adult-destination status. On my visits Cafe Odyssey was packed with kids and parents ordering the simple and reasonably priced sandwiches, and they all seemed to be having a swell time. For those of us who want our spectacle large and our food fine, I'm forced to roll out all my clichés: If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. If you can't walk the walk, don't talk the talk. Where's the beef? And above all: Show me the money.

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