Global Warning

Cafe Odyssey is supposed to be that most miraculous of late-twentieth-century inventions, an "eatertainment" establishment where people can eat and be entertained. And just how hard up for entertainment are diners who make the odyssey to this spot in the Denver Pavilions?

Well, in the Machu Picchu dining room, there's a six-foot-tall gray structure that looks vaguely like an Incan pile of stones and very much like a big, fake foam-rubber thing sprouting big, fake foliage. Although it's sculpted from some spongy synthetic material that has an unsettling texture, there's something about it that makes every person who walks into the room want to touch it and look inside it, or, as in the case of one ten-year-old boy, try to kick the shit out of it.

Now, that was entertaining!
Cafe Odyssey, which is part of a Minnesota-based chain, debuted three months ago in Denver's new downtown mall and quickly gave other heavy-hitter national outlets already open there (Maggiano's, Hard Rock Cafe, Wolfgang Puck's) a run for their big monies. If possible, Cafe Odyssey has an even more gimmicky edge than the Hard Rock--and even more disappointing food than Maggiano's ("Remembrance of Things Pasta," March 18).

The restaurant's main motto, "Where in the world will you eat today?" refers to the eatertainment outlet's primary conceit. Diners get to eat in one of three rooms, each of which allegedly re-creates some international destination: the aforementioned ancient Incan city, the Serengeti and the lost city of Atlantis. Forget that Peru's Machu Picchu is nothing but ruins, that for much of the year the Serengeti is a desolate locale where animals can barely eke out an existence, and that Atlantis is mythical--the bottom line being that, in the real world, you can't actually eat in any of those places. And also never mind that Cafe Odyssey serves very little that actually resembles cuisine from anything close to those parts of the world (or the ocean floor); in fact, the culinary lineup is the same in each room. This is eatertainment, after all, and the important thing is that people stay entertained while they stuff their faces with whatever.

Like the food, though, the entertainment offerings can be very disappointing. For example, the aforementioned spongy-stone thing usually has a person inside it telling jokes, but it was empty the night we were seated at a table right beside it. People who'd obviously been to the restaurant before when it was occupied knew the guy inside usually puts mints into a little built-in tray, and we found it somewhat amusing to watch diners repeatedly stick their hands in, even after they knew the drawer was empty, as though a mint might still magically appear. They might not have been entertained, but we were.

Another "entertaining" element was the woman who walked through the three dining rooms all night dressed like a Venus flytrap on acid, with plastic plants jammed into her clothes. She even had some in her socks, which made it mildly entertaining to watch her try to walk. Stuck in Machu Picchu, I didn't get the Venus flytrap connection; when I asked a server, he haughtily informed me that the woman was, of course, representing the Serengeti--apparently not realizing that the plant is indigenous to the Carolina swamps. There was also a green-faced woman dressed like a fish, supposedly symbolizing Atlantis. Watching her shuffle past our table every twenty minutes was about as entertaining as watching a lone fish swim back and forth in a tank.

Each room has its unique design elements, too. In addition to the stone whatever, Machu Picchu features poured-stone walls, plastic plants (not quite the "lush vegetation" promised in the Official Travel Passport we were issued upon entrance) and Peruvian wall hangings. There was also a wall-wide video projection of tiny, faceless people milling about on a painting that depicts the Incan city; periodically, day turned into night, although a glitch in the equipment meant that the day sometimes went by in four minutes and sometimes in fifteen, and every once in a while it looked and sounded as though it were raining. Meanwhile, a mechanical waterfall burbled incessantly in one corner of the room, which kept making me think I had to go to the bathroom. The water fell into a tank; other diners had entertained themselves by tossing coins into the bottom. Our server said he had no idea where that money goes. "It's not very much, I don't think," he volunteered. (The restaurant could use it to fund a companion for that poor lost fish.)

Over in the Serengeti, diners sat around two dead baobab trees while the video projected zebras and wildebeests crossing the plains; on the walls was some actual African art. Atlantis, the smallest of the three dining areas, featured a video projection of sharks and dolphins swimming about, while the decor was all fake coral and rock formations. The Official Passport also promised "artifacts" of the ancient civilization, but all we spotted was another foam-rubbery thing that I think the lonely fish woman was supposed to sit on when she wasn't shuffling about.

Now, if the food were fabulous, I could forgive Cafe Odyssey its peculiar notion of geography. But the fare was decidedly unworthy of the menu's pompous request that we "imagine a place where...hospitality ruled and unparalleled food and drink were the norm." True, the service was efficient and friendly (and it was fun listening to a waiter tell the next table about cleaning up wild-animal poop in the Serengeti), but "unparalleled" is not the word I'd use to describe what we ate. "Unbalanced" comes a lot closer.

Even "unhealthy," in the case of the Barcelona spring rolls ($8.95). As I bit into the otherwise tasty filling of grilled chicken, corn, black beans, potatoes and red peppers, I hit a chicken bone. (To the eatery's credit, my server took one look at the bone I had fished out of my mouth and, after asking if I needed dental attention, promptly took the appetizer off my bill.) But there was no bite at all to the laughable chipotle sour-cream sauce on the side. I don't know how they like their chiles in Machu Picchu, but in Denver, we take them seriously, and this sauce had about as much substance as that foam-rubbery stone.

The ebony sliders ($7.95 for four) boasted a garlic butter that packed more punch. Although nothing about these mini-tenderloin sandwiches resembled the White Castle burgers you get "back East," as our adorably young, non-back-Eastern server suggested, the little suckers were delicious. Thin slices of blackened tenderloin had been augmented with portabello bits, then served up on puffy little buns; they came with a huge side of crisp, lightly fried potato straws.

We followed up those starters with a cup of the jambalaya bisque ($3.95), a cream version of the jambalaya ($13.50) I'd tried on another visit. Once again, andouille sausage, chicken and shrimp had been simmered in an inedibly salty tomato sauce--only this time everything had been creamed, so we couldn't identify the culprits responsible for the saline solution. Although the cream made the bisque a bit less salty than the original jambalaya, we still couldn't spoon up more than a few tastes. Before my tardy companion had shown up and demanded the sliders that she'd tried on an earlier "intellectual quest," the server had also convinced me to order the ebony butterfly medallions ($18.95). I didn't mind the redundancy, because the blackened tenderloin was once again tasty and tender. This time the meat came with a huge mound of thin onion straws, lightly battered and lightly fried, as well as an inexplicable huge mound of pesto mashed potatoes that were as thick and dry as wallpaper paste. A little more starch over here, please?

Our other entree, the elaborate-looking fifteen-ingredient rice ($10.95), didn't add up to much flavor. The only noteworthy ingredient was the crawfish, and there was only one of those. Otherwise, the medley of vegetables, shrimp, blackened chicken, tasso ham and andouille was surprisingly bland, and while frying it all up with chewy brown rice instead of white may have made it healthier, it also made the dish too thick and gummy.

Dessert was even denser. The waiter had described this particular item as the chocolate-lovin' spoon cake ($4.95); I'm still baffled about the "spoon" part, since that suggested it would be similar to spoon bread, a soft, pudding-like concoction that's usually made out of cornmeal and has to be eaten with a spoon. We could have used a hacksaw on this cake. It was so solid we had to scrape each bite off the spoon with our teeth. Still, the flavor was pleasantly sophisticated, not too sweet and intensely chocolatey.

On a return trip, we went for the exotic-sounding mashed-potato pizza ($8.95), which tasted just like a twice-baked potato, with bacon bits, scallions, cheddar and mozzarella mixed in with spuds so dry they could have been left over from my pesto-filled side. The barbecue-chicken pizza ($9.95) was a bit more moist, thanks to the sweet, if dull, barbecue sauce. But the blackened chicken was also rather mild, and I counted a mere two jalapenos to give the pie any oomph. This was not exactly world-beater fare.

If I ever have to venture into this peculiar part of the world again, I'll go for an order of those excellent sliders and a big, cold beer (not one of those smoking dry-ice drinks) in the bar, an attractive area called the Explorer's Club that features lots of dark wood and some impressive rhino heads carved out of mahagony. It's just the place to ponder another Cafe Odyssey motto: "Taste. Travel. Discover." As in, taste and then ignore the boring food, travel from one room filled with fake stuff to another, and discover that you've just shelled out some big bucks (yes, Cafe Odyssey sells souvenir-wear, too) in order to eat at the ideal restaurant for people who have absolutely nothing left to say to one another.

Or how about this motto: "A destination for those who crave exciting excursions without traveling far and wide"?

But wait--that's not eatertainment, or even entertainment.
That's television.

Cafe Odyssey, 500 16th Street, 303-260-6100. Hours: 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Sunday.


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