Mouthing Off

Don't save the Rainforest: After five days of calling and begging the Rainforest Cafe in the Cherry Creek Shopping Center to fax me its menu--each time I phoned, I had to listen to a nauseatingly sugary answering-machine voice that sounded like a tour guide from hell--the eatertainment giant finally did. And by that point, the menu was so illegible it looked like it had spent five days in the jungle. But then, when I'd finally gotten inside the place to eat off that menu, it felt like I had been waiting five days. And the food was hardly worth it.

The Rainforest Cafe bills itself as "A Wild Place to Shop and Eat," and the Cherry Creek incarnation--the parent company is based in Minnesota--is the 31st such Wild Place to open since 1994. Like Cafe Odyssey (see this week's review) and Planet Hollywood, the Rainforest was designed by the Cuningham Group, a Minnesota-based multi-media firm that specializes in architecture, construction and interior design and has also done a lot of theme-park work for Disney, Paramount and Universal.

Unlike Cafe Odyssey, however, the Rainforest holds some appeal for kids. There are those life-sized, lifelike animated animals--including an elephant that waves its trunk--as well as the periodic thunderstorm, which was a little scary for my toddler, but in a way that shouldn't require therapy later on. The wait to get in, on the other hand, inspired a level of irritation in me that may require a Valium prescription to obviate. The Rainforest Cafe takes its motto of shop first, eat later very seriously, and so from the moment we were issued our "passports"--why do these places think such admission gimmicks are crucial to our experience?--it was me versus the adorable overpriced stuffed animals that lay in wait to ambush youngsters with their desirability and separate parents from their college savings funds.

But the Rainforest had us right where it wanted us, because to get our table, we were required to stay within earshot of our safari names--and within earshot meant at the Retail Village attached to the restaurant. Since we had more than an hour to kill (the cafe does take limited reservations, so call a month ahead), we had plenty of time to play with every critter in the store and debate how crucial each and every one was to the happiness of our household.

By the time we finally were called--which felt a little like being on the Price Is Right (although as soon as I caught a glimpse of the right side of the menu, I knew I was in a different game)--I'd worked up a pretty hefty appetite. So I was delighted to see our food arrive in such large portions--until I tasted it, that is. At that moment, I understood why the Rainforest reveres shopping above eating (further reinforcement: the passport says that the five Es of the Rainforest are "entertainment, environment, education, employees and earnings," with no mention of "eating"). For the Planet Earth Pasta ($10.99), linguine had been tossed in a tomato-pastey marinara that featured an orangeish slick of oil and partially melted mozzarella sticking out here and there. The Bayou blackened meatloaf ($10.99) was blackened, all right; the two dried-out briquettes arrived topped with also-blackened (but not intentionally, I suspect) mushrooms and almost raw caramelized onions. The garlic mashed potatoes were the only decent part of the meal, but they'd been covered in the blandest gravy I've ever tasted.

If possible, the kid food was even worse than the adult items. The rubbery chicken nuggets actually prompted my children to fondly reminisce about McDonald's, and the pizza tasted like a piece of cardboard topped with Ragœ sauce. The price wasn't right here, either: The tag on the kids' meals is $4.99--unless you'd like a side, like fries or a drink, which brings the total up to $7.99.

It's a jungle in there, all right, but I can't figure out why places like this are king.

That's Italian: Yes, the restaurant business is a jungle, and sometimes it's simply easier to surrender. That seems to be what Jim Plummer has done. After owning Fratelli's (1200 East Hampden) for the past two decades, two months ago Plummer sold the venerable Italian eatery to Darren Patterson, his wife, Trish Falsetto, and her parents, Joe and Rose Falsetto. "We've always loved this place, at least a long time ago, when it was good," says Patterson, who's doing the cooking now. "Jim had kind of been letting it go, serving stuff that wasn't even authentic, and the food quality was going downhill, so we thought, 'Hey, maybe we'll make millions.'"

First, though, he and the rest of the family are revamping the menu, which Patterson says will stay focused on Italian but will involve more elaborate preparations. He should know all about those, since he's been in the food business for years, putting in time as a corporate chef for Wild Oats and also serving as the opening chef for Yia Yia's, at 8310 East Belleview in the Denver Tech Center. Some folks may also remember his radio show, The Everyday Gourmet, that ran on KOA for a year.

Meanwhile, another Italian recently bit the dust: Sostanza, at 1700 17th Street, is shuttered and has a big "this space available" sign in the window. That space was beautiful and the food decent (my hairdresser says she thought the pumpkin gnocchi was the best thing she'd ever eaten in her life), but the lousy LoDo parking situation, lots of competition and Sostanza's own inconsistency in both preparation and service conspired to do the place in. Around the corner, at 1631 Wazee Street, Il Fornaio--the local link in an Italian chain--still seems to be doing a boffo business, though.

Seafood, eat it: Speaking of Italian, it's once again time for the annual calamari festival at Bruno's Italian Bistro (2223 South Monaco Parkway). Through the end of May, the eatery offers squid twenty ways every day. If the only way you've ever seen squid prepared is as a deep-fried rubber band, you're in for a treat.

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