Free Fire Zone
The ambience seems more MTV game show than Upper Kirby restaurant: The chandeliers drip Lucite icicles. Limp Bizkit throbs from the sound system, and the hip-looking cocktail servers move to the beat. The bar sports a line of huge jars full of decorator fruits -- square-cut blood oranges and parallelogram pine-apple slices soaking in vodka and tequila. The bartender leans his head back, holds his burning thumb in front of his face, and sprays flames out of his mouth.
At Fire + Ice, $15.95 is your admission fee to an all-you-can-eat carnival. "Living the dream of Greenberg's Teriyaki" is the restaurant's cryptic slogan. "I have no idea what it means," a cute but clueless young woman server tells us. "It's some kind of inside joke from Boston." The first Fire + Ice opened in Harvard Square in 1998.
The Houston branch is a little more expensive and a little less casual than the original was when Robert Nadeau reviewed it in the Boston Phoenix on February 25, 1999. The meals were $13.95 then, and the waitstaff wore T-shirts instead of the collared shirts they wear now. But the circus atmosphere appears to have survived the transplant. "More than just a punk/ crunchy version of Benihana, Fire + Ice has a humor and a jumping rhythm of its own," Nadeau wrote. "Like the new wave group Devo, it enjoys the joke of animal spirits in a mechanized world."
Last week we visited Tokyohana, which has taken the Benihana "eatertainment" concept (see "Beyond Benihana," June 21) and embellished it with stand-up comic chefs and live jazz. At Fire + Ice, we have another eatertainment restaurant -- one that has taken the Benihana formula in a very different direction (see "Culture Shock," by George Alexander, February 1). Here the audience gets to participate in the cooking. If watching the chef is fun, then how cool is deciding exactly what he's going to cook?
They call it improvisational dining. Instead of ordering from a menu and watching the chef prepare your dish, like you do at Benihana, you assemble your own entrée at Fire + Ice from an "ingredient bar" of prechopped foods. There are 18 protein choices, 44 vegetables and noodles, and 14 sauces. You fill a small bowl with meat or fish and vegetables, and put the sauce in a cup. Then you hand everything to a grill cook and watch him toss it and sauce it on a giant griddle. It's kind of a cross between 20th-century Benihana and Mongolian barbecue. And while that sounds like the very latest in dining concepts, the "assemble your own supper" thing actually dates back to the 12th century, when Genghis Khan and his warriors sat around communal grills, selecting a little of this and a little of that to throw on the fire.
This concept is clever on many levels. It has all the same economic advantages that business-school case studies have found in Benihana: There is no waitstaff, which is fortunate since skilled waitpeople are hard to find in Houston. And the kitchen doesn't need to be large, which increases the dining space in the restaurant. The efficiency of batch processing -- one chef cooks everything at once -- is also a cost-saver.
But the "select your own ingredients" idea is sheer genius. Fire + Ice takes the annoying American habit of dictating to the kitchen -- "I'll have the mushroom risotto, but I want the mushrooms on the side" -- and turns it into an art form. Instead of driving good chefs crazy, picky diners on fad diets can now entertain themselves designing their own meals. At Fire + Ice, if your meal tastes awful, you have only yourself to blame.
I learned this lesson well. On my first visit, I filled my bowl with shrimp, squid and swordfish, which I topped with snow peas, sprouts, onions and bell peppers. So far, so good. But I faltered when I got to the sauces. I should have picked the vaunted teriyaki, but something about the way Fire + Ice hypes it turned me off. The little descriptive card says, "Greenberg's Teriyaki, the magical first date sauce." I didn't know what this meant, but for some reason it reminded me of the first date in There's Something About Mary. So I went for the Chinese sauce instead. Bad mistake. The sauce was long on five-spice powder, which contains cinnamon, cloves and anise. It would have tasted great on smoked duck. Too bad smoked duck wasn't among the 18 protein choices. So I chalked one up to experience.
On that first visit, I also opted for the World Feast sideshow. Another mistake. This expensive rodizio-style extra entitles you to flag down guys in South American garb who walk around with rotisserie-grilled meats on stainless swords. They carve a little piece of meat, which you catch with a pair of tongs. The steak and sausage they served were good. But the extra cost and extra food ruins the all-you-can-eat appeal, which is among the restaurant's main attractions.
The drinks here are grotesquely expensive. A margarita made with infused tequila is $7.50. So is a refreshing alcoholic smoothie called a lemon sunburst, which is made with Absolut Citron, lemonade and pieces of orange. It's a great drink, but for that price it ought to come in a Buddha-shaped glass that you get to take home.
Actually, I'm not really sure whether it's the bottomless bowl, the cocktails or the loud music that attracts Generation Y to Fire + Ice. Maybe it's the location. The old Hard Rock Cafe building on Kirby Drive is a perfect fit for these diners, who all seem to be 22 years old. There are large-scale birthday parties full of whooping 22-year-olds, same-sex tables of 22-year-olds, and 22-year-olds out on dates. Here and there, a mom with her adolescent kids, or a misplaced pair of gray-hairs, or even an aging food critic with his girlfriend and kids pops up.
Although they miss the target audience on both sides, my girlfriend and my two teenage daughters love this place. On our second visit, they're already old pros, waving off the server's explanation of how it all works to go directly to the salad bar. The salads are spinach, mixed greens or Caesar, with three corresponding dressings. When we get back to our table, the server delivers a cannonball of freshly baked sourdough bread on a wooden cutting board with a bread knife.
We finish our salads and get ready to attack the main dishes. Our strategies are widely divergent. The women are on diets, and they pride themselves on how little they put in their bowls. Meanwhile, I (and every other male in the place) have done a little mental engineering to determine how to cram the maximum number of calories into the little bowl. We know we can go back for seconds (and thirds and fourths), but we take a perverse pride in making every trip count.
The proteins this time include chicken, turkey, pork tenderloin, salmon, kielbasa, Italian chicken sausage, andouille sausage, tofu, shrimp (two kinds), aged sirloin, swordfish, mussels, squid and crawfish tails. The vegetables and noodles are too numerous to name, but they include all the usual stir-fry ingredients along with a few Italian and Mexican tangents. The sauces I see are onion-sesame, Creole, hoisin barbecue, ginger-sesame, Thai basil, chipotle honey, pomodoro, Thai red curry, Greenberg's teriyaki, fajita, Dijon and barbecue sauce.
This time I'm following a tip from Robert Nadeau's review in the Phoenix. Ignore the restaurant's suggestion that you start with protein and end with sauce, he counsels. Go directly to the sauces and start there. It's good advice. The panang I liked so much on my girlfriend's shrimp during our first visit isn't available now, so I decide on a Thai red curry and make an appropriate seafood and Asian vegetable mix to go with it.
The display cards are marked with little peppers to tell you how hot each sauce is. I can't remember if the Thai red curry had two or three peppers, but it hardly matters. I can't taste any heat at all. Luckily they have jalapeño slices in the vegetable section, so you can correct the timid Massachusetts seasonings. I use about five jalapeño slices, and my Thai curry comes out nicely spiced.
Unfortunately, my grill chef is preoccupied. Between the two cooks working on a recent Wednesday night, there must be about 20 meals on the grill at the same time. The chef neglects to turn my food over until he puts the sauce on it, so the shrimp comes out brown and crisp on one side and nearly raw on the other. Our server brings us a bowl of white rice and a paper bag full of flour tortillas when we get back with our plates.
The tortillas inspire my girlfriend to go back for a fajita plate. For my second visit to the grill, I decide on sirloin with mushrooms, onions, peppers and Greenberg's teriyaki. The cooks aren't quite so overwhelmed this time, and the meat gets turned often. It comes out as good as you can expect for steak on a griddle. And, as you'd also expect, Greenberg's teriyaki is as innocuous as Kikkoman.
The food at Fire + Ice is more of a crapshoot than at Benihana and Tokyohana. There's not much to screw up in the cooking as long as the chef remembers to turn your food, but it's amazing how bad the various sauces and ingredients can taste together. I am the author of several cookbooks, so I should know better, but I still managed to mismatch seafood with Chinese five-spice sauce.
Imagine what some of these 22-year-olds are eating. While going through the assembly line, I see one lunkhead piling steak and salmon in the same bowl with nothing but scallions for vegetables. I wonder which sauce he'll have with that. I'm betting on the pomodoro -- it's the closest thing to ketchup.
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