Playing with Food
When I think of the restaurant empire of the Cordóa brothers -- those Churrascos, that Américas -- I think of drama, flair, elegance, the stern-faced, fiery sensuality of a flamenco dancer. I do not think "comedy." Not to imply that the founding family lacks a sense of humor; I just don't associate anybody's dressed-to-kill, big-ticket dining with slapstick.
After visiting the Cordóas' newest venue, the Amazon Grill, I realized my mental image needs tweaking. Now I picture that same haughty flamenco dancer with a Groucho Marx nose-and-glasses getup.
It originates with Amazon's playful menu, which starts with desserts. Actually, the short, cheaply printed sheet begins with the bald non sequitur "Stressed?" (That's "desserts" spelled backward, get it?) And those desserts include Tabletop S'mores ($4) and cotton candy ($1). No kidding. More food play is inherent in the "Ta kit o kit" ($9), a monkey-pod carousel of do-it-yourself taquito ingredients, and there's sly fun in the three-buck beer section: Miller and Budweiser are described as "foreign beer," while the "domestic beer" list boasts Negro Modelo from Mexico and Peruvian Cusqueña.
I adore the tongue-in-cheek, Churrascos-in-khakis concept. As Bill Floyd, director of Cordóa operations, explained the Amazon Grill blueprint to me almost two years ago, it's a way to score that great Cordóa food for fewer bucks while wearing, say, a sweat suit. "After all, you don't always feel like dressing up for dinner, do you?" Floyd asked me. He's right; I don't. I crave their caramañolas about ten times more often than I feel like putting on panty hose.
The casual counter-service format will remind you of other similar silk purses modestly made over to look like sow's ears -- Taco Milagro, for example, or Cafe Express. Sure, at Amazon Grill you've got to get up and get it yourself, prodded by an atrocious buzzing, flashing pager, but as you do, you walk over artisan clay tiles past a sculpted verdigris fountain. Everything on the menu is under $10, and that includes plates quite pricey elsewhere, such as linguine with calamari and shrimp ($9) or grilled salmon with tamarind glaze (also $9). Factor in the salad that every dish over $5 automatically gets, plus a heaping helping of those addictive plantain chips, add in the surprise sides that aren't even mentioned on the menu, then calculate that your sales tax is already included, and you've got quite a bang for your mealtime buck.
Recently we feasted on gamburras ($9), an omigod good bread pudding designed for dinner. Rich, moist and layered with leaves of fresh spinach, it's plentifully topped with grilled tails-on shrimp, chunks of sweet, ripe plantains and spunky circlets of green onion, all dowsed in a mild-mannered chipotle cream sauce. Wow. Even though the sticker price qualifies for the free side salad, the plate comes garnished with a pretty stack of julienned carrot sticks and several thick slabs of the Cordóa trademark grilled vegetables. I suspect somebody in the menu-planning group worries that we hurried urbanites don't get enough veggies.
We were also pleased with the pepito sandwich ($8), resonant with smoky flavor. The roast beef is wood-roasted rare, sliced thin, layered with red peppers and a thick slice of smoked provolone, then tucked into a fresh, soft roll sprinkled with browned bits of onion. The pepito comes with quite good french-fried potatoes, but even those pale in comparison to the appetizer dish of toothsome yuca fries ($3). Yuca, I'm convinced, was made to be shoestringed and fried like this, incredibly crisp with an intriguingly firm, fibrous texture. Imagine fries so well made they're good even cold, even without additional salt and these are served piping hot with a Euro-style garlic cream sauce for dipping. I know I'll need more of those yuca fries, soon.
There are some glitches in the lineup, though; perhaps while I'm busy revamping my notion of Cordóa style, they'll continue to tweak the Grill's still-experimental menu. I was bitterly disappointed in the causa de tuna ($6), described as a "potato terrine" with an interesting-sounding mix of tuna, shrimp, goat cheese, tomato and avocado. It turned out to be a pasty-pale, lumpish column that tasted overwhelmingly of school-cafeteria-grade tuna fish salad. I will confess an almost pathological aversion to tuna salad, but my relatively normal dining companions turned up their noses, too, at this monotonous melange. "If you mashed up bland potato salad and bland tuna salad," said one, "this is what you'd get. But why would anyone want to do that?"
And the Tabletop S'mores? Pure fun, but perhaps not entirely thought out. You get that same "Ta kit o kit" compartmentalized carousel to play with -- filled with the usual marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate bars, plus an unexpected pool of chocolate syrup and ethereally light ribbons of coconut meringue -- grouped around a little hibachi grill powered by burning blue goo. My advice: Check the windsock before you order these on the patio, and keep a close eye on your very flammable wooden skewer. (Those gallon-size glasses of iced tea or soda double handily as fire extinguishers.)
Another quirk of Amazon's menu structure is the real possibility that a party of four will end up with as many as eight salads. Remember, any item over five bucks comes with a complimentary salad. Let's say you order the Esmeralda spinach salad ($6), a lovely compilation of fresh spinach leaves sprinkled with crunchies -- peanuts and sesame sticks -- and accompanied by grilled rounds of squash and carrot, all dressed with a mellow vinaigrette studded with bits of real bacon. You will get another salad with that. Or perhaps you order the Unica salad ($6), tender hearts of romaine topped with anchovies and a Caesar dressing. Unless you successfully negotiate a swap with the soup of the day -- which often isn't possible, it seems -- you will receive a salad with that, too. Actually, the menu specifies that you will get a "salad bar," but at the Amazon Grill this translates to a salad-dressing bar. Each order calls for an identical selection of greens; you instead choose from an assortment of exotic house dressings. My two favorites were the Peruvian olive, a surprisingly pale purplish color with a tangy-sweet-salty flavor, and the mild, slightly smoky roasted red pepper. (Both are cream-based concoctions; mind you, this is not a place for the lactose-intolerant.)
Given that the Amazon Grill concept is based on self-service, I was surprised to find the staff every bit as attentive as at Américas or Churrascos and, most days, outnumbering the patrons. Staffers helped us ferry those oversize plates out to the patio. They monitored our progress every 15 minutes, checking to see if we lacked anything. Unprompted, they brought extra paper napkins and devised an ineffective wind shield for the hibachi grill. This solicitousness might be partly due to the fact that the place is usually crawling with Cordóa brass. The long, sunny room is at the very back of the spooky Pavilion formerly known as Saks -- you need to know this so you won't wander those echoing, empty halls for 20 minutes looking for it -- right under the watchful eyes of the Américas flagship. I've seen chef Michael Cordóa himself examining the beer cooler. Ops chief Floyd explained the menu, at length and with parental pride, to a recent lunch party.
This extensive baby-sitting is probably for the best, as there is still a highly provisional feel to the place even though it has been open two months. Our checkout man was deeply chagrined when his computer went down in flames, twice, before our order could be completed. On one visit, the Cusqueña wasn't cold; on another, there were mysteriously no margaritas to be had.
So, I have to wonder, what happens when the place gets really busy, as I believe it will? How long can an operation afford to offer carriage-trade service at bargain-basement prices? I don't know, folks, but it certainly will be an experiment worth watching.
Amazon Grill, 1800 Post Oak, (713)599-0020.
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