What a Joke

There are few experiences more giddy than realizing you've become a character trapped in a bad movie, and there's no way to roll the credits without finishing your dinner. The new Fakawwee Lodge, the latest cubic zirconia in the Shepherd Plaza crown, is the source of such experiences. It's a concept so irredeemably misguided that it's funny, and you should hurry on over and have a good laugh and a bad dinner before this punch line from a grade school joke adds itself to the list of eateries that have spent a brief moment at this mysteriously snakebitten corner of Richmond and Greenbriar.

What (aside from the restaurant) is the joke? As any gratuitously profane elementary school student can tell you, the Fakawwees are a tribe of American Indians that has been lost in the high grass of its ancestral hunting grounds for centuries, and to this day the members of the tribe are wandering around and shouting (drum roll, please), "Where the fakawwee?" Exactly why this pre-adolescent groaner inspired the name of a restaurant intended for adults is a mystery, but it could have been worse: The original plan was to call the restaurant the Karankawa Lodge, after Harris County's long-extinct tribe of cannibals.

When I first heard the restaurant mentioned, I had a hard time believing that Fakawwee was being used in the context I remembered from fourth grade. But sure enough, there on the Fakawwee Lodge's menu is a picture of a Native American and a bear standing in tall grass, hands to brows, looking to see ... well, where the fak they are.

But where the fakawwee isn't the question that came to my mind after a couple of visits. Rather, it was why the fakawwee here?

The ambiance is a hip designer's concept of what a hunting lodge should look like, with mounted game trophies hung at random and a chandelier fashioned from an assortment of (possibly real) moose and elk antlers. There's also a smattering of faux Native American kitsch in a nod to the eatery's faux-Indian name; I did, however, find the house cat at the bottom of the totem pole a rather jarring touch. While the lodge concept is one that can be comforting when done well, the haphazard approach used here clashes uncomfortably with both its own elements and the staff, who bring to mind a casting call for crowd-scene extras on Melrose Place -- which isn't to say that the staff isn't amusing, however inadvertently.

In our party one fine Friday night at the Fakawwee Lodge was one of the best cooks I know, and we ordered the cornmeal-breaded calamari appetizer. Exactly why our waiter felt the need to smugly assure us that these were good calamari, not the rubbery ones many places offer, was a bit of a mystery. Everyone present had noshed more than a few tentacles before, and we knew that the reason fried calamari sometimes takes on the consistency of inner tubes is because it's spent a few too many minutes under a heat lamp. Since there were only three occupied tables during the dinner hour on this evening, getting the order to us expeditiously didn't seem to be that big a deal. And the waiter wasn't all wrong: The calamari was fresh enough, but someone needed to tell the cook that a few spices -- a little black pepper, a little Mrs. Dash, a little anything -- in the cornmeal wouldn't ruin the recipe. The chipotle sauce was suspiciously similar to a hot dip I've made myself by mixing undiluted Campbell's Cream of Poblano with lemon juice and butter and nuking it in a microwave. I make it, but I don't brag about it, and I certainly don't charge people money for it.

I also make enough to go around. When the little bowl of cream sauce was exhausted, about half of our order of calamari remained, so the waiter -- we just grabbed one at random, there were quite a few standing around -- was asked for a bottle of hot sauce. An industrial flagon of Tabasco, which the waiter assured us he prefers to the house sauce, was whisked to our table. That's when the cameo-in-a-bad-movie sensation kicked in. I was trying to dispense Tabasco and carry on a conversation with our unabashedly chatty server at the same time and, distracted, failed to notice that the Tabasco bottle's shaker top was missing. Quickly, my appetizer saucer was filled to the rim with Avery Island's finest. The waiter, as far as I could tell, assumed that this calamity had been intended. No offer was made to clear the mess away or provide replacement calamari. He just kept babbling on. Still, there's no denying that the fragments of squid on my saucer did develop some flavor after being saturated in Tabasco.  

The entrees that evening, as on an earlier visit, were also amusing. Having already sampled the iceberg-based house salad, dressed with a formulaic honey vinaigrette, I opted to skip it this time around. I soon regretted the decision. A salad would have at least added some bulk to a woefully undersized crab-cake entree. Being presented three patties that are as small as they are uninspired can lead to an unspoken desire for anything filling; being charged 11 bucks for those Oreo-size patties can lead to other sorts of desire. Let's just say it's lucky the Fakawwee doesn't include guns among its sporting lodge regalia. If it did, the patrons might soon find a better use for the weapons than decoration.

Still, the crab cakes were at least edible. Nothing else on the plate was. The julienne zucchini and the carrot strips proved purely ornamental. Indeed, there's a possibility that these wilted vegetables, overcooked in some unidentifiable oil, were from the same batch I had sampled on my first visit to Fakawwee. If so, they didn't seem to have gotten any worse by spending the better part of a week on a steam table. But then again, they couldn't have gotten any worse.

Lurking on the other side of my plate was an even greater travesty. If I had to summarize Fakawwee in a single short phrase it would be this: really awful new potatoes. Neither my companions nor I were able to comprehend how such a simple standard could be so horribly ruined. This was no daring experiment gone awry; no attempt had been made to do anything other than cook the spuds, and cook them, and then cook them some more under a heat lamp until they had all the flavor and character of packing peanuts encased in wilted potato skins.

My companions' entrees of trout and prime rib, although somewhat more substantial than my appetizer-masquerading-as-a-meal crab cakes, were equally forgettable. The trout, not wanting to suffer anymore, appeared to have drowned itself in a bland cream sauce; the prime rib was far more rib than prime. Out of curiosity -- not to mention a hunger my crab cakes had only slightly assuaged -- I snared one of the nibbles of beef attached to the massive bone on a friend's plate. It made for a tender bite, but reflected once again the kitchen's aversion to spices. There was the flavor of rare beef, and precious little else.

Indeed, the menu just seems terminally confused; perhaps the Fakawwee name was chosen to indicate that it's the restaurant's overall concept that can't figure out where it should be. In keeping with the hunting-lodge ambiance, the menu offers several dishes -- quail, duck, rabbit -- that are presented as game in a very misleading manner. The "roasted boar chop" bore no resemblance to the distinctive flavor of feral hog, which is scarcely a rare commodity in East Texas. This was just a thick-cut pork chop resting on a bed of spinach and mushrooms ("forest mushrooms" according to the menu, a description that hinted at morels and shiitake; what I got was more likely the product of the valley of the Jolly Green Giant than any forest) and covered with a rather strange apple-based relish. Still, the staff came through as always to take my mind away from the disappointment: The drink waiter asked if I needed anything, and when I replied in the negative, he double-checked by grabbing my two-thirds finished microbrew by the mouth of the bottle and giving it a vigorous swirl, thus reducing it to foam.

None of these incidents came as a surprise; they only confirmed that the experience of my first visit had not been an aberration. On that occasion, a companion and I had opted for the cherry-lacquered duckling and the porterhouse steak. As God is my witness, I had never dreamed that the day would come when I would be faced with a rare 20-ounce porterhouse and the only adjectives that sprang to mind would be boring and uninspired.

Apparently, there's a notion at work among restaurateurs that every menu should offer a large, expensive piece of beef. That, and that alone, is what I got. The steak was cooked a bit on the rare side of the medium rare I had ordered, and that was its most exciting feature. Fortunately, my companion had a sense of humor appropriate to the occasion; when her duckling arrived, she was already in hysterics at the antics of the waitstaff, who were flapping around self-importantly like gulls at the waterfront. Visually, the lacquered duckling was impressive: A large, red-glazed duckling reposed on a bed of wild rice. But when my companion took her first bite, she dissolved again into giggles. "That's not lacquered," she gasped. "That's shellacked."  

I had a nibble and was forced to concur: The cherry glaze, while hardly palatable, did offer promise as a durable exterior finish. The duckling itself differed from my porterhouse in that it was noticeably flavorful -- unfortunately, the noticeable flavor was salt. Lots of salt. As I dozed fitfully through my porterhouse, my companion amused herself by pushing her duckling around on its plate, occasionally taking a bite and giggling a bit more. Finally, the waiter whisked it away and brought us the dessert tray. Here there was some hope. My strawberry cheesecake, while hardly worth tracking down the bakery that produced it, was certainly adequate. My companion, being unabashedly decadent, opted for the raspberry and dark chocolate Decadence Cake. In keeping with the ineptness of the staff, it arrived sans the whipped topping the sample on the desert tray had borne. Once that oversight was corrected, she dug in and made a remarkable discovery: Bittersweet chocolate with raspberry syrup is absolutely wonderful when washed down with beer.

This discovery was the source of more hilarity during my next visit. On that instance, as my companions' inedible ornamental vegetables were being cleared from the table, I ordered a shared beer and a slice of the Decadence Cake. (The dessert tray, while present in the room, had not yet meandered its way toward us.) A stunned waiter a few feet away was heard to observe with marvel in his voice, "Wow, he's been here before!"

Unless massive changes are made to almost everything about the Fakawwee Lodge -- beginning, one hopes, with that moronic name -- something similar is likely to be this establishment's epitaph. To wit, "We had a repeat customer -- once."

Fakawwee Lodge, 2181 Richmond Avenue, 522-7737.

Fakawwee Lodge: Gulf Coast crab cakes, $10.95; roasted boar chop, $10.95; prime rib, $17.95; porterhouse steak, $21.95; lacquered duckling, $11.95; strawberry cheesecake, $3.95; Decadence Cake, $3.95.

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