Restaurant Reviews

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.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh