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“Do you wanna hear my spiel?” our server inquires, cocking her head to the side.
Well, of course we do. Unfortunately, said spiel is fairly longthe server estimates that it takes five minutes to recite, which is why she asked if we wanted to hear itand space won’t allow me to reprint it verbatim. Here’s an edited version: Flat Top Grill is a create-your-own-stir-fry restaurant. The ingredient buffet is over there. Go to it; a fixed price buys all you can eat, so revisit to your heart’s delight.
Grab a bowl. Fill it with noodles or rice. Now, on top of that, throw in a combination of vegetables and bean curd and stuff. You’ll then come to a dizzying array of saucesaccording to our server, the “make-or-break” stage of our mission. There are tasting spoons provided, just in case you don’t know what to expect from, say, the “Flat Top” sauce. The red ladles indicate spicy heat”pay attention to those.” Once you’ve chosen your sauces, decide if you want chicken or beef. If you do, scoop some into a separate bowl.
Now, you’ll remember that back at the table, the server gave you a stick. Put that in your bowl; it tells the staff where the finished dish needs to be delivered. There are other sticks on the counter where you place your bowls to be cooked. One indicates that you want your stir-fry to be made into moo shu wraps, another that you want it to be a soup, another a salad, and so on. Still more sticks tell the stir-fry chef that you want shrimp or, if it’s available, mahi mahi or catfish. Assemble the appropriate sticks. Then go sit down and wait.
If you think all of this sounds easy, you haven’t tried it yet. Eating at Flat Top Grill is oddly complicated and surprisingly difficultdining out and cooking for yourself thrown headlong into a single experience. If, like me, you consider yourself reasonably adept at both dining and cooking, prepare to have that notion challenged.
There are several recipes that you can follow posted over the ingredients bara nice feature, especially for those who left home not expecting to assemble their own meals. Flat Top is often busy, so it helps if you can think quickly at the bar. I can’t, and a few people ask politely if they can pass me by. I loosely follow a recipe, placing cilantro sprigs plus cuts of white onion, tomatoes, and red cabbage into my bowl.
One of the problems with following the recipes is that they tell you how much sauce to use (two ladles of plum sauce, say), but that’s it. A recipe that calls for chicken simply says “chicken”which causes me to choke a bit. At first, I place the chicken directly on top of my vegetables. Then I realize my mistake (the meat’s supposed to go on the grill first, separate from everything else) and proceed to pick the chicken chunks out with my hand and place them in another bowl. Gross, sure, but what am I supposed to do? A perky hostess notices my actions and makes me promise to wash my hands. “For at least 15 seconds,” she says. “Sing ‘Happy Birthday’ while you’re washing. Then you’ll know you’re done.”
The moo shu I’ve assembled tastes only of oyster sauce: I’ve clearly used too muchor, rather, used too little of the onions, chicken, and whatnot to offset it. The whole exercise is personally unsettling. It throws a wrench in what I’m supposed to be doing here. I can’t rightly blame Flat Top for serving me a crappy meal when I’ve essentially prepared it myself. Sure, the recipe’s a little inadequate, but so are my subsequent attempts to wing it. And I can blame only myself for my attempt to create a simple stir-fry out of bean curd, mushrooms, onion, and what ends up tasting like enough black-bean/garlic sauce to fill a bath. However, I do hold the restaurant liable for my girlfriend’s salad. Her assemblage of chicken, scallions, onions, broccoli, and soy-sesame sauce is thoughtful and well-measured, but the salad arrives with its own sweet dressing, which throws everything out of whack.
The small, Chicago-based Flat Top chain (there’s another one locally in Arlington) is not onto a wholly original idea. It’s simply sleekifying the Mongolian-barbecue concept, blurring the cultural lines by pushing recipes of various Asian origins (pad Thai alongside moo shu) and offering a gamut of mainstream beers, from Singha to Leinenkugel’s Red. The restaurant itself isn’t unlike what you’d find in a decent-sized college town. The televisions are tuned to sports, the food’s cheap, the booths are big and round, and there are plenty of specialty cocktails (Tricky Vicky Punch, Yokohama Papaya Mama) designed for people who don’t know how to drink.
Flat Top doesn’t insist that you share in all of its cooking duties. All of the appetizers come prepared, and one, the Thai fish cakes, amounts to good, creamy crab cakes, fried to a crackly brown and studded with sesame seeds and scallions. The presentations of these smaller dishes are meant to make them seem more substantial than they really are; only a rabbit would salivate at the sight of the sprout mountain that comes with the fish cakes, and the mound of crunchy chow mein noodles spilling over a plate of shrimp-filled cream cheese puffs adds nothing to the total picture other than girth.
But Flat Top’s kitchen is still better at what it does than I am, creating an enduring frustration. The ingredient counter becomes stranger and more daunting every time I step to it. I find things there that don’t seem to belong. Cubes of cheddar cheese, for example. And even when I think that I’ve got a good idea, as when I set out to make a simple beef-and-broccoli dish, I quickly lose my way. The broccoli’s brown, so I substitute pea pods. I’m thinking garlic-ginger sauce, but then I’m distracted by a recommended combination written on the sneeze guard, and I reach for tofu horseradish and black-bean/garlic instead. The result is no better than my attempt at soup, which involves an ill-advised dip into the fish-sauce bowl and a bunch of onions that never soften.
My girlfriendwho I’m sure, if push came to shove, could make a marvelous salad dressing out of pine needles and deer spitonly makes matters worse by managing to actually eat well. Unimpressed with how her pad Thai turned out, she returns to the food bar and is soon eating a well-rounded plate of tofu, spinach, onions, and flat noodles. There’s a little sesame there, as well as a touch of garlic. It’s nearly as good as something you’d get at a real restaurant.
Flat Top Grill, 3714 Macomb St. NW, (202) 244-0075.
Faccia Luna also offers its customers the opportunity to participate in the creative process. This shouldn’t come as a great surprise, given that it’s a pizza place, but the chances of making a bad call on toppings are surprisingly high. I prefer my sausage crumbled and a little oily, not dry and shaved thin, which is how it comes on our garlic-and-onion white pizza. But Luna pays enough attention to its crunchy, blistered crusts to make up for other flaws. And pizza isn’t the restaurant’s only game. One reader insists that “now is the time to enjoy pumpkin ravioli,” a dish that Luna serves all year.
Faccia Luna, 2909 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 276-3099.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.