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In the center of the buffet table, water drips from an ice sculpture reading "BIO 2." Behind the chafing dishes and metal trays, staff members stand at the ready in starched whites and toques. Tonight's buffet in the Sundance Cafe at the Sheraton Tucson El Conquistador Golf and Tennis resort is a one-time deal, presenting the foods that will be consumed by the eight Biospherians during their two-year stay in Biosphere 2. "BIO 2"--the "O" is the shape of a globe covered by leaves--is the Biosphere 2 project logo.
Plates in hand, my dining accomplice and I work our way down the line. We are alone as we fill our plates with barbecued chicken fillets, pork loin, stir-fry vegetables and grilled tilapia, an inexpensive, farm-raised fish. It is a healthful spread, the kind of potluck one would expect at a Greenpeace gathering.
"So this is what the Bionauts will be eating in the Biosphere?"
I have taken the Sheraton staffer behind the buffet by surprise. He moves closer. "Excuse me?~"
I spoon some brown rice onto my plate. I try again. "These are actual recipes from Biosphere 2?"
Awakened from his dream state, the Sheraton chef now seems genuinely befuddled. "I don't know," he says. "Somebody came by here earlier and said something about the Biosphere, but I don't know." I pluck some strawberries from the display of fresh fruit with a pair of silver tongs. "Gee, maybe they should have told you." I add some chunks of mango and guava to my plate. "I would imagine you're going to get a lot of questions about it."
He shakes his head. "Yeah, they told me what was in the pan, but not why it was in the pan."
"Well, good luck." I thread my way back through the nearly empty dining room to our table for two next to a ®MD120¯ Col 1, Depth P54.10 I9.14 tiered, Spanish-style fountain. The fountain is not running. An assortment of coins, mostly pennies, lies beneath the filmy surface of the water.
Earlier in the day, my accomplice and I venture into the Sheraton's Coronado Ballroom to view an exhibit by "twenty environmental, ecological and conservation organizations." With maybe half that many exhibitors showing up, there is not much to see. We tour the room in less than three minutes. The highlight is the Biosphere 2 table, where one can purchase post cards for 50 cents or tee shirts for $12.95. There are also key chains, pencils, visors and other promotional products emblazoned with the BIO 2 logo.
After the letdown of the ecological exhibit, I am not surprised by the low turnout at the Sundance Cafe. The families staying at the Sheraton this weekend are here for a good time. They are swimming and golfing and playing tennis. They are celebrating the Sheraton's policy of "children under eighteen with parents free." They are lined up in the hall for a table in the resort's Mexican theme restaurant. They are not interested in grilled tilapia or barbecued chicken.
And who can really blame them?
"This is like dinner at your parents' house," says my perceptive accomplice. He is right. The Biosphere buffet is low-fat, nutritious and colorful--the hallmarks of Corcoran-family cooking and the key to our longevity, I'm sure. Which is maybe why I'm underwhelmed. If I were from the Midwest or South, I'd be critical of down-home cooking. If I came from Chicago, I'd be a bear about barbecue. Well, I grew up in a health-conscious, diet-wise household whose summer meals revolved around the garden. "Back to the Earth" is old news to me.
And for that reason it's unexciting. Like most of us, I dine out to eat what I can't or don't want to cook at home. When I run into chow I can fix for myself, I begin to wonder why I've left the comfort of my air-conditioned apartment to make a trek to Tucson. I wonder why I've booked a room at this pseudoresort full of door-slamming kids and beer-drinking parents. I question why the cost of this buffet is $12.95 per person--beverages, tax and gratuities not included.
Why, indeed? The buffet presentation is attractive enough, but most of the hot foods are only tepid. Oh, I like the grilled tilapia topped with citrus Col 3, Depth P54.04 I9.06 But the blue-corn gordita with shrimp is soggy and disappointing. And the herbed, cheese-stuffed phyllo triangles, while flaky and flavorful, are not extraordinary.
Okay, so our summer-sampler entrees are half as cheap as the regular entrees. Does that mean they should only be half as good? Just because we're not paying $26 or $28 per plate, does that mean less effort goes into our meals?
I don't know. All I know is, I'm not wowed by either entree. Oh, the catfish fillet is good: decidedly unmurky, grilled in garlic and chile. I like the bed of sweet corn and the clove-tinged red cabbage that fills out the plate. I like it--but I'm not in love.
Ditto for the grilled chicken basted with chile-lime paste. The pollo asado is moist and tender, but somehow unspectacular. The accompaniments of diced summer squash, firm black beans, and salsa fresca that is predominantly tomato seem expected rather than surprising.