Bill Maher may not be Edward Gibbon, but he made an excellent point recently on his HBO show Real Time when discussing the decadence of our era: "We live in Roman times." That is, we have a very American Empire, with conquests abroad, barbarians at the gates and bread and circuses for the masses. The last of these include everything from Anna Nicole Smith's weight loss and Fox TV's dating show for dwarfs to the mainstreaming of porn and the fact that every time Britney Spears burps it's front page news.
Indeed, it could well be that when future historians look back on our time, they will see nothing but increasing anarchy preceding a cataclysmic collapse, all of it aided and abetted by a fat, indulgent nation of illiterates. But really, what the hell can we do about it? Not much. Plus, it's not like I want Big Brother Ashcroft coming after my copy of the Paris Hilton tape, or Howard Stern kicked off Clear Channel, as he seems to be as of the moment. I am, at heart, a voluptuary and a voyeur, which may be the reason I have this job. And if it were up to me, we'd have whole cable channels dedicated to little people reality shows and Britney's digestive tract.
I'm saying we should embrace the hedonism of our times, and there's no better place to do it, in my opinion, than at the 14-month-old Drift Polynesian Restaurant and Tiki Lounge in Scottsdale, which is easily the most sensuous and sinful eatery in the Valley of the Sun. Designed by owner Greg Donnally, who was one of the owners of Ra Sushi before selling it to Benihana, every detail in Drift calls to mind such legendary purveyors of the old tiki theme as Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber's, save that Drift is far more swank. The exterior is most impressive by night with giant Gilligan's Island-style torches illuminating the grass-hut-style roof and a patio dominated by these bizarre hand-carved Balinese chairs, their pale, dinosaur-like pieces looking like something right off the set of The Flintstones movie with John Goodman.
Inside is an alluring little pocket of Polynesia, with a bamboo-roofed lounge area to the right that looks out to a large, square, glass-topped bar to the left. The lounge is hung with numerous island-carved masks, and the roof supports are encircled with Zulu rope, a straw-colored palm frond product. A number of low, concave booths of soft, gray and white upholstery line the wall, and between these and the bar are wooden tables surrounded by modish black chairs on steel pedestals. Dominating the lounge at the far back is an eight-foot-tall concrete reproduction of one of those colossal Easter Island heads, called a moai, and behind it is a wall of faux lava rock.
The bar literally glows as it's lit from underneath, as indeed almost 100 percent of the lighting in the place is indirect, lending a groovy, twilight ambiance. In the middle of the bar, a large aquarium of tropical fish sends off a radiant blue aura, and the two TVs set into the wall behind the bar play surfing videos, or one of the classic Elvis-in-Hawaii flicks. And to the far side of the bar, a beehive-style fireplace crackles invitingly.
Blonde cuties in midriff-baring, aquamarine tank tops and white, low-cut clam-diggers buzz about with trays full of tall, exotic drinks in tiki glassware. There's the Evil Bastard, a mixture of Bacardi 151 and various fruit syrups, served in a devilish red glass sporting some especially suggestive horns. (When your waitress brings your Evil Bastard, a rum-soaked sugar cube is set aflame atop a sliver of floating fruit.) The Evil Bastard is easily the most popular drink in the place, and Drift's general manager, Bryan Chittenden, jokes that "everyone in Scottsdale has made off with one of those glasses. I don't want people to steal them. But it is a good form of advertising."
Some of Drift's other tiki-inspired drinks include the Witch Doctor in a skull-like glass, Pele's Eruption in a big, green, flaming pot, the Hoti in a Buddha-shaped glass, and the Alotta Colata in a coconut shell with a straw sticking out the side. But my preferred potation to enjoy with friends is the Grotto, which comes in a huge, plastic oyster shell with long straws for communal slurping. Inside the shell is a load of ice, flavored rum, Southern Comfort, apricot brandy, peach schnapps, blue curacao and a number of other liquids on top. An assemblage of edible orchids floats in the mixture.
Like most of Drift's other drinks, the Grotto is similar to a Long Island Iced Tea in the sense that when you drink it, it's like you're imbibing Hi-C. But as soon as you attempt rising from your chair, you find that someone tilted the floor to a 45-degree angle. When I visited on a Saturday night, after several Evil Bastards and a Grotto shared amongst pals, we were literally crawling to our cars. By St. Martin's goose, we're bloody lucky the police didn't stop us that evening and ask us to recite the alphabet, forward or backward. Book 'em, Danno!
You might think such a theme joint, packed with the beautiful people of Scottsdale, would not have paid much heed to its menu. But, in fact, my drunken comrades and I noshed like crazy on its immense pupu platter, a wooden lazy Susan with a flame in the middle that offers samplings of such Drift delicacies as pork ribs, skewers of beef and chicken, pot stickers, and Bali bottle rockets.
The ribs, I learned later, are slow-cooked for three hours by Drift's chef de cuisine Jamie Interdonato in a Polynesian demi-glace of brown sugar, chipotle, orange, pineapple juice and hoisin sauce, among other ingredients. I'd venture to say Drift serves some of the best ribs in the Valley, as I even went back on another night to have a full entree atop a bed of mashed potatoes. Oh, sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you!
But those Bali bottle rockets were at least three times as addicting as Drift's ribs, even though eating one is akin to mainlining a jumbo shot of fat right into your heart. Essentially, the bottle rockets are plump, deep-fried egg rolls stuffed with a filling made of rock shrimp, cream cheese, cilantro, scallions and hot sauce. Eating one probably cuts a year off your life, but it's worth it. Thanks to all the bottle rockets I consumed, I may not make it past 40!
Drift also deserves kudos for the shaved coconut shrimp -- skewers of large tempura shrimp rolled in coconut and fried for no more than a minute, which are then stuck into thick slices of pineapple with a yummy sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. And the Samoan black pepper fillet is worthy of any four- or five-star eatery. It's a marinated, house-cut slice of tenderloin seared and then baked to a finish in a mixture of cracked pepper, Jamaican jerk spice and butter. Wow!
I didn't like Drift's salads or the noodle soups quite as much as I did its main courses. The tiki sesame beef noodle bowl seemed especially bland, and the rock shrimp salad was okay until all the rock shrimp were gone. But, hey, you can't like everything on the menu, and I'm particularly difficult to please. Remember that Drift is drawing upon the fantasy of the South Pacific more than the reality, so don't come expecting the food to be the same as the last time you visited Oahu. Still, with the establishment's Hawaii Five-O excess, I can't help but see myself at the bar, sipping an Evil Bastard or a Zombie as the American Empire crumbles into oblivion. What better way to greet the End of Days?
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