The Be-All, Trend-All

ObaChine, Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback, Phoenix, 955-9653. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Americans are obsessed with race. We're obsessed with ethnicity. We're obsessed with gender. But ask Americans about class, and they'll look at you blankly. It's something we never think about.

If you force people to say what class they're in, they will almost always respond, "middle class." It doesn't matter if they bring home $150,000 a year, get dividend checks every quarter and set up a college fund for the kids. Upper class? Nah, that's Bill Gates and the Rockefellers.

What if they have no technical or professional skills and live week to week at a $15,000-a-year dead-end factory or clerical job? In this country, such workers still don't feel part of what used to be called the working class. Labor solidarity? Just try to get working stiffs to join a union these days. More likely, most of these wage earners have middle-class dreams of opening a business and bossing around their own employees some day.

But just because we don't see society in terms of class doesn't mean it's not there. The owners of Biltmore Fashion Park and Arizona Mills are certainly aware of it.

These two malls target two very different sets of consumers. Biltmore Fashion Park aims to lure the classes: well-heeled shoppers who believe status and taste can be purchased in fancy boutiques. (After all, what good is having money if you can't flaunt it with a Gucci bag or a Donna Karan outfit?) Arizona Mills, on the other hand, attracts the masses: cash-conscious customers forced to buy status and taste at a discount.

Their eating spots reflect each mall's marketing philosophy. The latest addition to Biltmore Fashion Park is ObaChine, part of the growing Wolfgang Puck empire. (There are two other ObaChines, in Beverly Hills and Seattle.) Puck launched the nauseating phenomenon of "celebrity chef" back in the early 1980s in Los Angeles with Spago, his restaurant to the stars. Ever since, he's been on a mission to colonize the planet with other high-end, Puck-brand restaurants (Chinois on Main, Postrio, Granita) and a line of packaged foods. At Arizona Mills, meanwhile, the featured eatery is the Rainforest Cafe, an amuse-the-proles theme restaurant that mimics the formula first developed by Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood.

ObaChine's status-seeking diners will get good vibes as soon as they wheel up to valet parking. After all, how could a restaurant be less than wonderful if it costs five bucks just to park your car there? At that price, though, it almost pays to drive your vehicle directly to the table and buy it an appetizer.

The restaurant has been sumptuously furnished and designed by Puck's wife/partner. The upstairs dining room is filled with gorgeous Asian art. Mahogany-stained wood tables are inlaid with glass. The iron staircase railings are cleverly designed to resemble creeping vines. The image of the oba, a Japanese leaf from which the restaurant derives its name, appears everywhere, from the carpet to the rattan chairs to the glass sconces.

Too bad the same care didn't go into rest-room design. This place has one stall and one urinal in the men's rest room, two stalls in the women's room. I've seen gas stations with larger facilities, and on a busy weekend evening, I heard lots of patrons grumbling.

It goes without saying that ObaChine is hip, hyped and trendy. So is the fare. But most of it is quite good, if no longer quite cutting edge.

Much to my happy surprise, ObaChine isn't about toned-down Pan-Asian food. Rather, it offers ethnic flavors reconceptualized for the casual upscale crowd. ObaChine wants to make sure it doesn't scare anyone away--that's why your table is set with both chopsticks and cutlery. But this kitchen still takes some chances.

ObaChine is least interesting when it's least imaginative. The ho-hum spring rolls spring to mind. You can do better in almost any Vietnamese restaurant, at about one third the cost. Crab shu mai, small Chinese dumplings, don't have much ethnic zip. And I wasn't impressed with the Cambodian shrimp crepe starter, either, a $9.50 splurge that Asian-food fans who venture west of Central Avenue have seen done better and cheaper. But the clientele here probably doesn't scour the avenues looking for funky ethnic cuisine.

Still, you could wander the avenues forever and not find the likes of warm, sesame-crusted oysters in a rice-wine-vinegar sauce. These six plump, luscious morsels sensationally combine taste and texture. And you also won't run into the likes of Beijing stir-fried lamb, ground lamb vigorously seasoned with cilantro, mint, soy and chile, nesting in a leaf of radicchio.

The main dishes, served family style and beautifully presented, all carefully stay south of the 20-dollar line. ObaChine's customers may have money, but they're not reckless about parting with it.

You won't have any regrets about choosing the grilled, three-peppercorn-crusted ahi tuna. It's remarkable, lovely slices of rare tuna fanned across the plate, creatively matched with mashed sweet potatoes, Chinese eggplant and black-eyed peas. Grilled mandarin beef tenderloin is also superb, teamed with a crispy noodle cake and coated with a dreamy port wine sauce. Even the noncarnivores in my group couldn't resist snatching their share.

One of ObaChine's best entrees is quail tossed with stir-fried egg noodles, boosted by a lip-smacking plum ginger glaze and mildly spicy oyster sauce. Pungently flavored tea-smoked duck, accompanied by scallion crepes, gives off the flavors of the Orient. And one evening's special, moist swordfish bathed in a green coconut curry and inventively paired with pureed celery root, bowled us over.

Red curry cardamom duck and braised beef short ribs are somewhat more problematical. It's not a matter of taste in either case. The curry has real bite, and the dish comes with saffron-accented jasmine rice and pineapple chutney. But the duck isn't boned, making it very hard to share. The ribs, aromatically tinged with a star anise and Szechuan peppercorn glaze, are also difficult to divvy up.

It's easy enough to share the grilled lemon and ginger chicken. But there probably won't be a struggle over it. This platter is a subpar effort, with no seasoning punch.

Desserts aren't remotely Asian. Yet several of them are so suggestively fashioned that you might not notice. They're also so good you might not care. Banana spring rolls are fried, battered bananas, teamed with candied walnuts and a caramel rum sauce. What's not to like? Chocolate coconut pot de creme offers an intense chocolate pudding experience. Refreshing coconut rice pudding, studded with bits of mango and papaya, comes layered between almond cookies. And the fruity passion cream Bavarian is a light way to finish up.

Two beverage quibbles. I wish the by-the-glass wine list offered Gewurztraminer, one of the few wines that pairs well with Asian food. And why couldn't we get a big pot of jasmine tea? Instead, tea is pretentiously served in an individual press pot, and overpriced at three dollars. Twelve bucks for tea at a table for four? Yikes.

No doubt ObaChine will turn into a hot spot for status-conscious trendoids. But this fare can also stand on its own merits. Class dismissed.

Rainforest Cafe, Arizona Mills mall, 5000 South Arizona Mills Circle, Tempe, 752-9100. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sorry, I had to get that out of my system. It's just that eating at the Rainforest Cafe has to be the most stressful way on Earth to pass an evening, with the possible exception of waiting for your daughter to come home from a date with O.J.

If you've ever wondered what it's like to dine in Bedlam, wonder no more. This enormously successful chain operation has got the formula down pat.

First, set up shop in a huge mall, like the Mall of America in Minnesota, Disney Village Marketplace in Orlando, South Coast Plaza in Southern California, or Arizona Mills in Tempe.

Develop an idiotic theme. Let's see, rock 'n' roll and Hollywood movies are already taken. How about the rain forest? But if you believe Rainforest Cafe is about saving the rain forest, I have a trunk full of authentic Navajo earmuffs for sale to help you get through the upcoming August cold snap.

Don't forget to devote lots of space to the gift shop, so mall rats can show their concern for Mother Earth by buying useless junk stamped with the company logo.

The restaurant part of the operation also requires careful attention to detail. Don't take reservations, so folks are forced to wait an hour or two for dinner. That will give them plenty of time to browse the gift shop. When the starving masses do finally get to sit down, surround them with animated gorillas, flapping, five-foot butterflies, simulated storms and enough noise to make them wish they'd been issued those Navajo earmuffs for protection.

Make sure the menu carries an uplifting environmental message from a Native American. The menu here cites a note from Chief Seattle to President Franklin Pierce in 1852: "This we know; the Earth does not belong to Man, Man belongs to the Earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, He is merely a strand in it. Whatever He does to the web, he does to himself."

Are we supposed to believe that this corporate restaurant (NASDAQ symbol: RAIN) in this mega-temple of schlock has any connection to saving the environment? If Chief Seattle ever saw this place, he'd find a way to shoot himself with his own bow and arrow.

Another strategy is to serve the same old dishes and give them moronic names--Tortuga tidbits; Amazon burger; Jamaica, Me Crazy!; Kalahari Safari Pot Pie. But don't put any special effort into making them tasty. The customers, riveted by the spectacle, deafened by the din and faint from hunger, either won't notice or won't care.

Perhaps diners will want to start their feel-good rain-forest experience by ordering a New York steak. (Saving the rain forest, indeed.) But why anyone would come here for an undistinguished $17 slab of beef is beyond my powers of analysis. Nor could I understand how anyone could enjoy the Congo Mogambo, linguini drenched with an Alfredo sauce so heavy it could sink a battleship. Avoid the Kalahari Safari Pot Pie, tough chunks of chicken topped with a leaden biscuit.

By my reckoning, it would take about 10 hours of shopping to work off the effects of the chicken-fried chicken. Meat loaf is partially redeemed once you dip it in barbecue sauce. But nothing can help the congealed mashed potatoes and greasy, undercooked vegetables that come with it. The kitchen couldn't ruin the hamburger. But it could ruin the accompanying limp, lukewarm waffle fries. Only the chicken salad, spruced up with rice noodles, toasted sesame seeds, scallions and carrot, rose to the level of passable.

We all agreed desserts are the best thing here. Maybe that's because we didn't eat them here. My group of teenagers begged me to leave--even they couldn't put up with Rainforest Cafe's nonstop, stomach-churning assault on the senses. In the peace, quiet and comfort of my own home, we enjoyed the coconut bread pudding, banana cheesecake and chocolate cake. On further reflection, maybe we enjoyed them so much because, after almost four hours at Arizona Mills and the Rainforest Cafe, we were finally home.

In ancient Rome, the masses were amused and mollified by bread and circuses. Today, the masses settle for the likes of Arizona Mills and the Rainforest Cafe. So much for progress.

Sesame-crusted oysters
Quail with egg noodles
Mandarin beef tenderloin
Banana spring rolls

Rainforest Cafe:
Chicken salad
Kalahari Safari Pot Pie
Congo Mogambo
Coconut bread pudding


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