Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Atlanta Hilton, Atlanta, GA
Review by SuSu, Diana, WithKing, MaceVindaloo, Ed, BunchBox, Chupathingy
Once upon a time, being kitschy was "out" because the generations that came after the WW2 generation decided that "Polynesian" stuff was not authentic, culturally insensitive, and embarassing. And so the likes of "cocktail lounge" restaurants like the Hawaii Kai near the Winter Garden in New York City, Howard Johnson's, and Trader Vic's went into steady decline. They closed, or limped along in a much-abbreviated form. Those of us who were very young at the time rather missed those kitschy palaces, because to our young eyes, not only were they so colorful and exotic, but also they seemed so ... well, grown-up. They matched the shows which were by now into re-runs, things like TV Batman, Lost in Space, even early Star Trek. We were consigned to too-hip bars and had to forego the silliness of German food steeped in sweet and sour sauce, then passed off as "Polynesian." It might not have been good (the red sauce was too mucilaginous, actually), but it represented something forever unattainable.|
When we went to pick up our registration forms and badges for Dragon*Con, imagine our surprise to see a South Pacific war mask and spears, and the decidedly loungy-lizardy signage for Trader Vic's not 10 feet away, in the same building! And what was that smell? Was that the smell of real barbecue, meaning the smoky, slow-cooked pig variety?? Had the food changed at Trader Vic's? Oh my, does that mean if the menu had changed, the decor and lounge concept were changed, too? We hoped not ... and we were willing to risk disappointment to see! (The smell of the smoky meatiness was a big factor here!)
Being in a hotel, the space was more tube-like than a big space, but it was used very well, in the sense that these places were always distributed and decorated rather theatrically with different levels and little steps and balcony-esque separators. It's kind of the original "boom boom room" with a bamboo beach hut feel from out of a 1950s era movie about the South Pacific. Mate that with Vegas-style rat-pack lounge-lizard mystique, and you get sudden nostalgia for those of us who were infants when this happened the first time, or who's parents and grandparents were into it. For the rest of us, it's just kitschy and over the top and we loved it! Especially the pufferfish ceiling lights and the tiki-embossed bowls and fences and stuff!
As such, it was de riguer to order the house booze in a tiki bowl! It was a rum plus tropical juice drink, but it wasn't overly sweet, and it was made slushy with ground ice and presented with an orchid in the middle. We got long straws to share the concoction (you have it made for as many as will be drinking) and we found that because of the amount of ice int here, the liquid tended to dry up. But the flavor of the punch and the novelty of it was not to be denied, so we kept pouring cold water in there to sip out of. Was very merry!
Our waiter was Asian, and had a certaing "South China Sea" je-ne-sais-quoi air about him. He was older and very proper. He took our order and served the food as it came, and it was obvious that he was in charge of our table, and others who cleared and dealt with us deferred to him. It's nice when a solid hierarchy exists, and he was responsible for our happiness that evening.
For dinner, we decided to the prix fixe, which was $40 per person and included appetizers, salad, a mixed-grill type main dish, and dessert. It's an excellent deal, mainly because the food was actually surprisingly good. It wasn't the pupu platter and sweet and sour goopy pork of our dim memories, thank goodness!
Everything here is theater, including how the food is presented. Rather than hefting big trays of stuff, they wheel everything out in a white-cloth covered cart and serve it from behind the tiki-esque rail a couple of steps below your dining banquette. Appetizer sauces come in butterfly-shaped plates and are a reflection of the quasi-Chineseness of what Trader Vic's had presented as "Polynesian food" in Halcyon days: sharp Chinese mustard and a sweeter, ketchupy barbecue sauce. You got crab rangoon (like a crabcake in a fried wonton skin), a barbecued pork rib (tender and good and not oversmokes or overcooked, like so much barbecue can be), and a crispy prawn, covered in rice-based crackery things, deep-fried.) It was all very good and did in fact pique the appetite, rather than slamming it like so many appetizers do these days.
The salad was a nice mix of arugula, lettuce, and ribbon-shredded carrots, onions, etc. in what was billed as a jalopeño sauce. It was flavored with sesame and sugar, so it wasn't as hot as you might think. It was nice to actually get a good salad on a marjoleca style ceramic cabbage leaf plate! (Yeah, we're tired of tiny "house salads.")
The main dish was a mishmosh of styles, but that's not a bad thing at Trader Vic's! However, instead of "sweet" the new incarnation of the food here is more "hot." The shrimp with stir fried peppers were excellent, but the peppers were quite hot. They did make the perfect sauce for the seamonsters! The stir-fried vegetables with chicken was more what you'd expect from a Chinese restaurant, and it was very good. Both these sauces and vegetables were an excellent complement to the otherwise unadored smoked beef filet mignon. We watched the cook put them into the big, round, drumlike smokers, which are featured on the street entrance side of the restaurant as you come in. They're encased in a glass room that looks like a tatami-covered sauna it was actually very beautiful. He treated it like a tandoor oven, placing and pulling the meat via long pigtail skewers and using the smoky hot tubs as the cooker. The meat was cooked as we wanted it, it was tender, flavorful, and we were very happy!
Another piece of presentation nostalgia the inverted teabowl of rice! We used to do that ourselves in Chinese places; our mothers were wrong about this being rude, eh? And we love the big plates decorated with menehune. If anyone ever took a flight to Hawaii in the 1970s, you might cry or at least cry out at the site of these grass-kilted men on your plate!
Coffee came in a glass cups, Irish whiskey style, but the holders were like those coasters your relatives bought at souvenirs in some far-off airport shop. The coffee can be spiked on request, but we opted for it neat, enhanced with cream in good Teutonic style. And why not? The originator of Trader Vic's is German!
The cheesecake was not quite New York standard, but it was that style, and it came "neat" embellished by a raspberry sauce on the side, and some lovely berries around it. We hate when the sauce is dumped onto the cheesecake, as if it had something to hide. The portion was perfectly sized, and we were able to leave the restaurant staggering only a little after this big meal (rather than groaning in pain and rolling in an unseemly manner ...)
We loved the displays of tiki kitschy cups and bowls, and wondered if they were for sale? Undoubtedly, and ebay search would find some for your own lounge. But in a way, we are happier that Trader Vic's is back from the land of the dead, it's adapted to accommodate a less ignorant crowd, and that we had a good dinner and fun time here. Even though this IS a lounge and you get your share of drunken loud people by the bar. And if you're at a geek con, you'll get loud, drunken geeks who are probably meeting their online gaming partners for the first time in person. Hey, it's appropriate after all, this place CAN feel like your parents' or grandparents' basement, eh?
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