Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Forsaken by the Tiki Gods: A Review of VenTiki Lanai and Bar

This being the summer of Tiki, and having had my optimism stained by bad Mai-tai's at Chuck's of Hawaii, I held much hope for VenTiki, a fun-looking Tiki bar and restaurant in Ventura. Sure, a forty minute drive away, but for the fearless Tiki enthusiast, what is forty minutes....besides, the FLOF has a car and she ain't afraid to use it.

Restaurant experiences are highly temporal and subjective. You ate there the one night the chef ran out of mustard, and for the next thousand years you will bad-mouth their Welsh Rarebit. You went to the lakeside cafe the one day the algae bloom turned blue, and it shall forever be known in your lexicon as the blue fairy lake cafe. But there are some days when the stars simply don't align. Such as arriving at the quaint beach-side town to grey skies. Grey, dismal, and slightly chilly. And I didn't bring a jacket. But I soldiered on and arrive at the Tiki discover that a "she's 21 and starting her descent into alcoholism" party was happening, and it's a loud one. This I gleaned by the guest of honor wearing a necklace with a shot glass attached, attended by her parents, who apparently thought this was a great idea, and about 10 rowdy fraternity boys who were slugging back shots of rum. So, there was no room on the patio, which I will grant you was quite cute with its bamboo decor and fire pit. Walking into the main bar, a punch of stale rum hit us in the face, like pool-hall, eau d' Captain Jack's knickers. We eventually found a table outside, right by the water cooler with a wonky leg, so the table jiggled if we so much as breathed, and a steady stream of liquid leaked from the cooler over the concrete beneath our feet.

Still, I  held out hope. Until the cranky rockabilly waitress made it really clear that her garden was barren of any F***'s to give about our experience of this restaurant. And the bartender listened to my excited rant about collecting Tiki swizzle sticks, promised to bring me one or two, and then never came back. Isn't the whole point of Tiki the joy? The unmitigated, irrepressible joy of it? Not here. Not today, baby cakes.

The best thing we drank there was this, the nonalcoholic punch

Yet are there not many bad restaurant experiences that can be redeemed by alcohol? It was at this point that I made a massive, if not predictable misstep. I was, once again, lured to order a drink because it has a cool name. In this case, the Voodoo Temptress of the Seven Pleasures: rum, cherry rum, maraschino liquor, pineapple juice, and bitters. I really, really should've paid attention to that word: BITTERS. Because it was utterly bitter. It was un-fun. I did not finish it. The FLOF, who has far better instincts than I, ordered the Vicious Hibiscus, which is spiced rum, hibiscus, elder-flower liqueur, and lime. That drink was good. Very good. Unfortunately it was not my drink, and I refrained from commandeering it. All the while, trays of magnificent-looking zombies sailed by...there are, apparently, drinks at VenTiki that I would like to time, stay away from the flashy names and go for the zombie!

Ready to fall apart...sushi party foul #1
 The food...oh me...oh despondency...sushi so amateurish as to make packaged sushi at LAX look gourmet. I tried the veggie roll and was  not only underwhelmed by the taste, but I had to eat it in small pieces, as it quickly came unrolled. The eel roll...well, let's just say that I ended up picking the eel out of each piece, because it was kinda slimy, and I kinda felt like I was going to vomit when I took a bite. So out came the eel. What was left was not a dining experience. And it wasn't particularly cheap.

Because who doesn't need a lamp made out of a blow fish carcass?

Had it been sunny. Had it not been Tits McGee's 21st birthday party. Had the waitress been nice. Had the Voodoo Temptress of the Seven Pleasures not double-crossed me. Had the sushi stuck together. Had there not been a baby crawling around our table collecting the grime from the sidewalk on her jumper (who brings a baby to a bar?) Had all of that not been so, perhaps this would be a different review. But it isn't.
At least the fire pit wasn't sucky

What can I say, my Tiki hopes were high, and my Tiki hopes were dashed, cruelly to the hard cement floor. I would not stop out of my way to go here again.

Now is the time to ask, "Have I displeased the Tiki gods?" "What must I do to lift the curse? First Chuck's of Hawaii and now my summer of Tiki about to dissolve into a forgettable dribble of sub-par rum? That cannot be. I must rally. I must hit back with Hurricanes so delectable that the world stops for a moment. I must don the Tiki sacraments, make prayers to the Tiki Gods, leave bribes if need be. I have to get my mojo back quick, because in two weeks we're throwing a Tiki Tea Party...and if that goes up into a rum-ball of flaming mediocrity, I may as well cash in right now and declare this the summer of malt liquor and Fritos. Let us hope redemption awaits, in the form of upside-down pineapple cake and Blue Hawaiians.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Review of Chuck's of Hawaii Steakhouse: Dead Men Tell No Tales

"Yo ho ho, a foodie's life for me," I always say. And this being the Summer of Tiki, we started off with what I thought was a brilliant plan. Dress like pirates, go to the movie theater for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, and then off to Chuck's of Hawaii Steakhouse for Tiki fare. After all, what goes better with pirates than a tropical beverage?

On the topic of Jack Sparrow: Adoration for the first movie would be a slender word to capture my feelings. But since then, the franchise has done what franchises do: grown a bit over-inflated, hard to follow, and gentrified. Why is it that the characters so often become caricatures of themselves after the first movie? Nonetheless, pirates have a heady allure, and I put on my best Jack Sparrow head scarf...which I crocheted, beaded, and hot glued for the occasion...because I am daft as Captain Jack himself, although armed with a crochet hook instead of a bottle of rum.

Popcorned, red-vined, slurpeed, and seated next to Captain FLOF and her consort, the music swelled, the curtain rolled aside...and we sat through 2.5 hours of fairly incomprehensible plot (we're smart cookies, but this convoluted whale of a tale had almost no rhyme or reason) and a slurring Johnny Depp. The essence of Jack Sparrow is dialogue that is irreverent, quirky, and funny. That's the whole point. He's a PIRATE. Pirates are rock n' roll on a galleon; they're bad, bad boys (and girls) who are out for plunder, rum, and a party. To wit, Keith Richards has on occasion played Jack Sparrow's father to great effect. This movie? They got Paul McCartney to dress up as a pirate...and that, I think, is the final nail in the coffin of ol' Jack. Because he pretty much stumbles through this movie with no reason to be there (see previous point about lack of a plot), Captain Barbosa has a Christ-like turn of character that is mystifying, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann have leaden cameos, and the two young leads are adrift in a water-logged shipwreck of confusion. Oh, and Joachim Bardem, an actor I otherwise adore, staggers through the film with his head enlarged by special effects, so that it is bulging at you through the screen, as he tries to eke some smidgen of character out of the dialogue. He doesn't even have a sword fight with Captain Jack (in fact, Captain Jack wields no sword in this movie at all).

But still, there were some great visuals, jaunty music, and once or twice I laughed. Once or twice. OKAY, FINE, I frickin hated it! Ta, Jerry Bruckheimer, ta very much for killing one of film's most beloved characters by smothering him with pg-friendly mediocrity. Why in the blazes would you give Jack Sparrow to a pair of directors who can claim Kon-Tiki and Max Manus as their big feature films and a writer who had his finger in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull? Were you *trying* to keelhaul the film? Were you *trying* to double-cross and strand this movie on a desert island? If so...well, I suppose that's very piratey of you. But a misfortune for the 77 million suckers who handed their doubloons over on opening weekend.

Still, I did not feel the day was lost. After all, we had Chuck's Hawaiian Steakhouse ahead of us, reportedly a tropical Tiki kind of place with a long history in Santa Barbara.

But the minute we stepped into the darkened restaurant, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. There is nothing tropical, nothing Tiki, and nothing appetizing about Chuck’s. It is Sizzler with bad lighting, and worse food and no unlimited shrimp. The Mai-tai is the only drink on the menu that is tropical, and it tasted like Captain Jack Sparrow drank a bottle of rum and then pissed into a Mai-tai glass. Yes. IT WAS THAT BAD.

The salad bar, given so many glowing reviews online, turned out to be something that I would expect to find in a hospital cafeteria circa 1954. With basic toppings, a steaming drawer of smooshed bread, a huge bin of butter slices crammed together, and little else to recommend it, I started to have a sinking feeling about the entrees.

The scallops were tough, the steak was rubbery, and the Hawaiian chicken was picked at and then left half-eaten alongside a clump of sticky teriyaki rice. The grilled artichoke came with mayonnaise that was so nostril-burning with raw garlic that I dipped only modestly. And for me, the world's biggest mayo fan, to dip modestly means that catastrophe has descended on the sweet, peaceful valley of Sauceland. If the leftovers are so bad that you decide not to take them home to give to the dog, then you have landed in the restaurant equivalent of Davy Jones' Locker. It was, I do not jest, one of the worst eating experiences I've had in Santa Barbara, in no small part because the bill was eye-stabbingly painful. I can eat in a dive, if I am paying $10 for dinner. But we limped out of there for about $36 each.

I suppose the moral of the story is that if the napkin feels the need to inform you that it is an award-winning restaurant, you really should run in the opposite direction. Run to the amazing retro salad bar at Rusty’s. Run to Paradise Cafe and order the grilled artichoke. Just run any which way but back to Chuck's, because that is one Bermuda Triangle you do not want to be lost in.