This city has about a dozen restaurants that have been here for decades and haven’t put out a good plate of food since Mike Myers was still doing Wayne’s World on Saturday Night Live. I call them mother’s milk restaurants — places that natives grew up on and can’t objectively judge, like Joe T. Garcia’s and Japanese Palace (8445 Camp Bowie West Blvd.). On a recent visit to the latter, I left thinking I wouldn’t mind if someone put that place out of its misery.
Don’t get me wrong: I had a great time celebrating a friend’s birthday at the Palace on a recent weekend night, but that had more to do with the atmosphere and the company than the food or cocktails. Pretty much everything I put in my mouth was offensive.
The place has a cool vintage vibe, starting with a cocktail lounge that has so many steps it could have inspired an M.C. Escher sketch. The dining room consists of a few hibachi grills, with people sitting around them marveling at the chefs’ culinary gymnastics, plus a sushi bar on the outskirts. The dining room was packed, so we waited about an hour in the dimly lit lounge.
I labored over my choice of a cocktail from the vast drinks menu. I decided, after some peer pressure, on the piña colada ($10), an acrid pink sludge served in a brandy snifter. I watched the bow-tied bartender make the drink, which included what looked like half a gallon of Pepto Bismol. It was as if someone had melted down a pink Muppet and added rum and a maraschino cherry. Thinking I had just swung and missed, I went for the Tokyo Rose ($10) on my next at-bat. It was basically the same drink but darker pink and with sake instead of rum. It looked like paint and tasted like paint thinner.
When our table was ready, our hibachi chef awaited us at his grill. The first thing I noticed was the ingredients table, where he had stowed enough butter to create a life-size sculpture of me. The guy put on a good show, tossing shrimp into our mouths, juggling eggs on a spatula, and lighting various things on fire.
The show wasn’t the problem; it was the food.
I opted for the Emperor’s Dinner ($32), with lobster, shrimp, chicken, New York strip steak and vegetables served both tempura and sautéed. The recipe for cooking everything at the Palace is simple: one part lemon, nine parts butter, a gallon of soy sauce and salt, then overcook. Since there were so many of us, the chef cooked the items in bulk: all the vegetables for everyone in one swath, all the rice in another, then the meats and seafood. So instead of my food arriving all at once, the ingredients were served to me one at a time, after a decent amount of showboating by the cook.
An appetizer of tempura battered vegetables came out first, and that turned out to be the highlight of the meal. The yam, zucchini, and squash combo was crispy and tasted fresh. The opening act of the entrée course was a chunk of zucchini that tasted like butter and soy sauce. A few minutes later that was followed by a portion of overcooked, over-seasoned lobster, then fried rice that included a pound of butter, then overcooked veggies, and so on. The steak arrived last, and was prepared a perfect medium rare. It also had enough butter slathered on it to grease a monster truck engine.
It dawned on me, much the same way it does every time I visit Joe T.’s, that no one was at the Palace for the food. It’s a cool place that many of the other party-goers had frequented since their youth. So I say, ‘Party on, Garth.’ Just don’t tell them Chow, Baby sent you.
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