Tuesday, May 02, 2006


The Chain Has A Bad Link

It's no secret that I love food. The Squeeze, our friends and I just love going out to eat and we love trying new places. Quite some time back we were introduced to a place called The Mongolian Grill. In my neck of the woods, there are a few of them all within about a one hour drive.

The idea of "The Grill" as we call it, is to go up to the buffet and load up a bowl with your choice of raw meat (if you are so inclined), veggies, oils, sauces, and spices and line up at this six foot wide wok where a number of guys cook your food, stirring your chosen mixture with long wooden sticks, and placing it in a new clean bowl. You then head back to your table where bowls of rice and containers of soft, warm tortillas await you.

The Squeeze, always the food safety cop, found this to be a potential cross-contamination problem, but when he noticed that the guys stirring the food kept rotating around the wok to ensure that one person's sticks only handled the raw food, and the guy at the end of the line used sticks that only contacted fully-cooked food, his mind was at ease.

With the wide array of meats, veggies, oils, sauces and spices on hand, you can get some very different flavours on each trip up to the wok. Generally, one can only handle two or three trips up, before moaning in pain and yet somehow still eagerly await the trip to Dairy Queen on the way home. Hey, it's tradition. (God, we're sick people!)

On a recent trip to Toronto to visit the Ontario Science Centre's "Body Worlds II" exhibit, we decided to drive up Don Mills Road to find a place to eat. What did we see but Genghis Khan Mongolian Grill? Done deal. We went in, had a seat, ordered our drinks and were told how the place works. Ya, buddy, we know all this. We're pros. The difference here is that they had a rather extensive Chinese buffet area complete with an array of desserts, in addition to the usual grill fare. The items for the grill were fairly similar to the other "Grill"'s we've visited, but where it lacked was in the fact that there were no spices! None! The other "Grill"'s have about a dozen or more bowls of spice mixtures to enjoy. Blasphemy! How can you expect to get the full flavours you crave without spices? The answer: well, you can't! It was a culinary "so what?". At least the Chinese buffet area made up for the dismal experience of the grill itself, but it was still sort of a lunchbag letdown. Another thing that was different was the fact that the waiters didn't bring the rice and tortillas to the table. We had to do some research and managed to find these items at the Chinese buffet area.

One other thing that left a bad taste in our mouths (or should I say noses?) was the rather strong scent of mothballs that assaulted us every time our waiter came by. This was accompanied by his rather pungent body odour. We paid our bill and got out of there, and apparently left our brains behind because not three months later we returned.

The Squeeze was on call this weekend and was called in for some quick service work. I offered to tag along for the ride so we could spend some time together. He said, "Hey we can go out for dinner. The call is close to "The Grill". Sounded good to me at the time.

We were seated at the window, as far away from the grill as possible. I wonder if they took our size into account when they put us there. It was a bit disturbing being at the window because just about every person who walked by the place stopped, cupped their hands above their eyes and peered into the restaurant, looked around and checked out the food on our plates before continuing on their way. I wish we had done the same.

When our waiter came to take our drink order, the first thing we noticed was the rank body odour. What is it with this place? Do they only hire waiters who take a strong anti-deodorant stance? We really would have preferred the moth ball smell again over this.

We took our trip up to the grill for a dismal bowl of blandness and sadly ate it. Well, at least we have the Chinese buffet! Or so we thought. I had some peel & eat shrimp, a bit of some chicken dish and something I can only assume was Kung Pao Tofu. I ate the shrimp and the chicken. There were a number of things up there that just looked nasty. I did try a few other items. I took a bite of a spring roll: some strange off-putting taste in there. I had a bite of a chicken egg roll. Ya, that's right, a chicken egg roll. It doesn't sound good, and it tasted even less appealing. We both tried something that was being passed off as a deep fried cheese wonton. I don't know what that stuff in the middle was, but it didn't taste like any cheese I've ever met. And I've met a LOT of cheese! I brought a couple of shrimp, complete with heads, in some supposedly hot sauce back to the table. After tearing off the head and discovering that it hadn't been deveined, I attempted to pull this long strand of shrimp-waste-filled intestine out of the little creature, but it would have none of it, and as a result, neither did I. I brought back a bowl of wonton soup, figuring there is no way they can screw this up. How wrong I was. I'm not sure what the meat in the wontons was, but I'm assuming it was skunk. The broth was no better. It had the colour of raw chicken, and the unmistakable flavour of salt. The plate of discarded food was becoming quite well-mounded.

We decided to give up on the main meal, and headed up for the dessert bar. It was pretty impressive. I manipulated the tongs and placed an individual tiramisu on my plate and helped myself to a scoop of black cherry ice cream. I headed over to another area where they had an array of fruit and waited patiently for a man who I can only assume was trying to re-assemble a pineapple from the slices on the platter. I noticed a nice looking bowl of caramel custard that I thought I'd have to try. As I waited for my turn, an Asian man pushed right in with his two children and started scooping things on their plates. Not a problem. I can wait. I wasn't that eager to experience what, judging by the rest of the meal, could be a complete and total disaster. While they were bellied up to the trough, a rather slovenly man in his 50's pushed his way in, and somehow managed to shove his hand in a bowl of some kind of whipped cream or custard. He began licking his hand and fingers like someone who had been raised by wolves and was given his first meal in a week.

What happened next was surreal. It was like some scene from a movie. It seemed to take place in slow motion. The other people at the dessert bar dissolved from the scene and my focus zoomed in as the rest of the restaurant pulled out of focus and sped away from the point of impact. This slob reached his saliva and whipped cream covered hand toward the scoop in the bowl of caramel custard. He wrapped his fingers around the handle and he began piling it on his plate. I stood there with my eyes and mouth open with what I'm sure was a look of total and utter disgust, if not horror. I'm sure I stood there like that for about thirty seconds, and the man was oblivious.

I was so disgusted with what I had just seen, I can't imagine how I managed to eat that tiramisu and ice cream. I told The Squeeze what had just happened and he was repulsed. "That's why buffets are a food safety nightmare," he said. "They should really have someone behind the buffet serving people what they want. That way only one person handles the utensils, and they normally wear gloves."

I had a realization that those tongs, scoops, and other serving utensils must be swimming in bacteria. If that boor had no problem with licking his hands and using a community serving scoop in full view of everyone in the restaurant, imagine what he, and possibly scores of others, have done when we weren't watching! What is to say that the tongs you use weren't just handled by someone who coughed in their hand, picked their nose, scratched their armpit, crotch, ass....and let's not forget the number of times people leave a public bathroom without washing their hands!

I think I have just completely turned myself off of self-serve buffets. Hmm....I wonder how long I'll stick with that.

I'm so very very glad that I did not read this while eating my lunch (brought from home, but still). Oooh, I know Don Mills! My friend used to live there, not far from the Science Centre.
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