For some of us, a good dining experience involves tinkering with the menu and leaving the restaurant with a belly ready to burst. If you like playing with your dinner and stuffing your face for under $15, try the Graywolf Grill. Open now for about three years (the last year under new ownership), the Mongolian-style grill encourages you to create your own culinary faux pas until you get it right.
Located in the Willow Lawn shopping center next to the Barksdale Theatre, the spacious Mongolian grill does not intend to transport its diners to the land of the Mongols in cuisine or atmosphere. Rather, it resurrects a Mongolian barbecue tradition of allowing diners to create their own dish from a variety of ingredients. Despite its Americanized infusion of gimmicks, the large bar of ingredients contains some Asian possibilities and enough alternatives to satisfy a variety of palates.
Bowl in hand, diners begin at one end of the ingredients bar to choose between shaved slices of chicken, beef, turkey or lamb. Next, there is a selection of freshly defrosted pollock, baby shrimp or bay scallops. Vegetarians will find drained cubes of tofu (and plenty of other possibilities).
The mostly fresh-looking ingredients bar includes broccoli, baby corn, snow peas, tomatoes, zucchini, pineapple, bean sprouts, raw eggs and more. You may choose from garlic, canola, olive and sesame oil for flavor and to prevent your hopelessly innovative dish from sticking to the hot grill.
All sorts of palatable sins can be committed in the Graywolf's selection of dry herbs and spices. Here you will find most everything you need, but salt. Crocks of dried basil, rosemary and dill are alongside mixed spices like Old Bay, curry, and Cajun blends. (To my dismay, the only garlic was of the powder medium unless you use the ladle to fish out the chopped garlic lying on the bottom of the garlic oil crock. For fresh cracked pepper, you will need to visit the salad bar.)
Apart from the dry seasonings, the food bar offers additional accompaniments and sauces, such as lemon juice, white wine, soy, tomato and a very watery peanut sauce.
The last stage is to pass off your culinary catastrophe to a cook overseeing a large circular, cast-iron grill. Here, the ends of two long wooden sticks are used to tear and shred your choice ingredients into a small melee. The slightly mangled final product is often better than it looks, though, especially when the large bowl of rice and steamed flour tortillas waiting at the table are brought into the mix.
The unlimited dinner buffet ($13.95) includes a modest salad and soup bar. If you have not eaten yourself into a coma, the changing desert menu offers an array of pre-made desserts - such as key lime pie, chocolate torte, strawberry cheesecake, and a Nutty Buddy cake ($3.95) worth breaking a belt buckle for.
The Graywolf Grill is reasonably priced and, at times, even fun. That is, if you can completely ignore the two sizeable tip jars and tip gong located strategically on the counter around the grill. As with those tip jars found emblazoned with cute slogans next to coffee house registers, these jars are comically inappropriate for the work performed.
For about $40, two people can enjoy four courses each (splitting the desert), two beers, leave a decent tip with the waiter (20 percent) and ignore the grill's tip jar. I will return when I know the grill cook is sure not to recognize me.
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