Rainforest Cafe

Rainforest Cafe – Brief Article

Rebecca Reisner

Rainforest Cafe Elizabeth, New Jersey (To find one of the chain’s 36 other locations, visit www.rainforestcafe.com)

DR. SCOTT MORI, DIRECTOR OF THE Institute of Systematic Botany at the New York Botanical Gardens, has spent more than 20 years in the French Guinean rain forest. He can identify 200 different species of the Brazil nut family. He can distinguish between the sapucaia variety, which propagates via bats (they grab the cord attached to the fruit’s base and fly off, dropping seeds), and the common Brazil nut, which relies on rodents called agoutis (they bury seeds to eat later, but often forget where they are). Here’s a man, I thought, who can help me evaluate the Rainforest Cafe’s claim to be the most realistic indoor rain forest ever created. Together we journeyed to the Jersey Gardens Mall to visit the international chain’s newest outpost.

Dr. Mori inspected the vegetation as we waited for a table. “These are models,” he said. “I guess it would be too hard to keep real tropical plants alive in an environment like this.” More anticlimaxes followed. “This looks like dogwood and this, azalea,” he said, pointing to flowers in the faux greenery. “These are not rain forest plants.” No need to fire up the old Brazil nut radar after all.

Soon, however, Dr. Mori spotted a petrea, a lilac-colored flowering plant native to the rain forest, and a floor-to-ceiling aquarium containing angelfish, parrot fish, and other legitimate denizens of South American waters. “These corals also look like what you would see in these bodies of water,” Dr. Mori said.

Next, a staged rainstorm began, unleashing realistic-sounding thunder and a downpour of water at the dining room’s perimeter. After an interval, life-sized mechanical elephants and gorillas came to life, producing enough noise to drown out a crying toddler nearby We both enjoyed the theatrics. Still, elephants are most commonly found in open areas, not in forests, and Dr. M. pronounced the gorillas “the hairiest I’ve ever seen.”

A server wearing a safari hat seated us at a table painted with tigers, snakes, and leopards (no, leopards don’t usually live in the you-know-where). I scanned the menu for edible exotica and found none. Not a Brazil nut in sight. We did find chicken, which originated in the rain forests of Asia, and some dishes with pineapple, although not the Amazonian variety. “The restaurant should have at least had something with passion fruit,” Dr. Mori said. “It comes from the rain forest and isn’t that hard to get in this country.” A Rainforest Cafe Inc. executive later explained that including unfamiliar foods might jeopardize the menu’s broad appeal. But the company does stock its restaurants with coffee that is shade-grown, a farming method that conserves tropical trees.

If the food’s heritage didn’t impress Dr. M., its taste did. He was enchanted by the mogambo shrimp with penne pasta and Alfredo sauce ($i3.95). We both liked the rain stix, a vegetable melange wrapped in pastry dough. “Any botanist who’d spent a month eating rice and beans in the Amazon basin would love this meal,” he said. The hoisin-ginger sauce on my Hong Kong shrimp stir-fry ($16.99) was too thick and pungent, but my chocolate banana blast cocktail packed real flavor. And the presentation was lovely — my stir-fry arrived with a mound of sweet jasmine rice grains so delicate it looked like a ball of fresh powdery snow. Total bill, with cocktails, appetizer, and three desserts: $74.

When I remarked on the inauthenticity, Dr. Mori smiled. “Oh, come now,” he said. “You weren’t really gunning for a true rain forest experience, were you? Are you tough enough to walk in the mud, to work in the forest when it’s raining nonstop for days? Would you like to have a botfly larva burrow under your skin and eat your flesh for 45 days?” Not me. Next time I want a Brazil nut, I’ll buy a pound of bridge mix.

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