A creature was stirring

’Twas exactly a week before Christmas, and all through Arden Fair Mall, people were doing their business, shoppers, shopkeepers, one nation for all. Macy’s, Sears and the Virgin Megastore were rocking, but empty jewelry stores mean there’ll be no diamonds in this year’s stockings. Into the Gap I happened to stumble, when thought of the economic downturn caused my stomach to rumble. I was tired of shopping, so I said, “Hey, what the hey? Dining companion, let’s hit the California Café!”

It’s still a beautiful place, with cherry wood chairs and art on the walls, you’d never guess it’s in a mall—unless you drew a window seat, which is what we got, with a beautiful view of the mall’s parking lot. It was jam-packed with cars, from one end to the other; the crosswalks were swarming with fathers and mothers. “Ain’t that America?” I said to my friend, who replied, “Yep, sure is, from beginning to end.”

I’d no sooner taken in the words that she had said, when the waitress arrived with a plate full of bread. There was half a French loaf and three slices of focaccia; we dipped it in fresh, fragrant olive oil with a dash of balsamic. There’s an extensive wine list but we had to drive, so we sipped Diet Cokes till the appetizer arrived.

Pesto Fried Calamari was a bowl full of fried squid, served legs and all, breaded real thin. It was crunchy and good, that much we know, but don’t ask us why they call it pes-to. In the breading we could see tiny green dots, which on the taste buds unfortunately registered for naught. Still all in all we’d be telling a fib if we didn’t admit this was some mighty fine squid.

That’s a saying that’s equally valid when it comes to critiquing the California Seasonal Greens salad. Fresh red leaf lettuce, tomatoes with citrus herb vinaigrette, the salad was easily large enough for two to split. We added Shaft’s blue vein cheese on top of our green mounds; that funky blue veiner took us straight to downtown!

So far the score was good, as far we could tell; when it comes to the California Café, the bread, appetizers and salad are swell. We anxiously looked forward to our main dishes, in the hopes that our rumblings would soon be in submission. Crab & Shrimp Stuffed Petrale Sole and Chicken & Dumplings, were surely the cure for these ominous rumblings.

Alas! I’m afraid I’ve no good news to report; the ship seemed to sink before it ever left port. The fish stuffed with shrimp was arranged on julienne vegetables quite dear, but the taste of the fish I’m afraid was quite queer! “Alas dining companion, what should I do? This fish tastes so fishy, I think I might spew!” “Let me taste it,” she said with concern, and when the fork passed her nose, oh how it did turn. She became defiant and went on the attack. “You’ve got no choice but to send that fishy fish back!”

We summoned the waitress, who summoned the manager; he arrived at the table with a polite courteous manner. “Is there a problem, sir?” I heard him say. “Yes!” I told him. “This fish is too fishy, please take it away.” The waitress came back to take my new order, “I’ll have the Charred Rare Ahi appetizer,” I told her.

Meanwhile my companion was eating her dumplings, which so far she said had not quelled her rumblings. “There’s big chunks of chicken, but I don’t understand. The dumplings are too gummy, the broth tastes like it’s canned.” I took a taste myself and ’twas hard to tell—California Café or essence of Campbell’s?

The ruby red Ahi, served with green horseradish paste, was something I gobbled in gluttonous haste. I’d thought the scorecard might be changing its tack when just then another patron sent his fish back. Salmon this time, I don’t know the reason, but my guess would be that it’s not the fish season.

’Tis another season indeed, one with no time to waste, so we went back in the mall and shopped with great haste. We gathered our bundles and tied them on tight, then we got into the sled and slid into the night.