The big (off) night

Don’t get me wrong. I do have a certain respect for the various Fat restaurants. They’ve been around forever; everyone seems to like them. They’re quite well-appointed and pleasant to patronize; the food is usually good, and, really, it seems damn near blasphemous to be writing a negative review of California Fat’s.

So, you know, all I can say is that I went there the other night with a couple of companions in tow, and we were all rather disappointed.

Along the same line, I’m starting to get seriously tired of places that charge lots of money for mediocre food, even if they do have great atmosphere or service or a giant waterfall. There seems to be this unfortunate inverse ratio in effect lately, where, with exceptions, of course, the more you pay, the lower the quality of the food. My wife and I went to this nondescript Chinese place in a strip mall in Davis the other night, and for about $15, we had excellent, simple, food. Beef and vegetables perfectly cooked and seasoned, nicely balanced sauces and an exceptionally flavorful seafood and tofu soup. Days later, at California Fat’s, a seafood stir-fry, nearly 15 bucks by itself, was, you know, all right, but still kinda greasy, not very flavorful—disappointing. When I see something on the menu that sounds really good, a high price makes it seem as though it’s even better, as if they really do something special to it, but it’s a shame when it arrives and seems like it was probably just sort of thrown together by some stressed-out line cook making $9 an hour.

Which brings me to the whole menu-wording thing. There ought to be a clear correlation between how good the food sounds and how good it actually is. I had the $24 rack of lamb, which reportedly had Lena Fat’s special marinade or sauce or something and was served over pancetta-fried rice. OK, we have the chef/owner’s name attached to the dish, which lends it a special aura of quality. Then, we have the unique Italiafornian/Chinese fried rice spruced up with pancetta, which also adds greatly to the enticement factor. Unfortunately, though, the result was a disappointment on four counts. First, I ordered the lamb medium-rare, but it was served at what I guess was about 40 to 45 degrees shy of the mark—in other words, very rare. I can handle rare lamb, but I would’ve preferred it as I had ordered it, of course. Secondly, the lamb just wasn’t particularly tasty. The glaze coating it was a pretty good, but somehow lackluster, variation of an Asian barbecue sauce, kind of a hoisin-and-soy based thing. The pancetta-fried rice was tasteless, with almost no pancetta in it; it was dry, and, sorry to say, it reminded me of what I might get at the Safeway Hot Wok Express counter. To round it all off, the veggies—yellow squash and zucchini—were so overdone they may as well have been served as a puree, and they were also flavorless.

One of my companions has been a big fan of the restaurant’s Chinese chicken salad for some time, which the servers make an impressive show of as they toss it tableside in a giant bowl. The salad consists mainly of iceberg lettuce, pieces of fried wonton skin, scallions, sesame seeds and chicken. Unfortunately, this time the dressing was curiously muted, and the chicken bore the unmistakable taste of refrigerator.

We had better luck with the roast duck and shiitake mushroom pizza—ample chunks of delicious roasted duck and a thin layer of hoisin sauce as the base. Similarly, the old California Fat’s favorite, the tequila beef appetizer, was as tasty as we’d remembered it, reinforcing our sense that, perhaps, we had just come on an unlucky night. But if it wasn’t just an off-night, I can only conclude that the California Fat’s kitchen has slipped from what it once was.