April 2, 2004

Decisions, decisions: you choose the ingredients at this North Side hot spot

Chicago's weather has taken a turn for the warmer. For most of us, winter meant long hours in the Reg, studying and working on our nonexistent tans under the harshly-artificial lights. For me, it meant all of those things, plus more than my fair share of exam panic—and bags under my eyes that could have hidden bin Laden without much effort. I normally don't find myself outside Hyde Park during the coldest days of winter (minus the very necessary trips into Chinatown, which hardly count). In the course of a normal winter week, I tend to beat a path between campus and Shoreland.

There's something to be said for getting out of a rut, and thankfully, spring is finally here! To that end, I found myself in a light jacket, headed towards Belmont with my roommate, who promised a good meal and tickets to a one-night-only engagement by pianist and vocalist Vienna Teng. To completely kill the suspense, which I know has been building inexorably, Teng had laryngitis and only performed a few songs, but dinner alone was worth the trip.

We ate at the Flat Top Grill, at 3200 North Southport Avenue, just a few blocks away from the Red Line's Belmont stop. The restaurant is a single room decorated to the very limit of hip yuppiness (it is in Boys' Town, after all). There are tall tables with bar stools in shades of black, brown, and maroon, as well as a few plush, round booths perfect for lounging and people-watching. The room can only be described as mood-lit, with its dim overhead lights, and various monkeys dancing over the walls to celebrate their year in the Chinese zodiac.

Décor aside, the Grill offers a walk on the wild side of the dining world. Diners choose their own combination of ingredients for the restaurant's chefs to stir-fry on a large, heated countertop for a prix fixe of $12.99. It sounds a little pricey when compared to Hyde Park standbys like the Snail and Morry's, but it's all-you-can eat, which fit well into my plan to eat an obscene amount of food during reading period (and coast through finals week on my body reserves.)

When our server arrived at our table, he gave us each a wooden marker stick with our table number on it. We wrote our names out so he could deliver the right dishes to us after they'd been stir-fried on the grill. He also offered us appetizers and drinks—wines as well as cocktails with exotic names like "Mandarin Dreamsicle" and "Mango Tango Margarita." There's nothing to report there, though, since we decided to stick with water.

Once you have your marker in hand, the real fun begins. Each table has a list of recipe suggestions to make standard dishes like pad thai—but frankly, the prospect of mixing our own crazy concoctions was just too tempting to resist. We filed down the line to select our ingredients, each creating a hodge-podge of odds and ends from the vegetable and fruit section. Next came sauces—everything from Asian garlic ginger sauce to teriyaki, lemon water, and spicy lime basil sauce. We ladled these directly into the bowl with our stir-fry. We put our meat selections—beef, chicken, pork, and tuna—into smaller bowls, then moved to a container of customized sticks that mark the dish with cooking options (such as adding shrimp, having Indian bread on the side, or being cooked in broths). There are also post-preparation options like having your stir-fry wrapped in moo shu pancakes or served over a bed of salad greens with crisp cucumber vinaigrette. After we'd made our selections and left our dishes in the cooking queue with our markers in them, we returned to our table to wait.

Seven minutes later, our waiter brought us our steaming dishes. Frankly, the first round was a bit interesting, but thankfully, there's always the Round 2. For the adventurous, there are fruits like mandarin oranges and Asian pears to sweeten the mix, and the salad option was wonderful.

Experience was also a big factor; my second dish was much more delicious than the first. I suggest combinations of mushrooms, baby corn, stir-fry mix, scallions, garlic, bean curd, and onions, topped with Asian garlic ginger sauce, peanut sauce, and a dash of horseradish, combined with an egg and marinated pork. Because everything is cooked together, the tuna seemed overdone, but every other meat selection was delicious. My roommate tried the wrap dish, which was easier to eat and amazing to watch being prepared under the skillful hands of the chefs. We loved experimenting without feeling like we had to eat a dish if it was terrible (although nothing was inedible, and there's always the stigma of feeling guilty about wasting food by rejecting a bad dish). I ended up eating two dishes, my two friends each managed three, and none of us was in the mood for dessert once we'd finished.

Finally, after longing looks at the dessert menu—which includes warm cinnamon apple crisp à la mode, seasonal selections, and something called a "chocolate storm"—we wandered across the street to the concert hall with a feeling of mellow contentment, our Buddha-esque bellies protruding before us.