Barbarians at the Plate


Three weeks ago, I ran across the news story that a team of archeologists working on the grassy steppes of Mongolia supposedly had unearthed the long-lost palace of the 13th-century warrior Genghis Khan. Legend has it that Khan, the fearless warlord who created the world’s largest empire, was actually buried close to his palace. But over the centuries, no one had ever figured out exactly where — maybe because the 800 soldiers who accompanied Khan’s body to the burial site were all permanently silenced upon their return.

I have my own weird fantasy about what could be buried in the ruins of Genghis Khan’s palace. In my reverie, a bunch of eager archeologists first pry a giant iron circle — weighing hundreds of pounds — out of the soil. And then, digging furiously, they uncover dozens and dozens of porcelain bowls and then, to the shock of everyone gathered at the site, they unearth tiny little squares of hammered metal, each artfully embossed with a different culinary term: chicken, bamboo shoots, squid … imitation crab. “This is incredible,” gasps one of the scientists, delicately brushing dirt from a relic. “This is historical proof of the first all-you-can-eat Mongolian buffet!”

Laugh if you like. But when it comes to Genghis Khan, no hyperbole is too much. He was, according to a 2003 genetics study, personally responsible for populating much of this planet — ancestor to one out of 200 males on Earth today — by impregnating hundreds of women with his distinctive Y chromosome. And just what made him so potent? Could it have been a diet of freshly grilled meats?

“Well, it sure wasn’t the crab rangoon or the bubble teas,” my friend Lou Jane said as she took a seat near a steaming round Mongolian grill, the virile centerpiece of the spacious dining room in the three-month-old Genghis Khan Mongolian Grill & Satay Bar at the Northland’s new Boardwalk Shopping Center. Though it occupies a discreet storefront, this new venture by the Chang family — owners of the original Genghis Khan on 39th Street and its neighbor, the hipper, grill-free Blue Koi — is a palace, all right. Not in the ornate European sense but in terms of its luxurious appointments: cozy, plumply upholstered booths; mandarin-red napkins; dramatic lighting; gallery-quality photographs; and handsome, articulate servers.

The four midtowners I had brought along with me — Lou Jane, Bob, Pat and Julie — were clearly impressed with the striking décor, which is far more glamorous than the 39th Street location, and the upbeat jazzy music coming across the sound system. After bringing Lou Jane and Julie a glass of wine, our perky blond waitress launched into a well-rehearsed description of the Mongolian barbecue experience: “You fill your bowl with whatever you like from over forty different ingredients,” she said, “and then you take it over to our grill chefs” — she pointed at two bored-looking males in aprons — “who will cook it for you. But before that, help yourself to the appetizers and soups at the satay bar, which are included with your meal!”

“Wow,” whispered Pat, “it takes all the decision making out of the meal.”

Not all the decisions, I’m afraid; I faltered over whether to sample one or all of the satay choices, a handful of cute little kebabs, each boasting at least one piece of overcooked beef or chicken or shrimp. The crab rangoon and spring rolls were somewhat better, but the real star of the bar was a steaming kettle of richly flavored hot-and-sour soup, loaded with fat, plump mushrooms.


I wasn’t going to insist that everyone go for the Mongolian barbecue deal, but the opportunity to show off their culinary creativity must have inspired our whole group. At the head of the buffet line, each of my companions dutifully grabbed a black bowl and started tossing things into it. Bob and Lou Jane wouldn’t touch the frozen meat on the table because, Bob whined, “it’s all one color and looks like one-ply tissue paper.” Nonsense, I said, pointing out that the frosty, carpaccio-thin slices of beef were lipstick-pink, the pork was peony-pink and the chicken was a pale shade of tea rose. Rolling their eyes, they stuck to scallops and shrimp.

There were piles of mussels, too, along with squid, fake crabmeat and chewy cubes of cooked tofu. Like a demented Dr. Frankenstein, I started pitching other ingredients on top of my chicken and beef slices: water chestnuts, egg noodles, cilantro, bamboo shoots, corn, crushed peanuts and red peppers. Then I doused the concoction with chili sauce, vinegar, onion oil, garlic, ginger, sweet-and-sour sauce, sesame oil and sugar water. Watching the “chef” plop my over-sauced mess on the sizzling grill and jab it with two wooden paddles, I had a sinking feeling that I’d created an inedible glop. But it didn’t look too unappetizing once he piled it onto a plate and returned it to me. And, to my amazement, it tasted pretty good.

“Now remember,” the waitress told me, “if you don’t like what you’ve created, just go back and do it again.”

That’s right. At Genghis Khan, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. And with such a palette of ingredients to experiment with, the buffet array does for the appetite what the Crayola 96-color set does for playtime. But once that particular game was over, I was bored with it. So when Bob and I returned for a second meal, I not only didn’t want to partake of the Mongolian barbecue — I didn’t want to sit anywhere near it. Happily, the front half of the dining room is built so that one doesn’t have to look back at the buffet, the grill or the photograph of the wizened Chinese octogenarian who looks like Ernest Hemingway.

One can order off the menu at this Genghis Khan, though the selections (including several choices from the Blue Koi repertoire) aren’t as extensive as they are at the midtown venue. “But we’re adding more things now that the kitchen is coming together,” said server Robert (a veteran of the Blue Koi staff). Robert was so dynamic and charismatic that I figured he must have been one of ol’ Khan’s descendents. He walked through the dining room with the noble bearing of a warrior, but instead of chopping off the head of one annoying patron nearby, he displayed remarkable diplomatic skills. And with me — sneezy and grumpy with a head cold — he was by turns nurturing (“Have some more jasmine tea”) and cajoling. It was a dreary, somber day and I had lost my appetite along with my joie de vivre.

“You must have a scallion biscuit and the chili wontons,” he announced.

He was right. My mood improved dramatically once I started nibbling on the crispy, pan-fried “biscuit” and the pillowy wontons stuffed with shrimp, pork and chicken, all floating in a head-clearing broth of garlic, chili peppers, onion and cilantro.

I could have stopped eating after a few wedges of China Moon, the flaky, crêpelike pancakes filled with a pink shrimp paste, which we were dipping in a lemony, amber-colored plum sauce. But, feeling emboldened, I went on to tackle the contents of an earthenware pot filled with ginger-scented Taiwanese-style curry, its succulent strips of beef and chicken, translucent sheaths of onion, and basil in a silken yellow curry sauce. It was extraordinary in its simplicity. Bob had also chosen wisely, ordering the black-pepper beef — tender lengths of flank steak stir-fried with green and red peppers, then glazed in a piquant black-pepper sauce.


When I confessed to Robert that I’d preferred the dishes on the menu to making my own Mongolian barbecue, he said I was definitely in the minority. “Eighty percent of our customers want to make their own dinner,” he said.

The Changs clearly know just what their customers want. And now that they own three restaurants, who can stop them, like Genghis Khan, from taking over the world?


Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews