Waterlogged 

Underwater theme leaves the food gasping for air at Aquarium

Underwater theme leaves the food gasping for air at Aquarium

Aquarium

516 Opry Mills Dr. 514-3474 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri. & Sat. $$$-$$$$

I have never taken my children to Disney World, but considering the fallibility of human memory, I figure that, with the aid of computer-generated images of them marching through the Magic Kingdom with Goofy and Mickey, I could easily convince them I had.

Their personal history bank—particularly before the age of 7 or 8—is unpredictable and random. An entire weekend in southeast Tennessee is remembered for nothing except the night Harry turned the Jacuzzi bath on just as the water had reached the jet level in the tub, soaking the entire room. Their first trip to Mammoth Cave can be summarized by the bubblegum I bought them after the tour that turned their mouths, tongues, and teeth bright blue.

What they do remember—quite vividly—is the Opryland Theme Park, where I began taking them as toddlers. I purchased season passes every spring, and we went at least once every couple of weeks through closing day. In fact, we went so often that my kids considered Opryland their backyard playground. When the park's final summer season ended in 1997, Joy was 7 and Harry almost 6; they were confused and nearly inconsolable—they hadn't yet graduated to Hang Man! Now, more than six years later, they can still recall, in minute detail, everything we did there.

Neither one of them holds much fondness for Opry Mills, the humongous mall that took the place of their beloved Opryland, and, lacking the shopping gene, I don't have much use for it, either. We dutifully checked it out soon after it opened in May 2000, and found nothing to persuade us to return. Every once in a while I propose a drive out to Opry Mills, a suggestion met with disinterested shrugs and rolled eyeballs.

A few years ago I chaperoned Harry's third-grade field trip to Rainforest Café—I am not making that up—and invited Mrs. Dunn's class to assist me in reviewing the restaurant. Their assessments made some of my more blistering critiques seem like raves.

Out of the mouths of babes: Even all that visual and aural stimulation common to theme restaurants and so attractive to youngsters couldn't disguise the fact that, essentially, the food was mediocre—which is the crux of my complaint about "theme restaurants," as much a blight on the landscape of dining in America as fast food. Good food doesn't require diversion, and sitting at a table to eat with friends or family should be entertainment enough, if the company is interesting.

But theme restaurants offer so much distraction and headache-inducing frenetic activity that it becomes difficult to carry on a conversation, much less hold a thought. The quality of the food is typically sacrificed for the experience of the show—The Terminator on a wall-sized screen, the history of rock 'n' roll at eardrum-splitting levels, a life-sized orangutan breathing down your neck—with the thought being that with enough bells and whistles, it won't really matter what is coming out of the kitchen. Theme restaurants are to the eating experience what personal video screens in automobiles are to road trips—part of the vast conspiracy to numb Americans.

So, let's dive into Aquarium, the watery, soporific establishment now open in Opry Mills, and corporate cousin of Rainforest Café, both owned by Landry's Restaurants, a major chain-restaurant developer. As the name implies, the experience is built around aquariums, three to be precise. There is the 10,000-gallon cylindrical tank, the 10,000-gallon demi-tunnel tank, through which customers ("diners" is being a bit overambitious) segue from the holding tank to the dining room, and the 200,000-gallon centerpiece tank, around which the 400 seats in this restaurant are encircled. Within these tanks, your server will tell you, are more than 100 species of colorful, exotic tropical fish, as well as giant groupers, moray eels, sand tiger sharks, sawfish and black tip sharks. Twice a day, a marine biologist enters the tank to conduct the daily feeding (11:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.).

The underwater motif is consistent throughout the room, with faux fish, plant life and coral on the walls, suspended from the ceiling, and popping up behind banquettes. The cartoon-like style gave us the sense of being on the set of Finding Nemo, which is preferable, I suppose, to the set of Jaws. (Our server did inform us that while the fish in the tank are not intended for human consumption, occasionally one of the larger species snacks on one of the smaller; hopefully, not in front of the small children who press their faces up against the glass.)

Apparently, 400 seats are not enough to accommodate the aquaphiles who all want to partake of this experience; even on a Tuesday night, we had a 45-minute wait for a table for 6. One can pass that time in a variety of ways, most of which have to do with shopping, either in Aquarium's 2,000-square-foot gift store, or in the mall, where The Mills Effect grabs hold and causes rational people to purchase utterly useless items from transient mall kiosks. Alternatively, you could shoot a quick round at GlowGolf, a 36-hole glow-in-the-dark, indoor miniature golf course; or purchase a HydroRelax session, $10 for 7 minutes. Add it to the list of things I just don't get; how relaxing is it to be encased in a tube, with your head sticking out one end and jets of water shooting at your rubber sheet-covered body, in the middle of a shopping mall? As one genteel Southern lady I know would put it: "It's just so public."

My girlfriend and I instead sent the four kids off to take a lap around the Mills, and we headed to the bar, Dive. Blue lights that cast an ethereal glow and oceanographic accoutrements transformed us into mermaids perched on stools in an underwater bar, sucking our frozen margaritas through turquoise straws. Specialty drinks and aqua martinis are colorful and tasty, but pricey—$6.50-$8.75. A draft domestic Bud is $3.50, or $3.75 by the bottle.

The fish-eye view of underwater life doesn't come cheap. The purchase and maintenance of such an exotic collection of aquatic life is passed on to the customer one way or the other; food prices are measurably higher than I would expect of a themed family restaurant, though I can't say the same for the overall experience. Let's compare Aquarium to yet another Landry's restaurant, Joe's Crab Shack (123 Second Ave. S.).

Exhibit A: Crab cake sandwich at Joe's, served with fries and slaw: $7.99. Crab cake sandwich at Aquarium, served with homemade chips and onion strings: $12.99.

Exhibit B: Joe's Fish & Chips: $8.99. Aquarium Fish & Chips: $13.99.

Exhibit C: Joe's Shrimp Scampi with rice pilaf and veggies: $9.99. Aquarium Shrimp Scampi with fettuccine and seasonal vegetables: $17.99.

Exhibit D: Joe's 12 oz. ribeye with mashed potatoes, salad and veggie of the day: $15.99. Aquarium 14 oz. ribeye with bleu cheese, red-skin mashed potatoes and broccoli: $22.99.

(Parents beware: Even the kiddie menu is steep: $5.99 for all the usual suspects—mac and cheese, mini corndogs, cheese pizza; water, soda or tea included, but if you want your little tadpole to drink milk, it will cost you 99 cents more. Aquarium has what no doubt is the country's most expensive Icee—$4.99—but you get a free souvenir cup.)

Having favorably reviewed Joe's Crab Shack about a year ago, I considered the difference: what made me feel that I got my money's worth of fun and food at Joe's, but soaked by Aquarium? Joe's—a themed, chain restaurant—has a sense of self-deprecating humor about it, in its goofy decor, its silly menu, and its servers' T-shirts, with slogans like "Got Crabs?" or my favorite, "Bite Me." Joe's delivers what it promises: a fun, casual ambience with good food of decent quality at affordable prices.

Aquarium's menu, though slightly more ambitious than Joe's, doesn't rise to the level of its ambition, or its price, with the exceptions of the very good avocado lump crabmeat cocktail, and the creamy shrimp and crab dip (both $9.99). Nothing we sampled delivered the adjectives on the menu: spicy, herbed, hot, savory or crusted. The hot pepper sauce on the Thai Pepper Shrimp wasn't in the least hot (but the six medium-sized shrimp for $16.99 were indeed shrimpy). The mango-ginger dipping sauce that accompanied the greasy crab and shrimp wontons had a faint hint of ginger, the jalapeño tartar sauce on the crab cake sandwich was zipless, the chipotle chili butter on the broiled catfish had no bite, and the coconut rice was devoid of coconut flavor.

It was as if a mysterious flavor extractor was at work in the Aquarium kitchen, sending bland plates out to appease the citizens of Water World, already lulled into a languid state thanks to the hypnotic effect common to aquariums and their contents. One wonders if the fish eat better, and who is really watching who?

Already, the Aquarium experience is fading from my children's memory bank into a watery grave; Joy couldn't recall anything that she especially liked except for the virgin piña colada (at $4.25, a bargain compared to the Icee!), and none of us can think of a single reason to return. As Harry likes to say after singularly unpleasant experiences, "Well, we never have to do that again." I'll drink to that. Glug, glug.

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