It came from Michigan, this chain eatery with a high concept: Asian stir-fry meets American all-you-can-eat salad bar. Conspicuously located in downtown Bethesda, this incarnation of BD's Mongolian Barbeque -- with its giant sign, its expanse of seating -- cannot but invite attention, like clapping around a street performer. If you have not eaten there already, the hoopla will probably suck you in soon.
Inside, the atmosphere is like a theme park: an airy, modern space well organized to seat hordes and traffic them around the ingredients bar, where each adventurer fills a bowl with beef, pork, lamb, or seafood; vegetables; and sauces and spices. The endpoint is a giant circular grill, where the concoctions are stir-fried and returned. Bossing the grill, a couple of college punks with rock star attitudes, wearing backward baseball caps and cargo pants, clang about with much bluster but without a lick of knifemanship.
To lend authenticity to the place, there is a gong sounded whenever the mood at the grill dampens. And the walls are decorated with a few Mongolian artifacts and with many photographs of handsome Mongolians in funny hats. But if you expected a unique Asian experience, you will be disappointed -- not just by the decor, but by the result on your plate. It is tricky work to balance flavors and proportions successfully. The ingredients at the bar are not automatically compatible; some are Asian, some are South American, and some are Mediterranean. Weirdly, you are provided both rice and flour tortillas at your table. At least if you end up with something tasting more Mexican than Chinese, you can wrap it up as fajitas.
In short, this food -- and this restaurant -- bear about as much relation to actual Mongolia as a fraternity toga party to ancient Greece. Yes, it is fun. But execution of the concept does tend toward the blithe. On the dessert menu, for example, is a cake called Gengis Khan's Chocolate Torture. Perhaps the infamous leaders of Western history can some day have their own desserts at a dumb theme restaurant in China.
-- Rob Kunkle