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Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 20, August 6 - 12

Restaurant Guide
The Mother of All Theme Restaurants

In the right mood, Mother Earth affords an interesting ambience, but it's hard to imagine a mood that could make the lasagna appetizing.

Header-Fake rain, mechanical elephants, jungle noises and cheap food abound at the Mother Earth Cafe.

China is determined to show the international community its commitment to green issues before the PRC's 50th birthday party. The result: a RMB17 million joint-venture reforestation project next to the East Third Ring Road. Known as Mother Earth, the project consists of a fake tropical rain forest enclosed in a Disney-style castle complete with a mechanical dragon drawling in a brogue like Sean Connery.

Mother Earth is a concept bar/restaurant located between TGI Friday's, purveyor of junk food for the nouveaux-riches, and Saturday's, purveyor of imitation junk food for the nouveaux-riches.

Behind Mother Earth's closed doors is a fantasy land: giant fish tanks (devoid of fish), tall trees (fake) and life-size mechanical animals. The ceiling is rigged with a device that releases occasional 'rain showers' on unsuspecting diners without warning. The sheer size of the place is overwhelming.

Large Camelot-style tables and booths face the stage in the main dining room. The seats are painted in animal-skin patterns with matching legs and paws.

Unlike other tropical-theme restaurants in Beijing, here the rain forest theme doesn't mean eating endangered species. The food at Mother Earth is described as 'casual global food,' a concept that gives the menu the appearance of an elementary school geography text book. Each food is categorized according to geographic origin. Although Africa is left out, the range of food is impressive: Thai soups, Indian samosas and Japanese Tempura share the menu with western staples like steak, hamburgers and salads.

The bilingual menu is graced with philosophical language unusual in loud theme bars. Under Chef's Salad for example, it is explained that 'you can't have a menu without this, someone here in the restaurant will ask for this one. Well, it's a common dish but we will make it better than usual.'

The entry for Lasagna appears to be a direct translation from a handbook of western cooking: "Choice grade Lasagna noodle. Place one layer of it on the bottom of a baking pan, then a layer of vegetables, a layer of tomato meat sauce, same procedure again to make more layers, slowly baked in the oven until all ingredients absorb each others' flavor with noodles cooked and not too soft."

Well that's all very well, but perhaps the chef should read the menu. The Lasagna resembled a tomato soup with overcooked cheese floating in it and the Chef's Salad consisted of a head of iceberg lettuce served with gristly cold chicken breast and a cheap mayonnaise sauce. We also had a Caesar's Salad made of iceberg lettuce and pieces of battered substance that may have come from a chicken or a squid or some entirely different type of creature. The Sirloin Steak arrived blushing with blood even though we ordered it 'extremely well done.'

Beijingers use the word 'flavor or 'wei'r' to describe a person or thing with its own particular character. Although Mother Earth's food is distinctly lacking in flavor, the place itself certainly has 'wei'r.' In addition to the ominous talking monkeys, dragons and crocodiles, the management has kindly provided each table with a view of a large TV playing wildlife documentaries. In keeping with the theme, the films feature jungle animals like leopards catching cute cuddly gazelles and then tearing them to pieces. Bon apetit!

Live entertainment is provided nightly by a Filipino band who do their best to sound like a karaoke performance by a group of drunk businessmen. Guests may also be treated to air-guitar performances by sunglass-wearing toddlers boogeying next to their loudly-crooning parents.

Adding the er, musical accompaniment to the environmental theme reminds me of the slogan of cheesy, sleazy American bar franchise Hooters: 'delightfully tacky yet unrefined.' Nonetheless, Mother Earth Cafe is already packing the punters in. And although you should NEVER, EVER attempt a meal there if you have a headache, the restaurant makes for an excellent venue for children's birthday parties and corporate dinners where talking about how they make the mist rise off the fake crocodile's pool is preferable to not talking about anything at all. Best of all, it won't break the bank.

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