The press release used words like "unique," "diverse," and "wild dining adventure." But be warned: Don't set out for the Amazon Trail expecting the exotic. Pleasant? Sure. Casual? You bet. But without exception, the food and atmosphere here will no more remind you of the rain forest than the Outback Steakhouse brings to mind an authentic Australian adventure.
This comes as no surprise, since partners Seth Task and Richard Agnew dreamed up the Amazon Trail concept after several years of immersion in the corporate culture of the Outback chain. Along with Paul Levine, former general manager of Sammy's, the partners rightly saw there was a big market for themed dining and pooled their talents to corner some of the action. Task et al. opened their first Amazon Trail location in Middleburg Heights almost two years ago with the intention of eventually guiding the concept into a nationwide chain. They took the next step along that path last summer, erecting a 6,750-square-foot outpost in Twinsburg, in the Town Center strip plaza near I-480. Hence the press release and our recent expedition to the burgeoning Summit County suburb.
The partners have done a good job tapping into a tried-and-true formula -- large portions, familiar flavors, and moderate prices -- that will make the restaurants particularly attractive to incidental diners, families with small children, or just plain cautious eaters who have grown weary of looking at their own four walls. However, despite the hoopla over the restaurant's rain forest decor, don't bother bringing your camera. About as foreign as it gets are the dozens of stuffed monkeys, snakes, and parrots (toys, not real ones) hanging from the rafters and the hundreds of artificial plants popping up from every simulated-stone grotto. A few thatched roofs dangle over the dining room like umbrellas. Bamboo awnings, home to a plastic ecosystem of frogs, lizards, and butterflies, top the windows. The tables have a decorative bamboo motif, spiked with brightly colored dishware and red cloth napkins. Several not-so-primitive televisions are scattered around the dining room and sunken bar, while '70s soft rock (think Elton John and Rod Stewart) plays in the background. Lighting is fairly bright, the noise level is fairly high, and the youthful staffers, some in bright tropical prints, are fairly bursting with energy. (Hold on to your plate -- the first time they see you pause, they'll try to snatch it away from you!) The overall effect, actually, is a lot like being in the gift shop of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo's RainForest, surrounded by busy children.
Likewise, the large menu is full of exotic-sounding items that wind up being entirely predictable. The selection on the Brazilian Fruit Platter, for instance -- sliced pineapple, strawberries, kiwi, pear, apple, banana, orange, and red and green seedless grapes -- was nothing you wouldn't find on the salad bar at Giant Eagle. This is not to say it wasn't good: Other than the slightly underripe pineapple, the fruit was of top quality, carefully trimmed, and flavorful. And there was plenty of it, too, with a half-portion providing healthful nibbles for the entire table. But was it distinctive? Hardly.
And then there were the Gator Bites: thin slices of breaded and deep-fried alligator served with marinara dipping sauce. If you've always wanted to know what alligator tastes like, keep walking. Between the thick coating of heavily seasoned breading and the peppery sauce, this reptilian tidbit could have been anything at all.
Again, none of this means the food isn't at least decent. It is, although there is a certain sameness to it all, with notes of butter and salt popping up again and again, and plenty of breaded and deep-fried items. Still, we took guilty pleasure in helping to polish off a mountain of salty, greasy, and irresistibly crunchy breaded and deep-fried onion ribbons (the coyly named Rainforest Tangle), and we couldn't keep our eyes off a handsome platter of breaded and deep-fried cod making its way to a nearby table. A crisp draft of Great Lakes' Dortmunder Gold made a good companion to such crunchy munchies; the bar also features a handful of tropical drinks and a small, middle-of-the-road wine list, with a bottle of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay (about $13 retail) going for $25.95 or $6.95 a glass.
Besides the fried cod and fried shrimp platters, the kitchen serves up at least five other types of fresh fish daily. The selection during one Saturday night's visit included grilled or blackened salmon, catfish, mahi-mahi, tuna, grouper, and sea bass, each available as a whole or half-order -- a nicety that is a boon to children and other diners with modest appetites. The petite filet on a half-order, thoughtfully accompanied by a big wedge of fresh lemon, was delicate and moist, and not overcooked by even one second. It came with a heaping helping of "bianco" rice, a buttery blend of well-seasoned white rice and broken linguine. We could have added a house salad (a nicely handled mix of iceberg and romaine lettuces, shredded mozzarella, red onion rings, cucumber, a cherry tomato, and buttery light-as-air croutons, in any one of several mellow housemade dressings) for an additional $1.99. Instead, we chose a $2.99 Veggie Spear: chunks of onion, red and green pepper, yummy fresh pineapple, a plump white mushroom, a cherry tomato, and a sorry length of mushy corn on the cob, threaded on a skewer and lightly grilled. The produce, save for the corn, contributed a much-needed crispness, as well as a burst of color, to the otherwise soft, monochromatic fish and rice.
We weren't as impressed, however, with the Seafood Spear: an entrée of four skewered-and-grilled jumbo shrimp (not bad) and five bland, chewy parboiled scallops (not especially good) served with a Veggie Spear, bianco rice, and a house salad. And we were surprised at the lack of flavor in our Filet de Janeiro: a large, tender filet of USDA-choice beef that needed a dose of A1 Sauce to bring out its best. The filet came with the house salad and a better-than-average baked potato, slathered with butter and sour cream.
Despite our issues with the hype surrounding the atmosphere and the menu -- both of which promise more thrills than they deliver -- we have high regard for the staff, which seemed to be a model of efficiency. Hardly did a minute pass but there was someone at our shoulder, refilling soda glasses or coffee cups, removing soiled plates, or bringing clean flatware. While we never felt rushed, we polished off our entire meal, including the Fried Banana dessert specialty (a sort of rudimentary Bananas Foster, with a big breaded and fried banana served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a mound of rich French-vanilla whipped cream, a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar, and a splash of caramel) in a little more than an hour -- a testament to the kitchen's prompt turnaround. And everyone we observed, from the bartender to the busboy to partner Seth Task, seemed friendly and authentically eager to please.
But if it's true culinary excitement that you crave, brave gastronomic warrior, this is not the path for you. A trip along the Amazon Trail -- likable though it may be -- is no more of an adventure than a midday stroll in the park.
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