Google, Mountain View, CA
Is it possible to have too many choices when it comes to a restaurant menu? What if there are no consequences? What if you can taste whatever looks appealing, go back for more or try something else, as many times as you like, because it's all free of charge? It turns the idea of a restaurant on its head, in a way.
But of course, this isn't really a restaurant; it's the Google cafeteria, an employee benefit, a bonus. And I'm a guest, playing at being an employee.
Charlie's, the largest of the four cafes in the Googleplex, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's named after Google's original chef, formerly the personal chef for the Grateful Dead, who has moved on to open his own restaurant.
At lunchtime recently, the cafe had five stations: Namaste, serving Indian food; Al Forno Romano, offering paninis and Mediterranean dishes; East Meets West, with Asian/fusion selections; Back to Albuquerque, with a Southwestern theme; and Bistro G, mysteriously labeled "Picnics and playpens of yesterday" and offering comfort food such as BBQ meatloaf and garlic mashed potatoes.
I was drawn to the Indian side at first, looking at chicken tikka masala, bhindi masala (okra sauteed with spices and tomato), and dal mahkni (lentils and kidney beans simmered with tomato and spices).
But there are several good Indian restaurants in town, so I moved on to the chicken tortilla gratin. It was lasagna Tex-Mex style, with corn tortillas substituting for pasta, and plenty of chipotle peppers and Oaxacan cheese. I like spicy flavors, but this was almost too spicy for me. Almost. Strangely, it was a good match for the guava lassi I sampled along the way.
I also enjoyed grilled baby back ribs with chile-bourbon BBQ sauce, and a delicious side of roasted beets, carrots and parsnips.
Looking back at the menu, I wish I'd spent more time at the Asian station and tried the sweet and sour catfish, stir-fried thick Shanghai noodles, green onion cake, and stir-fried gai lan (Chinese broccoli) in ginger-tamari sauce.
The salad bar included several attractive composed salads (I liked the Israeli salad, with cucumber, tomato, red bell pepper, red cabbage, scallion, radish, lemon and olive oil) as well as a substantial make-your-own section.
The only item in the whole place that did not look enticing was the bacon cheeseburger soup. The bacon was on the side; the soup itself was grey and looked like what's left in the pan after the burgers are fried.
As a special treat on the Friday after the holiday, a seafood bar was set up at the cafeteria entrance, displaying mounds of Dungeness crab legs, two kinds of oysters, and a positively addictive "maple glazed, Cajun spiced, cedar plank salmon." This was the one I went back for: a little sweet, a little spicy, the fish cooked to perfection.
I almost had salmon for dessert, but I'd had a certain ice-cream treat in mind for the last week now...
Ah, it's good to be back.