Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Encounters - LAX - CA - USA

Airport Dining with a Difference

When I first stepped on American soil back in 1994, tired but excited from a long, Virgin flight across the Atlantic from London, the very first building I saw after I had escaped from behind the closed doors of airport security was a strange-looking creature that could almost have escaped from the pages of an HG Wells novel. Ever since then, and each time I have flown in or out of LAX, I have been intrigued by this structure, especially since I discovered that inside, up in the top, just under the roof, lurks nothing less than a restaurant.

photograph picture the theme building housing Encounters restaurant at LAX airportphotograph picture the theme building housing Encounters restaurant at LAX airport

Fast forward eleven years and at last I have a stop over in LAX, a wait for a connecting flight, a couple of hours to kill. Suddenly I find myself with the chance to satisfy that patient curiosity that has lain dormant for so long. It's time, at last, for a brief Encounter.

A five minute walk across from the International terminal takes us to the circular base of this LA landmark. Inside we find the space-agey shiny metal lift, an ugly, ugly lurid purple logo and atmospheric piped music that melodizes our rise to the dining room. It doesn't surprise me when I later find out that the interior was redesigned by Disney, because the fanciful eighties-looking interior decor would be more at home in a theme park than a sophisticated restaurant. But the dining room inside the "Theme Building" (as it is called), is not the slightest bit sophisticated. As super cool as it looks from the outside, you shouldn't expect your surrounds to have the same magical retro charm when you sit down to eat..

photograph picture tuna tartare from Encounters LAX

No problem anyway, we are not here to view their interior design skills, we are here to gaze through the huge windows at the planes and the vastness of LA as we ponder the journey we are about to embark on. The staff, as luck would have it, direct us to a nice spot at the window with a view of the Air New Zealand plane we will be flying in a couple of hours later. To toast the beginning of our vacation we ask for a glass of champagne and a Black label on the rocks. Our server swiftly informs us they don't have any of the latter. Both mine and Fred's eyebrows rise simultaneously at this surprising news. There is nary a bar that doesn't stock this standard. Are you sure, we ask? Yes, she is quite sure. So we ask if she has Bushmills. She is not quite sure, she'll have to ask. When we double check once more about the Johnnie Walker she admits what we suspected. "I don't even know what Black Label is". Oh - ok, it's going to be one of those dinners.

Drinks are eventually sorted and it is time to check the brief menu. Our eyebrows are treated to more exercise - the food is really expensive, the choices don't sound particularly mouthwatering and I begin to wish we'd simply settled for a Wolfang Puck terminal-side pizza instead. But, damn it, we are in excellent spirits and determined to start our trip on a high note so we root through the list until we settle on the things that most tempt us. After all, it is going to be several weeks before we eat food on American soil again.

They bring us a basket of too-old bread and butter which is difficult to spread the pointy ended serrated steak knives they have provided. Soon afterwards the tuna tartare appetizer, $13, arrives. It is enormous. About three times the size of any appetizer you would ever find in San Francisco. It's almost the same size as a main course at Suppenkuche. It's that huge. It could easily have been my main course. The fish is fresh and spicily dressed with avocado and sweet, hot soy sauce topped with a crown of sesame seaweed salad. It's actually quite a tasty, if unambitious, dish, with lots of wasabi in the dressing. But the never-ending forkfuls of glistening raw red Ahi flesh grind me down after a while. So much of the same. At some point I give up and lay down my fork for a rest.

photograph picture duck from Encounters LAX

Fred is away from the table when the main courses arrive. No one has cleared my plate yet. The waiter barks "Duck?" at me and I quietly nod. He tries to hand me my plate which he can't settle in the table because the remains of the tuna are still sitting there. I don't think I need to apologize, to you, to him or to anyone, but in a place pretending to be swanky, I refuse to hold my own hot plate whilst they work out how to clear the tables. In a friendly, homely, little neighbourhood place I am always more than willing to give the staff a hand. But here, no. The stiff atmosphere warrants nothing more friendly than a professional approach to the dining experience.

Fred had asked for a plain steak and fries without any truffle butter. Of course, it arrived adorned with a huge knob of truffle butter. The server returned to replace my tuna fork, but not either of the pointy knives which earlier we had been struggling to spread butter with. The Peking style roasted duck with spicy Thai sweet chilli sauce, sticky rice and sauteed vegetables actually turned out to be a huge hunk of meat, both large breast and ample thigh that was tired, tough and old-tasting. It has a hint of microwave about it, the skin had no succulence, the meat no juice. The rice was even more sorry and the chilli sauce was a joke. It tasted like a watery version of sweet and sour, there was no more Thai about it than there was Peking about the duck. And then, to add insult to injury, the sauteed vegetables just turned out to be broccollini. No more, no less. So if you don't care much for broccollini, well you sure are going to be out of luck.

photograph picture sun setting at Encounters LAX

Fred's steak didn't have any redeeming qualities either. By the time we finished eating the sun had just about set and it was time to go and check in. Although we often like to linger after a meal, we had no problem checking out of Encounters. Talking of checks - the final bill was $96 and one lifetime ambition is at last checked off my list. I suggest that anyone else who wants to give Encounters a try some day - shouldn't let the wait build up over eleven years. How could anything live up to that kind of suspense, especially a tourist joint? I've learnt my lesson, be choosy about what you wish for...

209 World Way
Los Angeles International Airport
Los Angeles, CA 90045

Archive Alert! At this time in 2004 we were trying out Frisson It was our first visit, but not our last.

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Encounters - LAX - CA - USA


  • At 12/10/05 07:49, Blogger Farmgirl Susan said…

    I love e-dining with you, Sam. You even manage to make an interesting read out of a lousy meal. Plus think of all that money I save! Of course, when you do have a delectable dining experience I am extremely envious. : )

  • At 12/10/05 08:58, Blogger Papilles et Pupilles said…

    It reminds me a lot of souvenirs. I spent a few weeks in UCLA.

  • At 12/10/05 09:26, Blogger Rachael Narins said…

    I have spent many a night downing overpriced (and frighteninly, blue) drinks and (very good) french fries there, but I had never even thought to actually order food. Lucky thing! Thanks for the review.

  • At 12/10/05 11:03, Blogger Ced said…

    I like that building too, even had a post which mentions it. Too bad the experience was not as beautiful.

  • At 12/10/05 17:22, Blogger cookiecrumb said…

    Eh, see... Airport dining.

  • At 12/10/05 19:02, Blogger Greg said…

    The photos taste good..little salt and pepper. I'm more of a powerbar kinda guy at airports.

  • At 12/10/05 19:12, Blogger Rose said…

    Airport food. one baby step up from coach class airplane food. barely a baby step.

    but you make a great review out of very bad meal :-)

  • At 13/10/05 06:50, Blogger Unknown said…

    I have a stop over there today, I'll try to remember to avoid it ;D And I have two days in SanFrancisco next week. I'll be trolling your archives for suggestions...

  • At 13/10/05 09:45, Blogger Elise said…

    Hi Sam,
    As a little girl growing up in LA, I was always fascinated by that space-age building. It seemed like a command post for UltraMan or Gigantor (Japanese power rangers of the 60s). My parents told me it was a restaurant, but I've never in all these years had the guts to go check it out. Thanks for saving me the trouble! If I do go someday maybe I'll just have the ahi and keep it at that.

  • At 17/10/05 23:05, Blogger Sam said…

    FG - perhaps you could buy me a sheep with all that money you're not spending on restaurant meals?

    Jennifer - the view is great. Guess the tuna is a popular item.

    P&P - the best thing about travel is the memory, n'est pas?

    Racahel - I never seriously believed for one minute that locals actually went to Encounters!

    Ced - I confess I saw your post and thought what a coincidence it was.

    Cookie Crumb. Agreed - except when you arrive in Heathrow there is a Marks & Spencer outlet where you can get cheese and celery sandwiches. I have been eating them for about 20 years and I never tire of them!

    Greg - advantage of the building - great surrounding lighting!

    Rose - thank you, someone had to do it, eh?

    Barbara - have a freind who tells me she has been there twice for the tuna. LAX is a fairly dull airport so the options are slim.

    - I hope you are having fun in SF.

    Elise - somethings you just have to satisfy your curiosity about. That place has always been niggling me. Now I know...

  • At 6/11/05 11:36, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I've dined once, and fed once, at Encounters. The decor is staight out of the "Jetsons" (American TV cartoon from the '60s). It's a hoot. I had a pretty good peper steak and the selection of wine-by-glass is decent. It is expensive, but, as far as I know, there is nothing better if a layover comes at meal time.


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