With a conspiratorial wink to me and my husband, Sean, one of the chefs at Genghis Grill moved to the giant round grill at the back of the restaurant and squirted on some oil. With a shout, he lit it ablaze with a twist of paper, a screaming hot tongue of fire leaping several feet high.
The team of five chefs paused to watch, mesmerized; other customers, who like us were standing by the grill to see their food being prepared, cheered and clapped. Then it was back to the chefs’ usual antics, shouting and calling to one another, tossing bags of udon noodles, chopping and cooking ingredients on the hot griddle.
With that, Genghis Grill had me charmed. The Asian franchise opened just a few months ago at 250 Robert C. Daniel Jr. Parkway; what sets it apart is that diners get to build their own bowls, choosing raw ingredients – proteins, veggies, spices and sauces – from a long buffet.
Then, chefs prepare your creation on a hot grill and serve it with a starch of your choice: brown, steamed or fried rice; udon noodles; spiral pasta; tortillas; or cabbage. It’s called Mongolian stir-fry – supposedly because soldiers under the Mongol leader Genghis Khan heated their shields and used them to griddle food (but this Asian girl has her doubts about that).
If you’d prefer to avoid the extra work of crafting your own bowl, Genghis’ Augusta location is one of only a few around the country that offers menu items too (Genghis Grills stretch across the southern U.S. from California to Florida). The eclectic menu features salads, Asian-style wraps and tacos, specialty fried rices, skewers, and rice bowls or noodle bowls. There are vegetarian options too – and two full pages of cocktails, sakes, fishbowls, wines and beers (the restaurant also has a bar area).
Our waiter explained all this to us in detail when we sat down, handing us a menu as well as a business-size card to fill out with our name and the size of our bowl if we decided to go with the buffet (bowls are available in small, regular and large – and if you come at lunch, each is a dollar cheaper). We jumped back up almost immediately to get in the buffet line, grab a tray and start building our entrees.
The long buffet has so many choices that it’s a little intimidating, but luckily, a staff member is there to help talk you through it. First, our guy explained that he would fill our bowls for us with the raw meat ingredients (for hygiene reasons), and waited patiently as we considered our choices – including chicken, beef, marinated beef, sausage, ham, pepperoni, scallops, fish and shrimp.
At our request, he filled two gleaming metal bowls – mine with all seafood, and Sean’s with all beef – in the correct proportions. The next station was spices, from simple salt and pepper to hot peppery spices, curries, spice mixes and more. “This is where you could really mess up, huh?” Sean asked.
“Well,” our guy responded, “if you don’t know what you’re doing, you should probably just stick to salt and pepper.”
Sean took his advice, as did I, but I also added a pinch of the citrus garlic herb mix for good measure – since all three tend to go well with seafood.
Next came the vegetables, and we were advised to “Pile them up,” so we did. I added beans, bok choy, spinach, sliced carrots, onions and zucchini to my bowl, and Sean chose zucchini, bok choy, beans, carrots, baby corn and water chestnuts.
Sauces were the fourth step. “They’re tangy, sweet or spicy,” said our guy. “And you can even mix them!” He let us a taste a few options, and Sean went with the red curry peanut sauce, while I stuck to a theme with a mixture of the chile garlic sauce and the ginger citrus sauce.
For the final touch, we chose our starch, me with the classic white rice and Sean with udon noodles. As we took our bowls to the open kitchen, the chef asked if we also wanted to add an egg (Sean did), and at this point, our waiter had said we could go back to our table and he’d bring our meals, or we could stay and watch them be prepared. We stayed and, with a wink and a smile, were treated to a fireball and the kitchen’s cheerful vibe – everyone cooking and tossing orders with flat wooden paddles, then scooping them into bowls with a flourish.
As we sat down, I pointed out to Sean that crunchy noodles, peanuts, almonds or Sriracha were also available next to the kitchen as a final garnish. But we decided to go ahead and dig in. The fear of any restaurant like this is that your mix of ingredients just won’t go well together, but we lucked out. My rice bowl with its tender seafood and crisp veggies was tangy with lemon and scented with garlic – two of my favorite flavors. Was it a trifle oily? Yes, but not enough to keep me from finishing my bowl.
Sean’s was even better. The curry peanut sauce added a nice depth to his already marinated and flavored beef, matching well with the thick and hearty udon noodles. Again, it was a little oily, but the flavors were fresh and tasty.
When it came time to pay, there was another fun twist. Each table comes with little computer console where you can look at the menu, play games and even pay your bill. We swiped our card, and in minutes our waiter came with the ticket for us to sign and we were on our way.
While the make-it-your-own-way concept may be a little intimidating, the staff at Genghis Grill is friendly and gives honest and good advice to help you make a great bowl. Looking at some of the tables next to us, we were also tempted to try the menu options, including those Asian wraps. Genghis Grill isn’t the finest dining you’ll enjoy, but it’s a fun concept, and that night, the promise our fireball chef made came true: It really was pretty special.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Genghis Grill, 250 Robert C. Daniel Jr. Parkway
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
SECOND HELPING: (706) 869-3782, genghisgrill.com