Bites and bytes
Mountain View's uWink caters to region's tech-savvy eaters
Even from across the street you can't miss the light show flickering within uWink, the high-tech eatery that opened on the intersection of Castro and California in Mountain View. Inside, huge projection screens line every wall and demarcate seating areas, providing nonstop sensory input that keeps the joint humming.
But that's just the beginning. Each table is outfitted with touch-screen monitors that serve as menus, ordering stations and video game interfaces. You can even pay your bill by swiping a credit card at the screen. These monitors are mounted in pairs in the middle of the tabletop, facing customers seated on both sides and creating an obtrusive barricade between guests. Combined with the hubbub, the arrangement isn't highly conducive to a quiet, intimate evening — but that's not the idea.
UWink's high-concept dining experience is the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell, unsurprisingly the originator of Atari and Chuck E Cheese, who combined both of his innovations — video gaming and entertainment restaurants — into a single package.
The restaurant's tabletop monitors provide close-up photos of every item on the menu, enabling guests to compare their three-dimensional dishes to those on screen. This feature didn't play in the restaurant's favor when it came to the crispy calamari and vegetables appetizer ($8.95), which was conspicuously light on the roughage. However, our calamari rings were crispy and tender, and worked nicely with the smoky dipping sauce.
By contrast, the apple walnut salad ($9.95) was a mirror image of its screen shot. A healthy mound of mixed greens was dotted with candied walnuts, red onion, apple slices and crumbled bleu cheese, all dressed in balsamic vinaigrette. Our veggies tasted fresh, and the bleu cheese and vinaigrette were pleasingly puckering.
The chicken tortilla soup ($4.95) was thick and spicy. Its tomato-based broth created a rich base for the chicken, and was topped with tortilla strips, red pepper slices and sour cream. Although the recipe was tasty, the dish was served lukewarm, which dulled its appeal.
Oddly, temperature was an issue at uWink. Entrees that should have been hot were a degree or two too cool. Yet, like the soup, this glitch had little impact on the taste of our main courses. I had no trouble cleaning my plate of braised short ribs ($16.95). Served on a mound of mashed potatoes, these juicy boneless beef ribs were so tender that they could be cut with a fork, and came slathered in sweet and smoky gravy with a hint of cinnamon. Including the crispy onion strings, this was a hefty plateful.
The chicken and pesto carbonara ($12.95) was no less filling. This generous portion of spaghetti noodles was coated with thick carbonara pesto sauce, tossed with bacon bits and parmesan cheese and topped with slices of grilled marinated chicken breast — a heavy meal with a garlic aftertaste.
The atmosphere changed at lunch the next day. The projection screens were visible but dimmer, since they competed with the ample natural sunlight. The room felt starker than the night before, when the screens exploded with the color and action of sporting events and game results.
We ordered a Hawaiian BBQ pork sandwich ($8.95) and enjoyed the sweet barbecue glaze clinging to the pulled pork, which was piled onto a hamburger bun and topped with creamy coleslaw, red onions and deep-fried onion strings.
A pair of fish tacos sounded like a deal at $5.95. They arrived in flour tortillas stuffed with cod deep fried and covered with coleslaw. While the menu promised something called "jalapeno crema," the taste of mayonnaise from the slaw overwhelmed my palette, and seemed out of place in a taco. A scoop of white rice and a small bowl of black beans shared the platter.
For jollies, we munched the chocolate chocolate cake ($6.95), which was shaped like a cupcake yet tasted like a brownie. It was topped with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream with a mound of whipped cream on the side. Sadly, the cake was too chewy and not as chocolate-y as expected.
We left uWink conflicted about our experience there. On the upside, the menu selections are appetizing, and the high-tech distractions are interesting and fun. But the quality of the menu scored only slightly above pub food, with big, heavy portions brimming with carbs, and the atmosphere is frenetic.
It's not really a destination for couples on a date, or even people who would rather talk than play video games. Bushnell is betting that there are hundreds of hungry gamers looking for a place like this. Before going, ask yourself: Am I one of them?
401 Castro Street, Mountain View
Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m.
Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 p.m. to midnight
Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight
Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.