Monday, January 22, 2007

Dining critic candidate No. 16

Ultimate Buffet

The idea behind Ultimate Buffet, nestled in the fresh, anteseptic blocks of retail on Powers Boulevard, is East meets Midwest: fuse the all-you-can-eat Asian place with the all-you-can eat American place to create one uber-cafeteria to please everyone.
It sound like a terrible idea to me, but friends assured me it was actually pretty good. Ultimate buffet charges a bit more, they said, so it can serve better food.
“They have sushi there, and real crab, which is impressive,” one told me.
When I heard this, the restaurant’s line of steam trays started to grow better and better in my mind until I imagined something as delicious as the stops on the No. 7 train in New York City.
For food-lovers, the trail is a culinary Orient Express. It cuts, literally and figuratively, west to east, under the sleek power-lunch spots of Mid-town and out into the streets of Queens. At every stop, a new country wafts in the subway doors: Mexican cilantro and queso fresco in Corona; sweet goat curry in Jamaica; cardamom, cumin, and chile in Jackson Heights; roast duck and five-spice powder in Flushing. Each street hiding with shabby little restaurants. Their windows packed with phone card posters. Their tables packed with immigrants looking for the familiar taste of home.
With visions of a United Nations of dishes swimming through my head, I made a plan to visit Ultimate Buffet on a Saturday night, when I knew the place would be hopping.
When my wife, Amanda, and I pulled up, signs outside weren’t encouraging. The parking lot is hung with the plastic flagging usually reserved for car lots. I imagined a neon SALE! Sign on every entrée, and the check only arriving after the server had gone back to the manager four times to get us the best price.
Inside looked only a bit better, a cheery hostess led us to a table lost in a vast, loud space, took our drink order, and told us we could go to the buffet any time.
On the drive over, Amanda had said, “I’m afraid when we get there it’s going to be some huge, bright, ugly room.”
“You’re just having flash-backs of your school lunchroom,” I said.
“Exactly!” she said, “And you’re standing there, looking for a place to sit, and you don’t see anyone you know.”
From our table we scanned the restaurant. The high walls were mostly bare. The light had all the charm of standing in line at the D.M.V.
“This is exactly what I was afraid of,” Amanda said.
The food didn’t do much to make us feel at home.
The buffet has four islands of steam trays, a salad bar, and a counter that does double duty as grill and sushi bar. Take-out style Chinese dominates. One island is entirely American, and we were entertained to see the mostly Asian kitchen staff has done to the American food what Americans have perennially done to other ethnic cuisines: reduced it to a stick-figure caricature with little expression and lots of melted cheese. Among those representing the USA were a slumping meatloaf, pasty mashed potatoes, and a sad, but tough looking “ultimate pot roast.”
The place also serves beer, wine and Japanese sake, but we didn’t see a single diner order any.
I counted 103 items in the buffet from steak to seaweed and we vowed to try them all.
We circled the steam trays, taking just a morsel from each. Unfortunately, will all the variety, there was little worth eating. The dishes were almost uniformly disappointing. The wantons sagged in a bland coat of grease. The shrimp was was overcooked. The mussels were under-fresh. There was no discernible taste difference between the bourbon chicken and the pork with bell peppers. The fries were cold. The pizza looked like cardboard. The steak fell apart on the tongue like it had been roughed up by too much salt and marinade.
Needless to say, the place was packed.
The people want shrimp, and shrimp they got – eight kinds. No one seemed to mind that they all tasted pretty much the same (firm and salty.) The swarm of diners tended to zero in on what they liked, and dive in with gluttony. We watched in wonder. What was a 6-year-old child doing with such a teetering tower of jello and fried shrimp? Could a 90-pound Asian grandma really eat a five-pound pile of fried sesame balls and kiwi slices? How many crab legs can one man keep down?
In four plates each, we also found a few things we liked. The poached sole and baked salmon were both light and tasty, if a little overdone. The hot and sour soup was as spicy and heartening as any good takeout.
Amanda said the “safe sushi” (California rolls made with imitation crab) stood on par with any prepackaged maki at the supermarket.
For anyone who places quality above quantity, Ultimate Buffet’s Powers Boulevard location is a lot like the rest of Powers: vast, full of options, but ultimately, largely flavorless.
We couldn’t help but wonder, if you find only six things you like at the Ultimate Buffet, and you can get them done better at several other places for about the same price, why wouldn’t you?
Then I looked around at the other diners. Almost all were families. The cost for kids eating dinner is 70 cents multiplied by their age. A 3-year-old costs $2.10. A 7-year-old, $4.90. At a table next to us, two men talked while four kids, the oldest being maybe 8 years old, squirmed and shuffled on the long booth bench. The kids were loving the buffet: fried shrimp, pizza, two kinds of jello and ice cream – as much as you wanted, and if you didn’t like it, the plate was whisked away.
It was nothing like the restaurant dinners I remember as a kid. Going out was a rare, special occasion, and to keep it affordable, my parents made it clear there would be no appetizers, no desserts, and you better not order the most expensive thing on the menu or you’d stay home the next time.
At Ultimate Buffet, that conversation never happens. Kids can eat until they fall asleep in the booth, and chances are, even picky eaters will find something they like. A gorge-fest of fatty foods may not teach kids much about nutrition, but going out with the family isn’t about teaching, it’s about finding a little bit of peace and ease. If a buffet can deliver that, it really is the ultimate.
Ultimate Buffet
Address: 3727 Bloomington St. (Powers Boulevard and North Carefree)
Prices: $6.95 for lunch. $10.99 for dinner and all day on weekends. Drinks extra.
Dave’s take: bad food and lots of it.


Anonymous Submission Reviewer said...

Just one note: this was supposed to be for a restaurant reviewers position, not a 'something to read to your kid to make them fall asleep' competition. It's not bad enough that I know more about the writer than the restaurant, what's worse is that the only reviewing came as part of the writers interpretation of what other people were thinking at tables nearby.

Good listing of hours, location and pricing.

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reviewer walked in with a negative attitude. Shouldn't you try to have an open mind? Waxing poetic about NYC didn't help.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Warren Epstein said...

FYI. "submission reviewer" is not associated with the Gazette.

10:21 AM  

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