Thursday, February 01, 2007

No 16 rewrite

Ultimate Buffet

It’s almost impossible not to feel giddy when you grab a plate from the stack at Ultimate Buffet and tack out into the sea of over 100 different foods.
The idea of Ultimate Buffet is East meets Midwest: fuse the all-you-can-eat Asian place with the all-you-can eat American place to create one unstoppable super cafeteria.
It sounded sketchy to me, but friends said it was actually pretty good. Ultimate Buffet, tucked in the sterile blocks of North Powers Boulevard near Super Target, charges a bit more, they said, so it can serve better food.
“They have sushi and real crab, which is impressive,” one said.
And as I surveyed the fray of steam trays, they appeared to be right. At every turn something enticing beckoned: hot sesame chicken flecked with red pepper and coated in a sweet, glossy glaze, skewered shrimp blackened on the grill, steaks, pork ribs, baked salmon and vast swales of salad.
Sure, it’s a buffet. You can’t expect the food to be stellar. But it’s all-you-can-eat – if you don’t like something, toss it aside and try again.
Choose whatever you like. Where else can someone make a meal of French fries, lychee fruit and California rolls?
When my wife, Amanda, and I popped in on a recent Saturday night, all around us the chowing classes were whipping up their own combos.
A tiny Asian woman ahead of me shoveled her plate full of fried sesame balls and kiwi slices. A man next to her ignored everything but the crab legs. A little girl passed with a plate so tipsy with chicken nuggets and jello that it looked like a great, jiggling game of Jenga.
The buffet has four islands of steam trays, a round salad bar, and a counter that does double duty as grill and sushi bar. Take-out style Chinese dominates. The sushi bar has tuna, yellow tail and egg nigiri (pieces) and crab and spicy tuna maki (rolls). One island is entirely American. The mostly Asian kitchen staff has done to the American food what Americans have perennially done to other ethnic cuisines: reduced it to a stereotyped caricature with little nuance and lots of melted cheese. Among those representing America, were fries, pizza, meatloaf, 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 any one in the restaurant who had ordered any. Apparently the all-you-can-drink crowd goes someplace else on a Saturday night.
I counted 103 items in the buffet from clams to Kung Pao and my wife and I vowed to try them all. We circled the trays, taking a morsel from each.
This will be fun, I thought. Then I tried the food.
Unfortunately, with all of Ultimate Buffet’s variety, there is little worth eating.
The dishes were almost uniformly disappointing. The wantons sagged in a tepid coat of grease. The crab Rangoon was cold. The shrimp was somehow both too firm and too mushy. The pork ribs were over-cooked. The oysters were under-fresh. The fries were leathery. The pizza looked like cardboard. The steak had been roughed up by too much salt and marinade. There was no discernable taste difference between the bourbon chicken and the pork with bell peppers.
It took well over an hour to complete our tasting mission. With our stacks of empty plates in front of us, we agreed that Ultimate Buffet’s Powers location is a lot like Powers itself: vast, new, full of choices, but ultimately flavorless.
But here’s the thing, the place was packed.
Families chatted at tables. Kids skipped up the aisles. The big, dim hall had all the bustle of a school lunchroom. Diners navigated the buffet with such skill that they had to be regulars. What could possibly be bringing them back?
To be fair, in four trips to the buffet line, we did find a few things we liked. The poached sole and baked salmon were both light and tasty, and only slightly overdone. The hot and sour soup was as spicy and heartening as any good takeout.
Amanda said the “safe sushi” (imitation crab roll) stood on par with the prepackaged roll at the supermarket. But we couldn’t help but wonder, if you find only four things you like at 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 at the families eating around us. At a table next door, two men talked while four kids, the oldest being maybe eight years old, entertained themselves with trips to the buffet. The cost for kids to eat dinner is 70 cents multiplied by their age. A 3-year-old costs $2.10. A 7-year-old, $4.90. The kids reveled in the choices: fried shrimp, pizza, two kinds of jello, self-serve ice cream – as much as you wanted, and if you didn’t like it, the plate was whisked away.
It was nothing like the dinners out I remember as a kid. Going to a restaurant was a special occasion. To make it affordable, my parents made it clear that 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. Chances are, they’ll find something they like. A gorge-fest of fatty foods may not teach them much about nutrition, but a family night out 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 Anonymous said...

I hope this guy is not a teacher because the last thing our children need is another dumb teacher. You are reviewing the restaurant, don't talk about your past or what other kids are eating. Do you expect us to believe you tried every items on the buffet? How is this restaurant compared to other buffet restaurants around town? Are you trying to say that it is a bad idea to offer beer at a buffet restaurant? Being a food critic, you must know what you are writing about, be unbiased and most of all, your reasoning must make sense.

8:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought the review gave a well-rounded picture of the restaurant. Just because someone doesn't love a restaurant doesn't mean they are biased. A lot of people appear to have reviewed their long-time favorite restaurants, they certainly went in with preconceived notions, not to mention a favorite is a much easier review to write. Food is fun and a good review should set the tone for the restaurant, and a little humor never hurt anyone. I like this one.

12:41 PM  

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