Saturday, February 26, 2005

Guilty Pleasure? All-You-Can-Eat Chinese Buffet

I'm a sucker for a buffet. It's not something I'm proud of. And calling it a guilty pleasure is almost overstating it...because it's only really pleasing in a very tight window of time (not a bay window, more like a peephole) - between the time that I actually decide to go to a buffet restaurant and roughly two and a half minutes into actually eating the first plate of food. This includes the time travelling over to the buffet restaurant, anticipating the experience, the initial general survey of all the items to strategize, and the first selection of the high priority items. Generally, it's all downhill from there. There are small pockets of pleasure thereafter. Sometimes the staff will bring out an exciting premium item partway through, and you are actually one of the first people there, and you still are capable of eating more. Like scoring an oyster motoyaki at Urban Buffet (966 Homer St., near Yaletown) before that crazy family of four over there swoops in and hoards the entire platter of them. That's a high point. Also, just getting to the dessert, and putting together a plate of those is another peak. Notice, that none of the real pleasure of a buffet comes from actually eating anything. It's all conceptual. It's good to have an understanding of this. I'm a buffet pro now. I've learned that you just can't sample everything, and it's easy to load up and then not have room for something important. So I always survey first. I've also learned that the food is much better if you don't load up your plate. Must be something to do with mixing all the flavours together, so you wind up having a big indistinguishable pile of lukewarm food. So I'll get just a few items, and spread them out on my plate. Focus. Breathe. Go get another plate later, if you can do it. I'll do a dry plate of two or three items, and then do more saucy things. But pace yourself!

Another reason these things are a "guilty" pleasure is that there are so many great Chinese restaurants in Vancouver with authentic food, that it's really silly to go to a Chinese buffet. Being Chinese myself means that I'm really sensitive to subtle differences in food quality and chef skill, and I also know the difference between what real Chinese food is, and what that white guy wielding his fork over at the other table is putting on top of his plate of rice drowned in soy sauce. Actually, one of the neat things about Vancouver is how almost everyone is Chinese food savvy in this town, so you don't really get too many of those westernized, fakey Chinese food places. It's much easier to find a "chicken ball" say, in Ottawa, or in any major city in the States, than it is here. But people love them and there's nothing wrong with that, so you can find one if you want one (often on a "special combo" sheet that the restaurant makes, meant for the non-Chinese patrons). So the Chinese buffet experience here is actually a notch up from other cities. But, you still have to be careful.

Yesterday, I went to Grand Buffet on Kingsway, in Burnaby (about half a kilometre East of Metrotown). And I have done this in the past, but these experiences always seem rosier in my memory. Granted, it was cheap, as buffets go. I think it was $13 per person, including the soft drink fountain, and tea. But in terms of the cooking, I think they've gone downhill. Half the items were just not something I wanted to eat - overcooked or greasy (often times a problem with oil temperature when frying). Service was great. Our dirty plates went away relatively quickly (which has been a problem in the past, making the place feel a bit...well, dirty). And there is a lot to choose from, including sushi, salad, dim sum items (a sure bet - difficult to screw up), several soups (also a safe choice), Chinese items including crab legs, shrimp, oysters, and things like fries and fried chicken. And there were several things that I did enjoy. They kept their fried sesame balls filled with sweet bean paste in the hot dish area, so they were all warm and toasty and crispy. This is my absolute favourite item. For me, it's almost worth going just for those. But there were just too many disappointing ones. Mushy, overcooked crab legs in a not so tasty sauce, weird-tasting egg tart, greasy fish patty, tasteless oyster on the half-shell with black bean sauce, bad tuna sashimi. Okay, yes, you're probably thinking - what do you expect for $13 and unlimited quantity?. But I swear it was better before. I left, feeling a bit ill, partly (as usual) from overeating, but also I just got an overall "bleaccchh" reaction to the whole thing. It was a Thursday night, so maybe their weekend chef is different. Or perhaps I've come to expect a little more having gone to Urban Buffet downtown. It costs more, but they have dry, fried spicy salt crab legs that are tasty, and peking duck skin, a nice salad bar, roast meats, small bowls of zaru soba, and coffee (again, I'm not that picky about coffee, so I can drink this stuff), and they are really clean and tidy feeling. I still come out of it feeling a bit off, but I keep getting better at not overdoing it. I think I will yet again succumb to the lure of the buffet in the future. But I'll be sticking to Urban Buffet. If only they would keep their sesame balls warm.

One last rant: at Grand Buffet, there is an ice cream freezer and an ice cream scoop well with constantly running water, yet there was still LOTS of contamination of flavours. Little blobs of chocolate and strawberry ice cream in the vanilla ice cream, etc. It was enough to make me want to hold an impromptu seminar in scoop rinsing on the spot. But I never saw the perpetrators. Maybe next time I'll stake out the ice cream station until I can pounce on a contaminator. Oh wait, I don't want there to be a next time...bleah. I suspect I swear to never do the Chinese Buffet thing again EVERY TIME I GO, but I can never seem remember that part of the experience...

Best buffet of all time for me? Boma, the African buffet at the Animal Kingdom Lodge in Walt Disney World. So I know it really is possible for me to enjoy a buffet experience from start to finish, and end up with a happy, warm feeling (of course, it probably cost us about $35 each person with the exchange, before tax and tip). If you're ever at Disneyworld in Orlando, it's probably my favourite restaurant there. Here's the menu.

5 comments:

Jeanette said...

Gosh! now I want to go to urban buffet. Hmmm... I will have to go seek it out with a friend. =)

SaabKen said...

Me too. I actually lunched there about three years ago and it wasn't bad. The spacious room is ideal for large groups. Considering they've now been there for at least three years tells me their food quality has remained consistent. And those of us coffee drinkers can go next door to SBC for a good brew.

SaabKen said...

Must have been all this subliminal messaging from Nancy ..... yesterday we decided to go for walk in Yaletown with my folks and guessed where we stopped off for lunch ? Urban Buffet !

Food wasn't bad, no obvious "fake" Chinese food like chicken balls with glow-in-dark S&S sauce. But what's with the pizza slices, onion rings and sausages and bacon, dudes ?!? Better parts of the smorgasboard were the mussels, chilled spicy prawns (in salad bar section), garlic bok choy and nice crispy fried chicken breasts. For $10.95 you can't complain much. No MSG aftertastes too. Parents approved. Next time we walk from home to there and back to somewhat burn off the excess calories ......

Dumpling_Girl said...

Ha ha, Ken! Everybody, please note, I take absolutely NO responsibility for your all-you-can-eat buffet excursions. Do so at your own risk. I didn't really mean to make Urban Buffet sound really good. However, I'll take full credit for anyone going to any of the Guu's or Parkside. Oh, and those items like pizza and onion rings - I believe those are intended for those horrible parents who are convinced that's all their kids will eat (which may even be the case, but it's your responsibility as a parent to expose them to different things). Don't you love it when a non-parent rants about parenting? Hahaha, it's my blog, and I can do it if I want to! Seriously though, how can that be the ONLY thing a North American child will eat, when the rest of the world's children don't ever get exposed to those things, and eat whatever food is indigenous to their culture. It seems to just be a matter of exposure. Parents reading this, feed your kids varied and weird stuff - it'll make them more pleasant people to invite to a dinner party when they grow up!

peaker said...

Thanks I think I might possibly try scarfying down some urban cafe food