By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Buffets scare me. I wonder if the array of food is fresh or yesterday's leftovers. And I question the bacteria factor: If the spread is cold, is it being kept cold enough? If it's hot, is it being kept hot enough? Finally, I worry about the quality of the cooking; even the most talented chefs can be daunted, their time-honored recipes tested, when mass quantities are produced.
Yet buffets also entice me. I love the seemingly endless variety. I appreciate actually being able to eyeball the selection before making my choice. And I enjoy the hedonism factor -- the idea of eating all you can hold has always attracted me, even if it's never really your money's worth (and don't even begin to think about that starving child somewhere else in the world).
I learned a thing or two about properly run buffets during a recent sojourn to the Club Med in Port St. Lucie, where all meals are of the help-yourself variety. Thriving business seemed first and foremost a necessity -- turnover of diners equaled turnover of food, thus ensuring freshness of preparation (easy to do in an all-inclusive Club Med, where diners are a captive audience). Frequent replacement of ice and Sterno assured me that the food was kept at the proper temperatures. And even when the dishes proved mediocre, an attractive presentation at least made them look good.
The owners of Emerald Coast, who ran a similar establishment in Toronto for seven years, appear to have taken some of these lessons to heart. Four separate dining rooms open onto a central buffet, where 100-plus items are spread over seven stations. Hot fare is nestled in steam tables, cold stuff presented in bowls over ice (or, as in the case of the eight flavors of ice cream, in freezer cases). The dishes are garnished prettily and prepared in small portions according to demand, though the steam table still manages to take its toll on more than a few of them. (Every buffet item can be ordered à la carte, however, and doctored to special needs such as low-sodium or low-cholesterol diets.) And the buffet is constantly attended to by the wait staff -- they wipe up spills and replace items as needed. I've rarely seen a more efficiently run restaurant, especially when so much potential chaos is at hand.
The food is as representative of fry-cook America as it is of stir-fry China. In other words you can heap your plate with T.G.I.Friday's-style curly fries, onion rings, and breaded mushrooms and Cantonese and Szechuan fare. The Chinese dishes, though, are nothing exotic; in terms of creativity, most of the offerings are relatively commonplace.
The salad bar is hardly Chinese. The dressings tasted bottled, but the spread looked pleasing, with a few bowls of mixed lettuces (iceberg, romaine, and purple cabbage), as well as all the fixings -- cherry tomatoes, black olives, baby corn, macaroni salad, and coleslaw. We tried a cold lo mein salad that was nearly hidden among the rest of the garnishes; it tasted mostly of soy sauce and sesame oil. The big draw at the salad buffet -- and rightfully so -- was the fresh, steamed seafood: Peel-and-eat shrimp and New Zealand green-lip mussels were plentiful, their sweet succulence complemented by fresh lemon wedges and a zesty, horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce. On weekend nights Emerald Coast adds snow crab legs.
The soup table, where a half-dozen soups are kept so warm that you're treated to a facial each time you remove a lid, was more Chinese-centered. A chicken-and-corn soup swirled with egg drops reminded me a little too much of canned creamed corn, and I thought the won tons in an insipid chicken broth were a little too doughy. (The pan-fried pot stickers at a neighboring table, stuffed with gingery pork, were far superior to the soup dumplings.) But the hot-and-sour soup, spicy with black pepper and tart with rice vinegar, was first-rate, chock full of bamboo shoots, wood-ear mushrooms, egg, and shredded pork.
Ja-doo chicken wings, dipped in duck sauce, were a little greasy but crunchy, coated with a seasoned batter. Crisp egg rolls, filled with a pleasantly peppery combination of sauteed cabbage and ground pork, had an edge over the blander vegetarian spring rolls.
One interesting factor about all-you-can-eat buffets: There's really no such thing as a main course or an appetizer. You're free to fill up on whatever you wish, even if it's commonly thought of as a starter. Thus we availed ourselves of plenty of the barbecued spare ribs, which were large and meaty and brushed with an almost-candied barbecue sauce. They were far more tender than the honey-garlic ribs, little runts so tough that I found myself struggling to extract my jaws with my teeth still intact. We also found pork with no bones about it, in the form of lean barbecued pork slices soaked with a garlic sauce and surrounded by broccoli.