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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.
In many instances Emerald Coast endeavors to keep fried food from getting too soggy by serving the accompanying sauce alongside. The gravy for the lemon chicken, for example, was positioned in a dish next to the boneless chunks of deep-fried poultry, and the sauce for sweet-and-sour chicken was neighbor to the deep-fried "chicken balls," boneless poultry coated with batter. The effort was wasted, though. Both chicken preparations were dry, and the sauces sugary enough to give a dentist the shudders.
Stir-fried dishes were better able to withstand the rigors of the steam table. General Tso's chicken was tangy, the sauce cooked into the juicy nuggets, while kung pao chicken was wrapped in a zesty Szechuan sauce. (Spicy dishes are marked with red signs.) Beef and pork entrees, too, were hardier stuff. Succulent sauteed beef with string beans was coated with a delicious brown gravy; black-pepper steak was lively and vibrant. A variation on the pepper steak, meatballs with green peppers, was tough but tasty nonetheless.
The best place to go for beef was a carving station that doubled, oddly, as a sushi bar. Ignore the skewers of beef and chicken (they were burnt the night we visited) and try the prime rib instead. This supple cut in itself was worth the entire price of admission. All the accompanying sauces -- a zesty "prime rib sauce," horseradish, and peanut satay -- were flavorful. As for the sushi, bland California rolls made with fake crab were not for the connoisseur, nor were rice pockets, balls of rice wrapped in a sweetened omelet skin and topped with masago or sesame seeds. These were, however, a nice antidote to some of the Szechuan dishes.
Mussels in black bean sauce were a clear standout among the sparse selection of seafood preparations. Shrimp in lobster sauce tasted fishy; the fake crab that accented the eggy dressing was positively awful.
Emerald Coast offers little consideration for vegetarians. There are the vegetarian egg rolls, plus whole baby carrots, corn on the cob, and sauteed mushrooms that look as if they should be served with a steak and a baked potato. And don't expect any of the Chinese-style vegetable dishes to stay crisp; on our visit they were uniformly limp. The noodle dishes suffered the same fate, tending to dry out under the heat lamps. Fried rice with chicken was rife with shriveled kernels, and both Singapore noodles (rice noodles with curry) and lo mein needed some moisture to make them palatable. If you're a a true stir-fry fan, you might want to order something a la carte.)
Dessert offers international options, including soothing creme caramel, moist Black Forest cake, and rich cheesecake. A separate sundae bar is home to the aforementioned eight flavors of ice cream and sherbet, as well as butterscotch and chocolate sauces. Some of the other sweets were ideal little morsels -- miniature almond cookies and tiny coconut tarts, for instance. Fresh melon slices were also a fruity, refreshing finish. But I was happiest to see the honey bow -- a pastry made by frying a won ton wrapper and drenching it with honey -- a treat I look for in New York City's Chinatown bakeries.
The novelty of the Chinese-American buffet may well be its biggest draw. And a serious glut of clones might send this dining trend the way of the pet rock. But there's no denying the value. At Emerald Coast the food is better than you'd expect, and the experience is both filling and fun.
Emerald Coast. 4519 N. Pine Island Rd., Sunrise, 954-572-3822. Lunch Wednesday-Friday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner nightly from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m.