What a crime against humanity and civilisation is an ‘eat all you can’ buffet. Thousands of years spent in developing etiquette, ritual and mannered eating, alongside an even longer amount of time developing the culinary arts and sciences, all just tossed aside in a frenzy of abandoned extravagance and self-indulgence. I exaggerate for effect of course, but only just.
Chinese buffets do offer a great opportunity to stuff yourself to bursting at a very reasonable price; it might be worth asking “How do they do it for that price when a traditional sit-down, waitress served meal would cost you three times as much?”
My observations were stimulated by a recent visit to a long established buffet in Manchester which I have a great respect for, Buffet City, on Great Portland Street. It’s utilitarian, having a cafeteria’s functionality, busy (hardly the place for a quiet romantic or reflective dinner), and it’s bright - so no dark corners to hide in. Get a window seat and watch the buses go by in a rain smudged Adolphe Vallette landscape; otherwise just watch your neighbours pile their plates high and defy all the principles of fine Chinese dining.
Obviously I want my cake and to eat it too. What kind of phrase is that, grammatically imbalanced and not even a good metaphor? Here I am complaining about the species and on the other hand admitting to being a regular customer, how very two-faced. What is the balanced view of a buffet experience?
On the plus side there’s the price, often under £10; drinks are often reasonable too, certainly pub rather than restaurant prices. There’s a wide range of dishes offered, 60 or 70 in many cases although whether this includes the bowl of tinned fruit salad or the boiled eggs I haven’t checked. There’s usually a truly international crowd of all ages including what I take to be Chinese families and perhaps students. And there’s the USP of all USPs, eat as much as you like (and the corollary) eat it exactly as you like. I’ve never actually seen anyone pour soup over their mountains of spare ribs, Chinese curry, sweet and sour chicken, vermicelli, banana fritter, and chips concoction, but I must have come close.
“Well mind your own business”, I hear you say, “and stop whingeing. Why use it if you don’t like it? Isn’t it a liberating experience to break those food taboos and do exactly what you want to do?” In short the answer is “yes”. Does it lead to a memorable experience, the answer is “no”, although I don’t seem to have a problem reliving every moment of this visit.
I have given up advising friends on how to work their way through the buffet; if they’re not food buffs they want to do it their way: Start with anything fried, move on to anything red, then yellow, avoid anything that’s green in case it’s got vegetables in, and go for two colours of ice cream with tinned tangerines. Bliss. However it is possible to behave like a maiden aunt and adopt quite a snooty and superior approach (a la Miss Brodie) and think your way through the bowls of chow all screaming “pick me, pick me!”
On this occasion, like all others, I insist on starting with soup, despite the fact that to make a real point I should finish with it. I always try the hot and sour unless it explicitly states vegetarian. On this occasion I tried the sea food soup which was light and vaguely fishy (the shattered fragments of ‘crab-stick’ must have been the culprit). By adroit swirling of the cauldron I captured a couple of prawns which must have been loitering in the recesses.
Avoiding the deep fried pineapple cunningly placed next to the deep fried fish and deep fried mushrooms, I moved on to an approximation of a dim sum platter with salt and pepper ribs, shell-on green-lipped mussels, prawn wontons, pork siu mai and fried ‘seaweed’ (green cabbage to you and me). After this I shocked my companion by declining the ever popular shredded duck pancakes. They’ve just lost their novelty value to me.
The big issue then becomes how to proceed with some main dishes. One at a time is too pretentious and I’m going to a film so can’t be all night. Anyway you’re only given ninety minutes to eat up and go. There’s an appealing selection of Thai dishes and I manage small portions of sea food with red chillies, pork with basil, and shredded chicken in a hot and sweet glaze, tastefully arranged around a curl of Thai pad noodles; that could normally constitute a meal in itself.
I follow this up with a plate of sweet and sour pork (just testing), Chinese chicken curry, beef with black bean and green pepper, some deep green Chinese cabbage, surrounding a small hillock of yung chow fried rice.
Now it must be said that the plates are not large so there’s no waste. But all I want at the end of this is my two flavours of ice cream and my tangerines. The oriental people on the opposite table have finished on mountains of sliced melon and sliced oranges to share; we’re just not fruit eaters in comparison.
So what makes a good Chinese buffet? It has to be busy so that dishes, which were meant to be cooked seconds before serving, are not cold and greasy with limp vegetables. They are constantly replenished from the wok. They have to have a reasonable spread of core ingredients other than chicken and ‘crab’ sticks. They have to have colour and texture and not all look and taste the same. I think they have to have some kind of house-special which you are genuinely surprised and pleased to find. You have to feel that the chef cares even if he is knocking out a production line of Anglo-Chinese favourites. Afterwards you want to feel that you have eaten well if not too wisely, and do not suffer from post MSG trauma. And you have to go away thinking, “well I may not have tried it all, but there’s always tomorrow” and look forward to a return visit.
Buffet City usually scores on most of these counts.
You can find Buffet City at 111 Portland Street, Manchester City Centre, M1 6DN
Tel: 0161 228 33 88