Friday, December 29, 2006

OCB Buys Ryans and Other Snippets

This got past us when it happened this past July but I have just learned (as printed in the St. Paul Business Journal) that Buffets, Inc., the company that operates Old Country Buffet, bought out Ryans Restaurants. The Ryans chain was seeing financial difficulties and Buffets, Inc. bought the chain through the New York-based financial group that owns Buffets, Inc. The official word is that the two chains will be operated independently. Let's hope so. Let's also hope that there are no OCB influences that make their way into Ryans. Ryans is the superior chain (despite the financial problems they were apparently having).


Old Country Buffet is about to embark on another of their special featured menus. This time it is focused around fish. Of course, they could not resist in bringing back some of those awful "Shrimp, Shrimp, Shrimp" favorites. I am assuming this will be replacing the currently featured "Steakhouse Steak", which is as close to a steakhouse steak as a McDonald's hamburger is. Actually, that is not being fair to a McDonald's hamburger - which is better than an OCB steak. The little sign on the table only said starting soon and did not say when. As was done with "Shrimp, Shrimp, Shrimp" and "Steak, Steak, Steak", I am assuming that "Fish, Fish, Fish" will only be offered on certain nights. (Don't know what nights, yet.)


In August 2006 I wrote about a restaurant in North Babylon, NY called China Buffet City. I was looking for something different tonight so we took the drive back there. As this is a Friday night we got to see what the Friday/weekend dinner offerings were. My review of August still stands with a few exceptions. We got there at about 7:00 pm and the place was crowded. (A good sign, as the restaurant was near empty on that Tuesday night in August.) We did not have to wait. The restaurant is large. The price is still the same - $13.99 for weekends - which is now equal with most of the other Chinese buffets in this area. The weekday price is still higher at $12.99.

There were weekend additions to the menu. They had crab leg clusters and there were two types of steak. One of the steaks was on the grill bar and was cut pieces of steak. The other steak was on the buffet table and this was called Mongolian Steak. It was broiled, thick slices of beef round with a lot of seasoning on the outside of each piece, including way too much salt. There was a brownish-yellow sauce on the side that I did not try. Other than this nothing else seemed different.

Some of the minor problems still persist. There were more signs identifying dishes, but several of the signs were mis-placed. The Sushi chef was there when we first came in, but half way through the meal he packed up and left, leaving what he had made for the taking, but when that was gone the Sushi was done for the night - and the restaurant was still opened for dinner for almost three more hours. Some of the fried appetizers are a bit over greasy. They are good, but they drip oil (not so good).

While we were there two men were talking about the restaurant and comparing it to East - and that this is not as good. That is true, but it is half the price of East on the weekend. I still recommend China City Buffet. I have not been so happy with the never changing (except for the worst) Grand China Buffet in Farmingdale and this was a pleasant diversion. For the same price on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, the China Buffet City is far better.


Did anyone get a buffet gift certificate for the holidays?

Everyone have a VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR! See ya in 2007!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Golden Buffet, Centereach, New York

Sometimes the story of how we found a buffet is better than the restaurant itself, but in this case both are good. So here is what happened. We wanted to see a certain movie that has been playing around for a few weeks but has now left the local theaters. A search through the newspaper found the movie playing at a multiplex half way through Suffolk County toward the east end of Long Island (you know, the Hamptons, where the actors go to hide - not quite that far, though). It was a trip, but not so far from there is a shopping center and since we have not purchased one Christmas present yet, we decided to head out east. As we were finding the movie theater with the map software, I did a search for restaurants in the area. There were a few diners so we figured we had dinner covered. After leaving the mall and trying a nearby Wal-Mart to find nothing worth buying (not because it was Wal-mart as we got nothing at the mall either), we saw in the shopping center that the Wal-mart is in a Chinese buffet restaurant called Golden Buffet. It was about two and a half hours before the movie and we were still not sure where we were going to eat. We also were not exactly sure where the movie theater was, so we figured we better eat there and then and not have to go searching for both a restaurant and a movie theater. It was Saturday night, so I was not certain just how expensive this buffet could be. Sometimes weekend prices at Chinese buffets get a little out of reason. No matter, we went in.

The restaurant, as stated, is called Golden Buffet and it is located at 1973 Middle Country Road (which happens to be Route 25). It is located in a strip shopping center that has a section that is a small inside mall. Most of the stores inside have been closed, but despite the large window, (locked0 door, and sign for this restaurant facing the parking lot, the entrance is inside the mall. You enter by the mall door to the right of the restaurant's window and the door to the restaurant is just inside to the left, as you follow the restaurants window from outside and around to inside the mall. The restaurant is large with a big dining area with both tables and booths and a large buffet serving area in the rear. There also seemed to be a private party room in the back. There are six large, double-sided buffet tables and one buffet counter along a wall. The decor is modern Oriental and very nice. The tables have the name of the restaurant embedded into them.

The prices are about the going rate - weekdays dinner is $12.95 per adult with children under five feet (an interesting way of deciding - unless a very short adult shows up) are $7.99. Weekend dinner is $13.95 and the same $7.99 for children. There are lunch prices of $6.95 during the week and $7.95 on weekends. The kids lunch price is always $4.99. Unlimited soda is $1.00 per person. The restaurant always opens at 11 am and closes at 10 pm on weekdays and Sunday. It stays open until 11 pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Seating is up to an hour before closing times. There is also take-out buffet by the pound and a regular take-out menu.

They claim that there are over 180 items on the buffet. They also claim that the food is American, Chinese, Italian, and Japanese. With no detraction from the claim, I guess so. Italian was a stretch, but if you consider pizza and grilled sausage to be Italian - then it had Italian. It has so much of a variety that anyone should be happy - even someone who does not like Chinese food.

Let's start with the appetizers, salads, and soup. There were four soups including a special beef soup. The salad buffet server had a variety of Oriental and American prepared salads - some with fish and crab. There were mixed greens and a large variety of vegetable toppings and dressings. On this server there were also large, cold peel and eat cocktail shrimp, raw clams, and raw oysters - oysters are s0mething you do not usually see from a restaurant in this price range. There was also cold rock crab - half large crabs. This all filled one double-sided buffet table. On the side of the room was a serving counter table that included a sushi bar and a large variety of sushi and rolls. The sushi was very good. There was both salmon and tuna on beds of rice, California Rolls, Spicy Salmon Rolls, and vegetable rolls. Sushi was not refilled as often as it should have been - but it was refilled while we were there. (No, I did not become a Sushi Grabber - I made sure NOT to take it all. ) On this counter there were other considerable items that we will come back to later. On a mix of other servers there were a variety of other appetizer type dishes. There were all the usual Chinese appetizers, such as egg rolls, spare ribs, etc. There were baked clams. There were three types of dumplings. And yes, there were crab legs. They were good sized clusters.

The entrees were many and varied. Back on the counter server were two hot carvings. There was a large prime rib and there was a leg of lamb. Both hot and moist under heat lamps with the carving knives and forks out for you to slice your own. Along the buffet tables were a pork roast to be sliced and long rolls of grilled Italian sausage. The pork roast was moist and nicely seasoned. There was salmon and there was an Asian steamed fish. There were many Chinese dishes including chicken with mushrooms. a special steak, Hong Kong Beef (beef chunks in a brown sauce), the usual chicken and broccoli, pepper steak, General Tso's Chicken, roast duck (labeled roast chicken, but it was definately duck, mixed seafood (labeled Shrimp with Lobster Sauce- but it wasn't, however, the shrimp were large and good flavored. They were mixed in with mock crab and squid.), crab meat in cheese, and many other dishes.

Side dishes were as many and as varied as the entrees. There was fried rice and lo mein. There were also several types of potatoes including french fries, chunked potatoes, and a potato stuffed with cheese. There were Chinese stir fry string beans, corn on the cob, and many others.

There was a large double-sided dessert table with the usual "Little Debbie" type cakes. There were a number of canned fruits. There were two jellos and two puddings. There was a variety of fresh fruit and melons. We heard a mother telling her children that they were going to have ice cream, but I looked around and saw no soft serve machine. So if it was there, it was not obvious.

So how was the food? - very, very good. There were many things that struck me as better than the usual buffet. One of them was the egg rolls. I like a good egg roll. Usually egg rolls at Chinese buffets are more wrapper than filling. The ones here were a decent size and full of vegetables and pork. They were very good. Everything that I tried was good. Nothing was such that I would say skip it (well... OK, the spare ribs looked dry and were covered in that sweet red sauce that only seems to show up on spare ribs in Chinese buffet restaurants).

Service was equally good. There were several young Chinese women who traveled around the tables making sure that dishes were picked up promptly and soda was refilled. There are knives at the buffet server. A stack of extra napkins were put down on the table. There were little dishes for sauces on the salad buffet table. Everything was well tended. Food was kept moist and refilled. There is a minor problem with labeling on the buffet, but the majority was correct. The check was brought before we were finished, but that does not really mean anything. (Some might take it as a hint - if it is, too bad.) My wife likes to add some fruit to her last plate, before dessert - and often after that at many Chinese buffets, the check is brought to the table. I think that for some reason that fruit is a signal that we are having dessert - even when we are not and I still have a plate full of entrees. No one says anything, and we go right on eating.

My only regret is that Golden Buffet is over 45 minutes away from me, and with the price of gas it cannot be a regular choice. It is far better than where I usally go. So if you are ever in mid-Suffolk County on Long Island, go over to Golden Buffet in Centereach. It is worth the stop. There is no web site, but the phone number is 631-588-5188. (The movie was good as well.)

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to ALL!

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Lobster Grabbers Converted

We have not been to the China Grand Buffet in Farmingdale, New York for over a month or more. The price went up a while ago - just fifty cents per person, but at the same time the lobster was taken off the buffet. Had the price gone down fifty cents when this happened it would have been no real loss, as this restaurant claimed that it refilled the lobster tray every forty five minutes, but in reality, we could be there for 90 minutes having dinner and never see lobster. And, of course, asking for it did no good as you would be told "45 minutes". We have been on a bit of a budget lately so we have not been there.

Tonight we went back. Low and behold, there were the Lobster Grabbers. (For those of you new to this site, check back in past articles for the Lobster Grabbers) What would they do now? There is no lobster any more for them to grab. Would it be the crab legs? No, it was the sushi! The Lobster Grabbers have now converted to become the Sushi Grabbers. The guy literally filled a dish with every piece of sushi that was in the tray. And did the restaurant refill it the entire time that we were in the restaurant eating? Of course, not. My suspicion is that they did not refill the tray because they knew that as soon as they did, this guy would bounce up and grab every piece again. Not so good for the rest of us.

The now, Sushi Grabbers like to fill entire plates as serving dishes. There are only two of them but they fill several plates and put it out in front of themselves, in addition to their own plates full of food. As I have pointed out before, this is incredibly rude, wasteful, and inconsiderate of every other diner in the restaurant. They, apparently, have no concern or thought for anyone but themselves. (I often feel this is a New York phenomenon - but perhaps you in the rest of the country will tell me that it happens every where. I generally find people outside of NY nicer.)

The Sushi Grabbers are not so unusual, unfortunately. I have seen this other times at other restaurants. People decide that they need to fill plates of one item and bring it to the table. Often the plates are almost as full when they decide to go and fill plates with dessert as when they started the meal. The plates of food are left and thrown out as the table is cleaned. For everyone else, all of the chicken is gone; all of the french fries are gone; etc. Terribly rude! It also send sends a message to the restaurant - too much is being taken too quickly and prices are need to go up.

One day I am going to make up a card to hand out to people like this at buffets. It will have the address of this site and say, "Come read the RULES". I would just say, "Take a look. You might find this interesting." And I would smile - no sense in getting punched in the nose for a piece of sushi or chicken. If anyone else would like to make such a card and use it, be my guest. I am sure that you have all seen and encountered your share of Lobster/Sushi/Chicken/Shrimp Grabbers. Let us know what you have seen by posting a comment.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Buffet Employee of the Year

I had never thought of a buffet employee of the year until the other night when we were dining at the Ryan's in Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Yes, we were on the road again.) We got into the restaurant late on Monday night - late, because this particular Ryan's changed it's hours. They close now at 8:30 on weeknights (since the end of November according to the sign on the door). We arrived at 7:30pm as we were driving north.

We got to the cashier and there was no one there. It took a short while to be noticed and then a young lady came over to the cash register. We were seated and I looked around the restaurant to see that there were not many there - which is probably why they have shortened their hours. A trip to the soup area was an indication that I should not put much hope in the evening's dining experience. They have really good chicken noodle soup with thick noodles. The soup was just about at the bottom of the server - and in the last hour was not likely to be refilled. There was enough soup for my wife and I to each have a quarter bowl. Looking around, most serving trays seemed full enough, so perhaps there was no need for concern.

I finished my soup and headed to the grill for what I still consider to be the best chain buffet steak. I asked the young gentleman at the grill for a steak medium rare. He looked at me and and said that all he had was well done, but he had a steak on the grill that would be ready in ten minutes. Great. I told him that I would be back. I filled my plate with some of the other good entrees on the buffet and returned to our table.

More customers were coming in - and by now it was near 8:00pm. The restaurant was far from full but now had a decent number of diners for a Monday night. I noticed three waiting by the grill. I finished my plate and headed back to the grill - the ten minutes were just about up. As I approached the grill, the same young man had just served a man in front of me a piece of steak. I got up to the grill and asked for a steak medium rare. He looked at me and then with recognition told me that he had just given that steak away. He apologized, but made no offer to make another one. I said, ok - what did he have? He told me that all he had was very well done. I took it.

I returned to my table a bit peeved. I was not going to make an issue because I realized that we arrived an hour before closing and we were probably lucky to be eating there at all. I told my wife what had happened. I poured steak sauce on the plate in an attempt to soften the meat and started eating the very well done steak. I thought about the comments that have been posted on this site about not going to buffets late when they are about to close.

Now, what happened next was remarkable for a buffet restaurant employee. The young man from the grill walked over to our table carrying a plate. He stopped and asked me if I still wanted a steak medium rare. He held out the plate with the steak on it. Wow! He told me that he felt badly that I had not gotten the steak that I had asked for earlier and he made this one just for me. I smiled and told him that I absolutely wanted it. He handed me the plate went back to the grill with both of us smiling. This unidentified young man is my buffet employee of the year. Any place else, anyone else would have just cleaned off the grill for the night and give no thought to a disappointed customer. Not only did this young man go out of his way to make me a happy patron of the restaurant, but a short while later he walked back to the table and asked if it was ok. I said yes, and he gave a big thumbs up. He returned to the grill area and started to clean and close down the grill for the night.

Perhaps you have encountered a buffet employee who has gone way beyond what was necessary to make a customer happy. If you have let us know!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Shields Tavern, Colonial Williamsburg, VA

I am in Virginia again and I am going to tell you about an all you can eat experience that I also wrote about this past September. I am purposely not looking back at that article so that I may give this restaurant a fresh review for the second time around. If I repeat myself...- it is worth reading it again. We dined at Shields Tavern tonight and had their special groaning board feast dinner. This is one of the best kept secrets in Colonial Williamsburg. It is easy to find out about this restaurant, but almost impossible to find out about this special dinner. It is not on their website. It is not in their advertising literature. It is not on any sign. How did we find it? By chance when making reservations, the dinner was mentioned when we asked if there were any reservations available for this special holiday weekend. Now, you may ask - what holiday weekend? Go ahead, ask - Ok. In Colonial Williamsburg this is the hottest weekend of the year - not in temperature but in popularity. This is Grand Illumination. A weekend of Christmas activities that come to an explosive crescendo on Sunday night when fireworks fill the sky in three areas of the historic city.

The special dinner is served on Friday nights during the summer months and, apparently now, on Friday night of Grand Illumination Weekend. This is a reserved seating dinner and advanced reservations are required. You cannot just walk up to the door and expect to get in. Let me first explain that this restaurant is part of the museum. It is a rebuilt 18th Century building on its original foundation. It is authentically decorated as it was when it operated as a tavern in 1760 - a tavern then was a like a hotel today. You could eat, drink, and sleep there. Today, at Shields Tavern you can eat and drink. When the special dinner is not being served this is a counter service sandwich restaurant during the day and an alcohol lounge in the evening. At one time not so long ago it was a full service restaurant all of the time. Now the only full meals served here are this special dinner.

The dinner costs $29.00 per adult and $13.00 per child. It includes a beverage of coffee, tea, ice tea, or lemonade. This is an all you care to eat dining experience. The food is served to you at your table and every platter is refillable at your request.

The meal starts with salad. This was a mixed greens and tomatoes salad served in a large serving bowl and covered in a special malt vinegar dressing. The dressing was wonderful - sweet and salty at the same time. Unfortunately, it was so good that I had two bowls of salad. Why unfortunately - well, without realizing it at the moment, the salad filled me up. At our table for two, we had enough salad for four plus. With the salad, you are brought of a basket of rolls. There is home churned butter on the table when you sit down. The ever present server comes by when you look like you have had your fill of salad and politely asks if you are ready for the main servings.

You are now brought a ten inch cast iron frying pan filled with slices of roast turkey covered in a thick, rich turkey gravy, real mashed potatoes, and a savory bread stuffing. You are also brought a metal platter full of sliced Virginia ham, string beans, and stewed peaches, pears, and prunes. You are ALSO brought a kettle of stew - tonight it was braised beef in a wine sauce with vegetables. You serve yourself, or each other, from the platters on the dish that the table was set with. There is also a bowl for your salad.

All of the food is excellent. The Virginia ham is not what you might expect in Virginia. It is not the Virginia salt ham, but a mildly flavored sliced ham. The turkey slices are thick and fresh. The gravy was on the salty side, but very good. I enjoyed the stew. My picky wife does not like anything that has wine on it, so she tried a bit, but left the rest for me. I asked for a second kettle to be brought. As the platters are emptied you ask for more of whatever you would like or more of everything. The server is there so you do not have to wait so long to ask for more that you do not want it anymore (as happens at some other restaurants where you must rely upon the server to get you more). There was so much - especially after the second kettle of stew and the second fry pan of turkey, potatoes, and stuffing - that I broke the rule and ate more than I really should have. It was good - and perhaps it was the two bowls of salad, but I was more than full. I was even a bit uncomfortable - which is really not a good way to be - especially since dessert was still to come.

When you have decided that you have eaten all that you care to eat you are asked which dessert you would like. I do believe you could get both of the two choices if you really want them. The desserts are pumpkin bread pudding covered in a sweet custard and a fruit cobbler which tonight was apple with blueberries, and this, too, is covered with the same sweet custard sauce. The pumpkin bread pudding is more of a pudding than bread. It was not too sweet and very good. The cobbler was a biscuit on top of lightly cooked fruit. I tried the pumpkin and my wife tried the cobbler. I could only finish half of the large portion, as I was full before dessert arrived. (But you will note that I did manage to get down half.)

While we were dining there was a server in the corner of the room playing 18th Century tunes on a recorder. During dinner there are two visitors. One is a strolling musician who will entertain the room with a few songs. Tonight in our dining room it was a gentleman with a fiddle. Stamp your feet! Sing along! Or just enjoy the music. No matter what it is polite to stop dinner conversation and eating while the musician plays. You also will be visited by Mr. James Shields, the 18th Century proprietor of the tavern. This costumed, first=person interpreter talks to each table and the room. He will make small talk, ask where you are from, and talk in general about whatever comes to mind. This character interpreter is one of Colonial Williamsburg's longest working interpreters. He was part of the original pilot program of first person interpretation many years ago. He remains an excellent interpreter and a very amiable fellow - especially with children. It is always a delight when he enters the room.

So for $29.00 plus tax and tip you get an excellent all you care to eat SIT DOWN dinner and entertainment. No so bad for a vacation evening or special occasion.

Like Glockamora, the special meal fades into the mist and is gone until it appears again. (If you do not know the reference, look up the play (or movie), "Brigadoon") If you plan to be in this area call the Colonial Williamsburg reservation line - you can find it from 800-HISTORY - and ask if the Shields Special all you can eat dinner is being served, If it is make a reservation and enjoy!