Friday, February 22, 2008

Makkoli Seafood Buffet, East Brunswick, New Jersey

I am always looking for buffet restaurants in New Jersey. On occasion business takes us to the Garden State and we usually drive around looking for a buffet for dinner, find nothing, and head back home. The one buffet that I had found in the area that we usually are in I wrote about a year ago - and it was not good. (Take a look in the archives and I am sure that you will find it.)

One of my readers contacted me and told me about a buffet near his home in New Jersey called Makkoli. He told me that he likes to go there for the sushi. I have not gone to buffets that are primarily sushi because, as some of you know, I have a wife who is a very picky eater - and she does not like seafood beyond shrimp. She especially will not eat raw fish. I enjoy sushi but I will not subject her to a dinner of food that she hates. And the sushi buffets that I am aware of charge a great deal of money for their meals - both at lunch and dinner, weekdays and weekends. So my first reaction to my reader - Art - was just what I have told you. He emailed me back to say that there is more at Makkoli than sushi and seafood. He also shared that the weekend price is $19.95 for dinner, which while high, is not as high as other sushi buffets that I know of. I went to look at their website - most of which is under construction - and saw a picture of a Japanese Hibachi chef cooking at an Hibachi grill. We were all set. My wife could eat Hibachi and whatever else there might be and I could try a sushi buffet. We just had to wait for another trip to New Jersey, which just so happened to come quickly.

Let me say that finding Makkoli was a bit of an adventure. One that included some yelling and swearing. I am sure that anyone who lives in this area of New Jersey would have no problem finding it right off, but for this traveler from another State, well, it was... let's just say an adventure. We wound up passing this restaurant twice without seeing it and we had GPS to assist us. One thing that you need to know about New Jersey is that there are no left turns in New Jersey and every large road is a divided highway with no way to cross to the other side. Every few miles there are right turn arounds that will head you across or get you in the opposite direction - but not knowing the roads and driving at night these are noted by signs that are not lit and usually hidden behind a tree. Each time the GPS said that we were there (we routed ourselves to the address), we would look to where the restaurant was supposed to be and all we could see was a dark field - actually somewhat of a pit. Back and forth we drove and then finally pulled into a shopping center and telephoned the restaurant. We were just a mile or so from the location and with their directions of what to look for and what to turn at we finally arrived. That dark pit that we had been seeing was actually the parking lot a bit lower than the road.

Makkoli Seafood Buffet is a Japanese buffet. The restaurant is located in small shopping center strip mall and takes up the length of about four store fronts. On entering the restaurant it is very bright and modern. There is a dining room along the front wall and then another dining room filling the rest of the space with tables all around the buffet area. The price of dinner at Makkoli is $18.99 from Monday to Thursday and $19.99 from Friday to Sunday. Lunch prices are $11.99 and $13.99. Children under three and one half feet tall eat free. Children from that height to four and one half feet are half price. Soda for all is $1.50 and is refillable. They serve Coke products. Hours on Monday to Thursdays and Sunday are to 9:00 pm and Friday and Saturday until 10:00 pm. You must be seated one half hour before closing.

We went for dinner on a Friday night. The restaurant was busy but we did not have to wait to get a table. We were seated and asked for our soft drink order. We then proceeded to the buffet server. There is a four-sided, large serving buffet in the middle of the dining room. Next to that on one wall is a single sided buffet server. Along the longest wall there is a counter that includes the Hibachi grill, soups, entrees, and appetizers.

We started with soup - as we always do. There were three Japanese soups - seafood soup, miso soup, and udon noodle soup. Below the label for the noodle soup were a list of the ingredients - tofu skins, noodles, seaweed, and scallions. We had picked up empty bowls and looked over the soup choices and headed for the udon noodle soup. Behind the soup tureen there were a few bowls with ingredients in them - but no broth. The broth was in the tureen. We figured out that we were supposed to take one of those bowls and fill it with broth creating the soup. Next to all of this there was a station where noodles would be boiled and the ingredients mixed for this soup. No one was there at the time - there was a chef there later creating these bowls for the soup. Slight confusion but we quickly had our soup (two advanced college degrees should be able to figure a simple thing like this out). The udon noodle soup was excellent. I enjoyed just about everything at this restaurant but I really enjoyed this soup. I almost went back for another bowl at the end of the meal but I was so full - and I had two hours to drive home - that I did not dare.

I moved on to the salad and sushi next and my wife headed for the hot appetizers. There are four sushi chefs working inside the rectangular serving area. On one long side are Japanese salads including salmon skin salad, tofu salad, mushroom salad, chopped lettuce, raw edame beans, and others. There were also plates of sashimi - lumps of raw fish with no rice. There was salmon, tuna, and red snapper. Along a short side were raw oysters and clams on the half shell and cocktail shrimp. A tub of red cocktail sauce was on the side along with fresh lemon wedges. I looked at the oysters - sitting on ice, but they looked dry looking so I skipped those. The clams looked fresher and moister. The shrimp looked great. I was looking for the out of the ordinary so I skipped the shell fish and tried some of the salads and took some sashimi. The mushroom salad was very good - I even made my wife try some. It was large black mushroom slices in a mildly sweet sauce. The tofu salad was squares of tofu with a white dressing on top. Also good. The sashimi - I took salmon and tuna and this was very fresh.

There is silverware available all over the restaurant near the clean plates including forks, knives, and soup spoons. At every table there are chopsticks placed on your napkin, Many here eat with chopsticks. I do - but soon tire of the effort and switch back and forth with utensils.

I went next for sushi. I am not an adventurous sushi eater. I tend to the basics of tuna and salmon. Here there is sushi for everyone - the adventurous and the timid. There was every kind of raw fish - white tuna, red tuna, salmon, red snapper, eel, ocotpus, squid, yellowtail, and more. I tried a few fish that I have never had an opportunity to try before - I still avoided the octopus, squid, and eel. All of these were on rice. Then there were the rolls and those were plentiful and different (at least to me). There was a lobster sushi roll. There was a tempura sushi roll - pieces of fried tempura wrapped in rice and seaweed. All of the fish was fresh. All was kept over ice on plates. The chefs keep an eye on each serving plate and refilled them with freshly made sushi continually as they emptied. Everything was well labeled - as was all of the food at this restaurant. All that I tried were good. If you like sushi beyond what you find in the usual Asian buffet, you will love this. And if you are a timid sushi eater you will be happy too. Be alert to the two signs on the glass above the sushi. Each says that you are not to "waste" the rice with the sushi and if you do you will be charged extra. Meaning - take sushi, eat all of the rice. Do not just eat the fish. If you do, you will be paying extra. I have heard from readers that some Asian buffets have had managers or serving staff come over to them when the left the rice aside and told them that they could not do that or that they would be charged extra for doing that. I have never encountered this - and I am one who usually leaves some of the rice aside so that I will not fill up on it. At least here there are clear signs that are unavoidably seen. No denying and no reason for issue- which is ok. I ate all of my rice.

All along my wife was happy with the hot entrees, appetizers, and side dishes. I tried these next. On one wall is a counter with space behind for serving staff and hot serving trays in the front. The hot foods are found here. Next to the soup are steamed crab shumai (dumplings). These were good. There are two tubs of liquid dipping sauce near by. One was a hot pepper sauce. The other was a sharp vinegar. Neither was dumpling sauce, but perhaps that is Chinese and not Japanese. Watch out for that hot pepper sauce! Along the counter there was Japanese fried rice - made on a grill and not the brown style Chinese fried rice, there were noodles that looked like Chinese lo mein noodles, but are much lighter, there were pan fried Japanese dumplings - verylight, and on and on. There was vegetable tempura. There was shrimp tempura - long shrimp in a light but thick fried batter - excellent. There was grilled shrimp on a stick - with the heads on. There were baked scallops - a real scallop shell (think the Shell Oil sign) filled with chopped scallop with a mayonaise based sauce baked together on the shell. There was a baked mussel that looked similar, if not the same. There was steamed flounder in ginger. There was chicken terriaki and beef terriaki. There were half crabs. There was broiled duck, several other chicken dishes, and other beef dishes. They had excellent spare ribs - Chinese sytle without that terrible red sweet sauce. These were charbroiled with just enough crisp. They were cut into small pieces, each a few inches long. There were also Spring rolls. Oh yes, everyone's favorite, there were king crab legs - individual legs, not clusters. The crab legs were refilled as soon as the tray went low. Everything was continually kept fresh and refilled. There was plenty here for the seafood lover and the meat eater.

If you had not had enough already, there was another big part of the meal to come. A section of the counter was an hibachi grill. This is not a Mongolian BBQ - you do not mix your own vegetables and meat. This is a real hibachi grill just like in the hibachi Japanese restaurants - you know the ones that you see in the movies where the chef throws the knife around to cut the food on the grill. You get it all here -except the show - there is no knife throwing, but there is a chef cooking each hibachi dish to your order. You have your choice of shrimp, chicken, and steak with mixed vegetables. The portion that the chef cooks for you fills a plate. My wife had the chicken. I intended to have the steak but I saw the shrimp being cooked for the person before me and I could not resist. The grilled shrimp were great. The vegetables mixed in were nicely seasoned. My wife's chicken was good. The steak looked really good too!

At this point I was full and satisfied - but I had this urge to go back and try some more great things. I resisted the temptation. But wait - dessert. Along the other short side of the rectangle was cold fresh fruit, jello, and canned oriental fruits. Opposite this was a another buffet server against the wall with - oriental buffet "Little Debbie" type cakes and an ice cream freezer chest along side with barrels of hard ice cream for you to scoop yourself. Good ice cream The usual oriental buffet cakes. Dessert was not spectacular, but with all the rest it did not really need to be.

Service was good. Plates were taken away as soon as you empty them. You are served your soda in a very large plastic glass and it took most of the meal to drink it - but when it was near the bottom the server came over and offered to bring more. The entire restaurant was very clean including the rest rooms.

I have said before that you can often tell that a restaurant serving the cuisine of a particular country - Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Greek , etc. is good when you see people of that nationality dining there. This Japanese restaurant had a good number of Japanese and Asian people eating at it. They all seemed to be enjoying it and this tells me that there is some authenticity to the cooking.

My wife noticed that this was a restaurant where people lingered and did not just eat and leave - and the restaurant did not seem to have any problem with this. Many of the people who were well into their meals when we first sat down were still sitting and talking after we had finished. Another thing observed at the table behind us of a large group of friends is that the restaurant does not have a problem if you bring your own bottle of liquor. That table not only had wine on the table but they also had scotch. The restaurant provided the glasses. The restaurant does not serve liquor so it was clear that the people brought it in with them.

Putting it all together - Excellent! It was worth the effort to find this gem. For what I had I did not so much mind that the bill for the two of us with soda and sales tax with $50. If you are local to this restaurant it may not be an every week restaurant - unless you are better off than I, but it certainly is a special occasion dinner or a splurge! I will be back in the area in a few weeks and I have a tough decision to find a new buffet to tell you about or head back for more at this one!

Makkoli Seafood Buffet is located in the Village Green Shopping Center at 415 Route 18 South in East Brunswick, NJ. To avoid riding in circles as I did - when coming south on Route 18 after you pass US 1, look for the Circuit City on the right and then continue two more traffic lights. You will see a U Haul lot (large sign) and you then make the immediate next turn into the shopping center. Travel though that strip of stores and around into the back where you will come upon another strip of stores and parking lot. Straight ahead is Makkoli. The phone number in case you get lost is (732) 967 - 8900 or for free - 877 - 625 - 5654. There is a website which is linked at the side of this page.

If you are in New Jersey, this is a definite go to!


Anonymous said...

I just tried Makkoli last night for the first time. We loved it! Art found my blog and told me about it and also pointed me to your blog. Even after reading your directions, I still got lost and had a hard time finding it.

Ah well, I know for a fact we'll be back again - this time it'll be easier to find.

Robert A said...

With the whole shopping center where it is located not visible from the main road that it is on, it is incredibly tricky to find - but it is worth it when you do!