Friday, March 28, 2008

New Grand Buffet, Islandia, New York

I must begin by saying that I ate at this buffet restaurant twice before I published this article. I had some concerns after my first meal there. I discovered, shortly thereafter, that I had a cold coming in and my taste buds were being affected. I had come to certain conclusions about this restaurant after that first meal that I could not trust if I was not tasting things correctly. About six weeks later we went back. This article is a combination of my experience during those two visits. I am glad that I went back because my original article would have been unfair to this restaurant.

I first learned about this Chinese buffet from an email from a reader who kindly shared a few buffets for me to try. This buffet is a distance from me, but close to my sister-in-law. I mentioned the name to my brother-in-law and he told me that they have been to this restaurant numerous times. I asked him how it was and his answer was "Just OK", but he added that it is my 17 year old nephew's favorite restaurant. With that I was somewhat encouraged - somewhat.

I had to head out east on Long Island so I got directions to this restaurant and made plans to end my day there (twice). The New China Grand Buffet is in Islandia, New York. It is located in mid-Suffolk County on Long Island. The restaurant is situated at the end of a very large, strip mall shopping center that includes a Wal-Mart at the opposite end. The restaurant exterior is very stylized architecturally.

We went on a Thursday night, coincidently, and arrived about 6:30 pm both times - which is usual dinner time for a mid-week evening. We were seated right away and noticed that the restaurant was quite busy for a mid-weeknight on both occassions. The interior of the restaurant consists of several dining rooms that angle off the center of the restaurant which holds the buffet servers. Each of the dining rooms has a different and pleasing decor - though not exactly what you might expect in a Chinese or Oriental restaurant. As we were dining, my wife suggested that the restaurant may have been another type of restaurant once before, because the decor of the dining room that we were in was cabin, wood - rustic including a canoe sitting upside down on rafters along one wall. I know that this restaurant has been the New Grand Buffet since at least 2003, but it is very possible that it once was a barbecue or steak house. The various dining rooms had tables and booths. Some rooms had tables for four. The smallest table in the first room that we ate in was for eight. On the second time around we were seated in another dining room and this had tables for four. The second room that we were in was bright and airy. The first room was, according to my wife, more elegant.

On the first visit, this was the first buffet that I have gone to where it was obvious that children pay by height - as per the recent article that I wrote here about a controversy over this same idea. Since then we have encountered others - all Chinese buffets. Adult prices every day are $12.99 for dinner and $7.50 for lunch. Children's prices are $6.99 for dinner for children between two and a half feet tall and four and a half feet tall. Over four and a half feet (seems to be the magic height - see my other article) pay adult price. Children under two and a half feet eat free. Children pay $3.99 for lunch - same height rules. Two signs in the lobby were very clear about children's pricing - though I did not see any ruler on a wall to measure. As with most Chinese buffets you pay when you leave. Soda is unlimited and you pay $1.25 per person extra for soda. Soda are Coke products. They also have a wine and beer license (in NY this is separate from a liquor license) and they serve bottles of wine and beer. There is a wine list on every table along with a beer selection. There were signs on the wall for Sangria. Prices here are high compared to other local buffets for weeknights, but as this is the price seven nights per week, the price is good for weekends.

There were two long, double-sided buffet tables, a long, single-sided cold buffet table, a single-sided dessert buffet table, a single-sided hot server with barbecued items, and a long single-sided server in front of a round Mongolian barbecue griddle. As usual, I started with soup. There were four soups to choose from - the usual three Chinese standards - wonton soup, egg drop soup, and hot and sour soup. There was also French onion soup. I tried the wonton. The wontons sit next to the hot broth in a serving tray in hot water. You select your wontons and put them into the broth - standard, really, but I mention this because it has a bearing on what I must tell you next. The wontons tasted like water. Now, you may say, "Water has no taste." Exactly - the wontons had no taste and they were waterlogged. On my first visit this was an indication of the lack of taste that things seemed to have - and what lead me to the second visit. On the second visit the wontons were still the same. The broth ,however, was flavorful (on my second visit). The wontons were big and doughy. They looked great, but they were bland. On our first visit I asked my wife, "do the wontons have no taste or is it me?" She agreed and without my saying so, she told me that they tasted like water. I decided to taste the Hot and Sour Soup. It was good but it was not very spicy. I prefer it mild and it was the better soup choice.

Ok, so maybe they can't make a good wonton. Eat on.

From here on I will base my opinion on my second visit because things got better. I next went for the sushi. There were a few choices, all either salmon, vegetable, or California Rolls. I took salmon on rice, a salmon roll with a squirt of pink sauce on top, and what I thought was a spicy salmon role but turned out not to be (not sure what it was!). The salmon on rice was standard, the salmon roll was a basic salmon roll but the sauce on top was the sauce usually put on spicy salmon or tuna rolls and was spicy. The other roll was just a shmear (NY term for minor spread) of some chopped up fish on rice and rolled in seaweed. It had the taste of seafood salad - but I am not certain as to what it was. It was not bad. I also took some cold peal and eat shrimp with cocktail sauce. The shrimp were nice and large.

Next came the dumplings - there were fried dumplings, steamed shrimp dumplings, and dim sum. The dim sum was very dark. The meat was very deep brown in what seemed to be soy sauce. On our first visit, I was not sure that I would take it, but my wife tried it first and said that it ok - and certainly did not taste like how it looked. I tried some and it was ok - just ok. The shrimp dumplings on our first visit were dry in the steamer and stuck to the bottom. They were tough and dried out - and the inside had no appearance resemblance to shrimp, but rather, perhaps, chopped shrimp paste. A new tray of shrimp dumplings were brought out later in the evening and to be fair, I took another one to try again. The new ones were moist and not dried out. They were still tough and bland. On our second visit these same shrimp dumplings were labeled "Vegetable Dumplings" but they were the same shrimp dumplings - this time with larger pieces of shrimp to be found. Now, the incorrect labeling of these dumplings as vegetable and not shrimp could be quite dangerous to anyone who has a shell fish allegy. The fried dumplings were the best of the selection and were standard in taste and consistency.

I moved next to the small barbecue selection that was coming off a grill in the back - this consisted of sliced chicken meat grilled on a stick and sliced beef grilled the same way. Each was nicely charred and looked promising. The chicken was fine and the beef was a bit chewy - but it was sliced thin and well-cooked and that is to be expected.

I like to look for dishes that I have not seen before and here there was a tray of something that they called Coconut Chicken. I have had Coconut Shrimp so I assumed that this would be something similar. There were small rectangles of chicken wrapped in a very thin dough membrane. Inside, when I took a bite, there was no coconut to be found or tasted, but rather tiny bits of broccoli and a sliver of chicken in s moist cream like substance. Perhaps it should have been called Chicken and Broccoli Pie rather than Coconut Chicken. It was not bad.

There was Chicken and Broccoli and my wife tried it reluctantly, because in the server it was very dark and sitting in a thick black soy sauce based sauce. She need not have been concerned though because it was bland. She observed that many entrees were over-sauced (perhaps to give them flavor) but nothing tasted as flavorful as it looked. Many dishes were heavy on soy sauce though they did not taste of it - but it did put a lot of salt into the dish. I tried a stuffed mushroom that was sitting in a red oil in the tray. It dripped this red oil as I cut into it and I figured that this must be spicy chili based oil. I looked right but there was no chili taste. It was fine, but not spicy as it looked. There were pieces of cut up broiled chicken in the skin. I did not try this on either visit. It looked good.

Another different entree was Basil Beef. This was slices of beef with tiny corn on the cob and mushrooms in a brown sauce with a bit of basil added. This all looked good and it did have flavor.

I tried some of the standard Chinese buffet items. The egg roll was oily and had too much wrapping and little filling. There were large Chinese spareribs - covered in the sticky, red sweet sauce that Chinese Buffets find a need to add. The spare rib that I took was meaty. We both tried a shrimp ball - a small ball of fried shrimp and filler. It looked right. It had little flavor and had the consistency of a solid rubber ball (during both visits). We also both tried the lo mein noodles and the fried rice and they were standard. There were several of the usual dishes that generally are very spicy. They were tasty but they were not very spicy. For me that was fine. If you like your General Tso's Chicken extra hot you will be disappointed.

If you like seafood there were several dishes to be found. There were hot mussels, there was salt and pepper shrimp, there was broiled salmon, there was stuffed flounder, and there was fried fish pieces that had bones. They also had a broiled stone crab claw in ginger sauce. There was one nut cracker on every table. I did try the stuffed flounder and the fried fish. The stuffed flounder was a very thin slice of flounder rolled around a stuffing mixture. It was good. The fried fish was ok, but as warned on the sign above the tray, it was fried fish with bones and the bones were small and plentiful. It was not worth the effort to pick out all of the bones or retrieve them from my mouth before I swallowed them. The best dish dish that I had - and one that should be tried, if you come here, is Pepper Shrimp. On our first visit this was called salt and pepper shrimp. On our second visit it was just Pepper Shrimp. It still had some salt but not crusted as salt and pepper shrimp is. These shrimp were very good and very flavorful. These shrimp are cooked and seasoned in the shell - as salt and pepper shrimp are also. They are not easy to eat - unless you pick up each one in its seasonings and peel them. I have heard that these are to be eaten shell and all. I don't know - I can't bring myself to eat shrimp shells. I cut into them and peel them with my fork and knife. The taste was worth the effort. If anyone out there knows, tell me if you are supposed to eat them shell, tiny legs, and all.

Many people at this restaurant seem to be here for the crab legs - and this restaurant was busy the whole time that we were there. I must say that the crab legs were probably the best of any of the local Chinese buffets at this price range. They were individual legs or small clusters - not whole clusters. They were large legs. They were cooked just right and not over steamed so that they drip with water. These were moist but properly dry on the shell. The shells were not water logged and snapped open easily. Most legs had the cluster tops still attached and these were full of crab meat. Most of the tables had dishes full of crab legs. It was no wonder. For $12.99 for the full buffet, you can enjoy a meal of crab legs if you like nothing else.

This restaurant also has a Mongolian Barbecue. You select your meat, vegetables, and noodles, cover them with sauce and give them to a chef to cook in front of you on a large, round griddle. With this I was more hopeful. There were three meats - beef, chicken, and pork. Usually at Mongolian grills these meats are frozen and kept frozen so that they stay fresh as they sit out on the server. Here the meats were not frozen and I was a little uncertain about taking the chicken or pork for that reason. The beef was still slightly frozen and I took that. There was also shrimp and these, happily, were sitting on ice. There was a nice assortment of vegetables to choose from and to my delight there was something that I had not seen on a Mongolian BBQ server before - dry, rice noodles that you took up in a large dry clump and placed on top of your meat and vegetables. They also had lo mein noodles to add. The sauces are labeled on th side of the counter and not as you look at them when you come to them at the end of the server. At first I thought that you had to guess, and then I saw the signs. I choose brown sauce and Oriental wine. The chef stepped up to the counter and greeted me with a polite, "How are you?" I relied, "Fine, thank you!" (This was my first visit - I did not get the greeting on my second visit.) I handed the dish to the chef and he put it on the grill moving it around the circular grill with a large stick. Then he took a tea pot and poured water on top. He moved the food some more and then he poured more water - and again, and again... and again! He let the food sit and cook for awhile and then scooped it into a plate and handed it to me. I returned to the table and waited for my wife to join me. As I left the grill, I heard the chef greet her with the same "How are you?" - even on our second trip. The seasoning at the Mongolian Grill is up to you and you can make yours as spicy as you would like. This grill could be the central focus of your meal here and will satisfy most tastes.

Dessert is the usual Chinese buffet selection of "Little Debbie-style" cakes. The cold server did have an assortment of puddings and fruit including fresh orange wedges. There was a soft serve ice cream machine.

The service was fine. On our first visit there was one person in our dining room and she got around to cleaning away plates on a fairly regular basis. On our second visit there were several servers in our dining room and dishes were cleared away as soon as you left the table to get more. The staff were pleasant but quite. On our first visit, barely three words were spoken to us by the staff from the time that we entered until we left. Oh -that is not counting the "How are you?" from the BBQ chef. The staff were very pleasant and when you could got their attention they brought you whatever you needed. On both visits, no one came to offer us refills on the soda, but the soda fountain was out on the side of the buffet servers and we took our glasses up to the machine and refilled them with no comment from any of the staff.

Trays on the buffet were filled regularly. I did witness one employee who took some chicken in sauce that had earlier fallen onto the counter, pick it up with the serving spoon, and return it to the serving tray. This is probably a lot more common in many buffets than one might like - but perhaps that piece should not have been returned to the tray.

The buffet area was clean. Some of the dishes were coming from the dishwasher with some food spots and some were chipped on the bottoms or slightly on the sides. The tables and the floors were clean. The walls - well, here is an oddity. In that first dining room that we were in - the elegant one - the walls were covered in a beige, close pile carpet. Many of the walls - mid-height and toward top were stained with broad grey/black marks. I am not certain how this would be, and it was not an intentional design. It looked like this was a stained floor carpet that was put up on the walls. It was subtle - we tried to see if it was just shadows from the lighting - but no these definately were not shadows. Each booth in that room had a lamp connected to the wall with a small lamp shade. The shades were dingy and the lamps under the shades were dusty. My wife checked out the Ladies Room and she reports that it was ok but the floors were not cleaned well at the edges. The second dining room that we ate in was much better in its condition and had I only been in this room I would never have known about the condition of the other room.

To conclude my first meal I opened my fortune cookie. It said "You may be hungry soon: order a takeout now." Not exactly what you should read after eating at a buffet. Ha. Ha.

After my second visit - and I am very happy that I went back - I can say that this buffet is good. It is not great - though the crab legs were very good - as was that Pepper Shrimp. I would have no problem taking friends here. And my nephew does recommend it. The location is 704 Veteran's Highway in Islandia, New York. It is just south of US 495 at exit 57 in the Islandia Shopping Center. The phone number is (631) 582-3888. There is no website. The hours are from 11 am to 10 pm, Monday through Thursday, 11 am to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday, and 12 Noon to 10 pm on Sundays.

Give it a try!


JTan said...

Yup, if the salt-pepper shrimp is cooked correctly, the shell is supposed to be brittle enough eat. So, everything can be eaten: shell and legs. I don't know about eating the head though. I personally detach and set those aside!

Robert A said...

Hmm. I tried one at another restaurant and it was just too ... well, I will put it this way, that shell was getting stuck in every crevice of my mouth.

I saw on a cooking show that the shrimp brain is the tastiest part!

Not sure I can eat the whole thing, eyes, brains, legs... I will keep peeling them and enjoying them that way.

Bonnie said...

Your comment that it appeared to ahve been another restaurant previously, once upon a time that location was a Red Lobster :)

Anonymous said...

The only time when shrimp shells can be eaten is just after the shrimp sheds it's shell for growth and before the new soft shell becomes hard. Just like soft shelled crabs. I have eaten the entire shrimp, head and all when it was served salt and pepper baked. It was the best shrimp dish I ever had.

Art of the Buffet said...

I don't think the local Chinese restaurants here are using anything but regular shrimp as the shells inside the salt and pepper coating are hard and crunchy.