Friday, September 25, 2009

Bishop's, Dubuque, Iowa

I am always looking to share buffet restaurants with you when I find them, even if I have not had the opportunity to dine there. Sometimes this leads me way off my usual path, but that is good because there are a lot of people around the US who ask me to find buffet restaurants in areas that I may never have a chance to get to. Let me tell you how I found this one.

I was watching a re-run of the TV series, "The West Wing". This particular storyline is following the fictional candidates as they campaign through Iowa for the Iowa Caucus. A filler scene of local scenery flashes by and I see a sign flash past along the road - "The Pioneer Country Buffet". Hmm? This show is now several years old. I wondered if this place actually could be found. I set off on an internet search and I came across Bishop's. This is NOT the restaurant in the show, but it is a buffet restaurant in Iowa - and it looks really nice. No, I never did find The Pioneer - at least any restaurant with that name with a buffet.

Bishop's restaurant is located in the city of Dubuque at the Dubuque Kennedy Mall - a noted shopping center mall in the city. The restaurant may be seen from the outside of the mall. I cannot tell you what the prices are.The hours are Monday - Thursday 11:00-8:00 Friday 11:00-8:30 Saturday 11:00-8:00 Sunday 10:30-7:30 . There are two other locations - one in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and the other in Moline, Illinois. The location I am writing about has been named the Best Buffet in Dubuque along with Best Pies eight years in a row in a local competition called Best Fest.

The food at Bishop's is prepared from fresh ingredients. They start preparing their roast beef each morning and have a special recipe for their chicken. One thing that is supposed to stand out at Bishop's (among many other thing) is their baking. Pies are made from scratch and the photos on their website make them tempting.

Bishop's features an extensive buffet menu that they claim are always offered along with features that will vary. In addition to the favorites which I will list for you, each day there are four new entrees, four new salads, and three new side dishes offered on the buffet. The favorites, there all of the time, would be sufficient on their own. The entrees are hand carved roast beef, fried chicken, grilled chop beef, fried fish, and baked fish. The salad bar includes Fresh Tossed Salad, Caesar Salad. Fresh Fruit Salad, Vegetable salad, Coleslaw, and Jello. The side dishes are Mashed potatoes, Stuffed baked potatoes, Plain baked potatoes, Parsley potatoes, Cheesy potatoes (lots of potatoes), Macaroni and cheese, Green beans, Corn, and Carrots. There is also a buffet server "just for kids" with kid-friendly offerings.

The baked goods offered are just as extensive with Soft rolls, Pumpkin muffins, Cinnamon rolls, Orange rolls and for dessert - Chocolate ambrosia pie, Coconut cream pie, Pumpkin pie, Custard pie, Bread pudding, Apple Pie, Cherry Pie, Sugar Free Cream Pie, Strawberry Shortcake, and Brownies. Top all of this off with soft serve ice cream and sundae fixings.

The dining room is very pleasantly decorated. The restaurant also has a banquet room for parties or business functions. Bishop's is very community-minded and offers discounts to community groups, churches, and non-profits.

Again, I have not eaten at Bishop's. I would love to hear from those who have and please leave comments about your experience there.

Bishop's is located at 555 John F. Kennedy Road, Dubuque, Iowa 52002. The phone number is (563) 588-2031. There is a website which is linked at the side of this page.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A New Rule

Since the start of this site I have been listing what I call, "The Rules of the Buffet". I cannot believe some of the things that I see people do at buffet restaurants. These are things that one would hope that adults would have common sense not to do or would at some time in their childhood been taught not to do. Oh my, no! Our rules were last listed here this year in August.

I recently saw something that has now led to a new rule...

RULE 28: Never put the serving utensil, whether it a spoon, fork, or tongs, up to your nose to smell the food that you have taken out of the serving tray.

Oh yes, I saw this - and more than once. The tongs went into the tray and food was taken out, held over the plate, but instead of going to the plate it went up to the nose - smelled and commented on. Thank goodness, it met with approval because I am sure that if it hadn't the food would have gone back into the serving tray. Bad enough, the tongs went back in.

With all of the health concerns and the recent outbreaks of Swine Flu, we now have people not just holding the serving utensils, but also breathing upon them.

It would be nice if this was the last rule necessary. Who am I kidding? There surely will be more to come.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Olive Garden's Never Ending Pasta Bowl

The Olive Garden is a chain of Italian restaurants with locations across the United States. The Olive Garden is not a buffet restaurant but every so often it does run an all you care to eat special. In addition, they always have an unlimited soup and salad offering on the menu. At the current time there is an all you care to eat special that they are calling the Never Ending Pasta Bowl. This is a limited time offer, but it has been brought back through the years.

I never have had much regard for non-buffet restaurant chain all you can eat special offers. I have tried them in years past at both this chain and also the Red Lobster, a seafood chain across the U.S. that frequently offers specials of all you can eat shrimp, crab legs, etc. How this works is that yu order from the menu and your waiter or waitress brings you the first dish and when y9u want more the server must bring you another plate, and so on. My experience always has been that the first serving is brought and then when you are ready for more you can try to find your server who is avoiding your table, and when and if you find the server and ask for me, it is a big surprise - I recall the scene from the play/movie, Oliver - "Please, Sir, may I have some more?" "SOMEMORE...the boy wants somemore?" And then a song and dance number starts about how never before has a boy wanted more. Well, once you get past the - yes, bring me somemore!- the server comes back after a considerable amount of time with a few pieces of whatever it was you asked for on a small plate. Yes, this has happened consistently to me in the long past at both of these chains - and I have not gone back for one of these specials since. Until now.

The television commercial for the Olive Garden's Never Ending Pasta Bowl tempted me enough to bring me back to the Olive Garden after oh so many years for one more try. I have to say that I was pleasingly surprised.

The offer is this - order a bowl of pasta in one of six pasta shapes covered in one of six different sauces. As their advertising states, there are forty two different combinations. You can keep asking for as many of these combinations as you would like. With the pasta you will also get unlimited breadsticks (more like long, narrow garlic bread rolls) and a choice of unlimited soup of your choice from the soups on the menu OR unlimited salad. The amazing price for all of this is just $8.95. If you enjoy your pasta with Italain meatballs or sausage, for an additional $1.95 you can order unlimited meatballs or sausage to accompany your pasta. You can order unlimited softdrinks - but there is no price for this on the menu. We decided on just water, but certainly it could not be much more than another $2 each, if you are inclined to soda. Right at this point, the price is good. If you are inclined to dessert you are going to pay over $6.00 or more for ONE piece of cake. Add single serving appetizers and you are getting into serious money. But the pasta is unlimited so you don't really need much more - much to our waiter's chagrin. One other word before I continue on - they are big on wine here and it is the first thing the waiter offered while holding a bottle in his hand ready to pour into the glasses on our table before offering the special menu choices. If you are so inclined, it is not cheap.

Now, we went to one of the two local Olive Gardens in our area and there was a short wait top get in - they said fifteen minutes, it was more like ten or less. I am not sure why there was a wait aother than to show off the fancy electronic pager system - not sure why they have that either as there was no place to go but the parking lot or the lobby of the restaurant. Once we were seated there were a number of vacant tables. The restaurant was not empty, but other than staggering server assignments, there was no reason to have anyone wait. But the wait was not bad - though one family came in, heard about the wait and left (I am not sure what other restaurant they were going to get to in the fifteen minutes they were told they would have to wait). Any way, we were tyaken into one of the several dining rooms and seated. Very nice, faux-rustic Italain decor. On the table was a special menu and on the front of that was the Never Ending Pasta Bowl and all of the choices for it. They did not hide the special, and while it was not the only thing we saw people at other tables ordering, it was one of the more popular choices. As I said, you order your "first" bowl of whatever combination you would like and also order soup or a salad.

Ok - the pastas - spagetti, whole wheat spagetti, linuini, fettachini, penne, and orechiette (ear-shaped pasta, similar to shells). The sauces - marinara, five cheese marinara, alfredo, meat sauce with beef and sausage within, and two new sauces introduced with this offer - Roasted Portabello Pomadoro and Creamy Parmesean Florentine. You order a pasta and a sauce. When yu want more you order any pasta and any sauce, and you can change as many times as you order another bowl. There are a nice selection of soups and you are ordering these from the standard menu - these include minnestrone, chicken and gnocci, macaroni and beans, and a spicy sausage soup. I have not used the Italian names that these soups have on the menu. If you roder salad you get a very large bowl of greens served family style to all those who order it. If you would like more soup or salad, it will be brought to you.

Together, my wife and I tasted an assortment. We went for the soup instead of the salad. I had the Chicken and Gnocci and she had the Minnestrone. The chicken soup was a cream of chicken soup that contained small chunks of chicken and a few gnocci. Gnocci is potato dumpling pasta - little balls of potato dough that is boiled like pasta to cook. My first experience with gnocci was wwhen my father made it when I was young using my Grandmother's recipe. The gnocci in the soup was not quite like Dad's, but they were not bad - though there were maybe four in the whole bowl. Of course, if I wanted more I could have asked for another bowl - which was offered when we had finished our bowls of soup. The Minnestrone was the usual tomato based, Italian vegtable soup. This one was fine, yet again, not as full of vegetables as some. All in all, the soups were good, We saw salad served on other tables and they bring a VERY large bowl for those who ordered it to share - or a similarly large bowl for one. And again, you can get more if y9u wish.

We did not get more soup - the attraction for the evening is the pasta and why get full on soup or salad - or the breadstick/garlic bread. The waiter brought out two bowls of pasta. The bowls were large in size - perhaps as large as a dinner plate about ten inches. The bowl was full of pasta but not overflowing. The pasta was covered in sauce. All was very hot when it came out - and stayed close to that throughout. I started with the fetticini with the specail roasted portobello pomadoro sauce and my wife had the whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce,. Each pasta was good. The whole wheat pasta was actually too good to be whole wheat - so much so that my wife doubted that it was - though the waiter said that it was when he put it in front of her. The Roasted Portobello Pomodoro was a chunky tomato sauce with regular mushroom slices mixed in and on the top were a few strips of portobello mushrooms. It was tasty. My wife felt that the marinara was spicy. It should not have been. I tried some of hers and did not find it that. It seemed mild to me. It is possible that she was just feeling whatever spice had been in the Minnestrone. When the pasta is served you are offered freshly grated cheese which is ground over your bowl by your server. I enjoyed my first bowl eager to see what was to come. Would the waiter dissappear?

As we were coming to the bottom of our bowls of pasta the waiter appeared. To my pleasant surprise he asked if we wanted then to order the next bowl or would we want to finish our bowls and then order another - as they come out quickly, he said. We said we would wait. When we had finished, in a few minutes the waiter reappeared and asked if we were ready to order more. This time I ordered the little ear pasta and the creamy parmasean florentine sauce adn my wife ordered the penne with meat sauce. True to form for these types of specials in this type of restaurant, when the next bowls were served, gone where the large, dinner plate sized bowls and now the pasta was served in a smaller bowl - perhaps six or seven inches across. Ok, less pasta - or at least the suggestion of less pasta, but you can still ask for more. The creamy parmasean florentine is described as an alfredo sauce with spinich. What they do not say is that this is raw spinach leaves torn up and put over the top of the pasta and alfredo sauce. The taste was nice but I had expected cooked spinach and did care as much as I would have liked. The meat sauce was not heavily loaded with meat but the meat was evident. My wife says that she did not notice if there actually was sausage meat mixed in with the beef. I tasted it and it was not bad.

Let's face it - and this is what Olive Garden is counting on for a $9 all you care to eat dinner - there is just so much pasta one can eat at one meal. By the end of the second bowl my wife was ready to stop and I was not far from it. But, of course, I had to go on to at least one more bowl. Again, the waiter did not dissapoint and appeared in a timely manner to ask if we would like another bowl. I had the penne in five cheese marinara sauce. This sauce was much like an ala vodka sauce with9ut the vodoka - a creamy red tomato sauce that was thick with cheese - which may have been what made it creamy in the first place. It was a very nice sauce. Again, this pasta arrived in the small bowl. I made it through three quartes of the bowl before I had to call it quits. Unlless you intend to marathon eat this meal, there is not much more than three bowls that the average preson is going to eat.

I was full, but I also wanted to see something involving my left over pasta. At every other table, there servers were rushing to bring take out boxes and bags for people to take their left overs hoke with them including the garlic rolls. Would I be offered to take my left over pasta home and the almost full basket of garlic bread breadsticks? The answer is no.

I found the $8.95 Never Ending Pasta Bowl to be a very satisfying meal. The value was great, the food was good, and there was plenty to eat without any real effort to get the refills. If you like pasta and can eat your fill of it - this is the dinner to go for.

Olive Garden restaurants are all over in many states. This offer is for a limited time and in a few months or even less, call first to see if it is still offered (if you are no longer seeing the commercials). If it is gone, it will come back at some point. The hours at the Olive Garden may vary by location but many are open until 10 on weeknights and 11 on Friday and Saturdays.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Stomach Staples and Buffets

What an odd association - stomach staples and buffets. It has got to be a stretch for this medical weight loss procedure and buffet restaurants to have something in common. But, believe it or not, they very much do.

It seems that many people who have undergone the stomach staple operation, a procedure in which the stomach is made smaller (with surgical staples) in order to restrict the amount of food that may be passed through the stomach at a time and that one is made to feel full with (actually uncomfortable), want to continue to eat at buffets after their surgery. Well, why not?, you may ask. The problem comes about that they not only want to still eat at buffets - they want to eat at them at a discount. Yes, a discount. Why? Because they cannot eat all that they would like to eat, so they should be entitled to a discount or better yet come in and eat free.

I am sure that anyone who is reading this who has undergone vertical banded gastroplasty, the medical name for the stomach staple surgery, is going to be angered by this opinion, but going to the buffet is a choice - and the price is the price for all. If a very thin and small person goes to the buffet, should they be entitled to a discount? If I like to go to amusement parks - just for the entertainment of the shows and the atmosphere but do not like to go on the roller coaster, should I be able to ask for a discount at the admission gate and expect to get it? I guarantee that I would not get it.

So how does this work? How is the buffet supposed to know if someone really has the surgery? The people who get the surgery get notes from their willing surgeons a testing to that the person had the surgery and can only eat a small amount.

Does this work? At many buffets, no it does not work. Most are going to tell you that the price is the price and you are welcome to eat as much or as little as you can. Remember that the actual definition in the word "CAN" as in All you Can Eat is "ABLE" so it is All you are ABLE to Eat. We were at a pizza buffet where a woman (a thin woman) came in with a young girl, presumably her daughter. She went up to the cashier and flashed her note from her doctor expecting to be let in for free. The buffet manager came over and an argument from the woman ensued. She was not going to eat more than some salad, her daughter was going to be eating the pizza, not her. She was indignant when they told her that if she was coming in she had to pay the full price just like everyone else. She tried to say they were punishing her daughter because she could not eat. They told her she was welcome to come in, just pay the cost of the meal. Now, this was a buffet where you paid first before you eat. I would hate to see the scene that would ensue if this was tried after the meal was consumed and then you pay.

Now, there is a buffet that I know of that willingly gives a discount when a valid note from an M.D. is presented attesting that the person has had the stomach staple operation. Yes, we were recently at none other than Shady Maple Smorgasbord in East Earl, Pennsylvania and saw a sign on the cashier's counter that said that a ten percent discount would be given off the meal price to the person with medical proof. Our very own, three year in a row, Best Buffet anywhere winner has come through again. If anything is going to be given, I guess ten percent seems fair.

I have heard from buffet managers who say that many try this who don't have proper proof and want them to take their word for it or better yet, present notes that clearly are not from doctors. One manager called this a recent and frequent scam.

The bottom line is that the price of the meal is set and applies to everyone equally. It is not based upon how much you eat, it is an offer for you to eat what you care to eat - or are able to eat, in the extreme. Everyone can or cares to eat a different amount from anyone else. In the buffet "game", that is just how it is.