Friday, January 22, 2010

Chicken Feet and Crispy Quail

All you can eat chicken feet - sounds like a hillbilly buffet! Follow that up with all you can eat crispy quail. Quail are little cute birds that run through the forest. They look like cartoon characters. They actually taste quite good. The steamed chicken feet were a bit odd. They were very gelatinous and when the skin, fat, and tiny bit of meat pulled away from the bones, you could see all of the joints of the chicken toes connecting to the chicken feet. It was something to behold and to try not to think about as you swallow.

So what buffet did I go to that had these unusual buffet offerings? These both, along with several other unusual dishes were on the Saturday night buffet at D.J.'s International Buffet in Garden City, New York. I have been to International Buffet many times and I have written several articles about it. The last article was this past October. You may recall that this is a restaurant that was very well known and popular and then it closed for renovations for a year. When it finally reopened everyone who knew it was waiting anxiously to return. When I returned - as I wrote about - I was very disappointed. All of what was good had changed - and in its place was not so great a dining experience. That was a bit of time ago and since things have steadily gotten better. It never fully came back to what it had been, but it is not too far off now.

This is not an inexpensive buffet. It is primarily Chinese with Japanese and some American foods mixed in. Saturday night (Friday and Sunday too) the price of the buffet is $24.99 with an additional $1.25 for soft drinks. The price of the bill with tax and tip for two on Saturday night is over $60. This is not something that I can do regularly. I am sure many can - as is evidenced by the number of people that may be found dining at International. Weeknights are less expensive but still come in at $17.99 per person - more than I want to pay for a mid-week meal. We used to go to this buffet for special occasions - before the renovations - when it was more special than it has been since. The unusual foods that I encountered on the Saturday night of our recent visit may entice me to come back more often. This is not going to be a detailed review of the restaurant, but rather the foods that I encountered there on this visit. So read on...

One of the things that I like about buffets is the ability to TRY something that I may not order a whole meal of. I have had a number of foods at buffets over the years that I hesitantly tried - just to experience them. Among these have been fried jelly fish, pig's stomach, and now chicken feet and quail. My first taste of sushi was at a buffet - and I never thought that I would like raw fish. This is the beauty of buffets. Take something you never had - and may not like - in a small quantity on your plate and try it. If you like it you can go back for more and have a newly discovered food that you enjoy. If you don't you push it to the side of your plate and remember never to try that again.

I have seen chicken feet on travel shows - generally it is among the things that you see on the shows that feature eating nasty things that no one really wants to eat here - but are relished in other cultures. When I saw the sign over the steamer pan next to the dumplings that said Chicken Feet I hesitantly lifted the lid and looked in. There was a pile of rubbery looking chicken feet - my first thought was that of a joke shop rubber chicken. They were covered in a thick red sauce. I reached in with the tongs and put ONE on my plate. I was not sure that my wife was going to like watching me eat this, but I had to try it, for nothing more than to say, "Hey, I ate a chicken's foot." As I described above, it was not unpleasant in taste but the texture was gummy and the bones - still connected and flexing at the joints threw me a bit. I ate as much of it as there was to eat. The sauce that it was in was quite nice too. I did not go back for more.

The quail was very good. Crispy quail was out among the entrees on the buffet server. There were pieces of quail cut up in the pain in a sauce. They were not breaded but the skin was crisped - though eating it the thick sauce melted away any crispy texture. I took a leg section that had meat also on the side. It was similar in appearance to chicken pieces but much smaller. In my days, I have eaten squab, which is actually pigeon. This was larger than that. I have also eaten Rock Cornish Game Hens. This is smaller than that. My wife seemed to think that you eat the quail bones along with the meat. I think that she was confusing this with squab, as the quail bones were significant and sharp - eating them would be a hazard. Maybe I am wrong and she is right - she generally always is, but I did not eat the bones. The quail was good. It was not something that I ran back for more of. There were other new things to try.

Another dish that I never had before - and is really not that unusual was red snapper in sweet and sour sauce. There were two whole fish in the pan, whole meaning eyes, fins, tail and all. They seemed to have been baked combined with a thick red sauce with small cut up vegetables almost blended in. The name said sweet and sour, but this was not the usual sweet and sour sauce of red sugar syrup cooked with pickle slices and pieces of carrot that you get with Sweet and Sour Pork or Sweet and Sour Chicken. This was a thick red vegetable sauce that was not really sweet with just a bit of sour taste. The sauce was excellent. The two fish that were out had been picked through by other dinners who had pretty much taken all of the meat that was on the top sides of both fish. I scraped with the serving spoon at the top of one of the fish where there seemed to be meat and took what I could get onto my plate. When I was back at the table I tried this sampling of red snapper in sweet and sour sauce. The taste was good, but I found that what I had taken was more skin and fin bones than anything else. The small bits of fish meat that I had gotten were very tasty. Later, I went back and found that the same two fish were still there in the pan - but realized (sometimes the obvious is not always obvious) that if I turned the fish over there was plenty of meat on the other side - of course - and now I took a nice portion of the white meat of the fish, taking it away from the ribs with no bones coming along. I made sure to scoop up a lot of the sauce and put it over the fish. Now, back at the table this was terrific. The red snapper is a delicate tasting fish and the sauce made it very flavorful.

There are some things that I will not try and there were several dishes with tiny whole octopus. I have never been able to bring myself to eat octopus or squid. It was something that my parents would make as part of a special Italian dinner on Christmas eve when I was growing up - and I did not eat it then and I do not eat it now. Which is OK, because there are a lot of other things to eat.

On Saturday night at International there is an abundance of seafood served - along with meat dishes and many other things for the non-fish eater (my wife). One of the things that Saturday night at International has always been known for is the lobster. It is served on the buffet in ginger sauce and on a crowded weekend night when it comes out there will be a line and if you are not at the front of that line you will not get anything at all that you would consider a decent piece of lobster. This is the case with most Asian buffets that serve lobster and it is always every man or woman for himself. There was a tray of lobster in ginger sauce out. The try looked over half full but what was there were claws and side sections with little if any meat on them. I dug down to the bottom and found two small pieces of lobster tail - each about an inch by an inch that had somehow escaped those who had come before me. Here, as in most Asian buffets that serve lobster this way, once it comes out it will not come out for some time later. It looked as if later in the evening more had come out, but a mix through the claws and such, there was still nothing worth taking.

There were very nice snow crab clusters - all with the legs and top section - and these were out in abundance. No fighting or lines for these - and they are brought out fairly regularly. What were there were not water logged (sitting in the steamer tray too long after coming out) and they were properly hot. The only disappointment was the butter sauce was weak with little of the nut-like butter taste that makes this sauce what it is.

On the sushi bar there were a number of choices that I did not recognize. There was a sushi chef who was telling me what each thing was that I looked at - but he was difficult to understand and I still did not know what things were. This is one of the most extensive sushi bars in this area other than the Japanese sushi buffets. I have to say though that the tastes of the fish do not compare to those Japanese sushi buffets, but are as good as the sushi served at other Chinese buffet restaurants with more variety. (Not bad tasting - just not the same.)

For dessert I had one more interesting dish - a creamy custard in a small foil dish with burned, caramelized sugar on top. This is not the Creme Caramel or Flan that this buffet has served in the past, but very small individual cups with a cream much softer than egg custard. The burnt topping was crispy and crunched as you ate it. It was very tasty and candy-like - as most burnt sugar things are.

It was an evening of new experiences. This was not what I had expected when we went in - but not something that displeased me. I don't know how often you will find these items served. Perhaps we were just lucky to be there on chicken feet night, or you may find all of these things on any weekend night - and maybe even other unusual things.

For the non-adventurous there were all of the usual and regular dishes to be found too. So don't let the chicken feet be a deterrent for you to go.

I can recommend D.J.'s International Buffet now - and that has been a long time coming. D.J.'s International Buffet is located at 1100 Stewart Avenue in Garden City, New York. Their phone number is 516-227-2472. The hours of the restaurant are Lunch Monday to Friday, 11:00am to 3:00pm;Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30am to 3:00pm; Dinner Monday to Thursday, 4:00pm to 10:00pm, Friday to Sunday, 4:00pm to 10:00pm. There is still no website.

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