Friday, June 10, 2011

Desserts at Buffets

I have recently had readers ask me to be more descriptive of the dessert offerings at buffets. The problem is that desserts at many of the buffets are not much to write about. Now, that is not to say that there are some buffets with fabulous dessert offerings, but these are few and far between.

I have been to many buffets and over the years I have written about a few buffets that offer a great variety of good desserts. Just about every buffet in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania has a decent dessert bar included with their buffet. This is the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country and the Amish and the Mennonites are known for specialty desserts among which are Shoo Fly Pie, Apple Dumplings, Cracker Pudding, Funeral Pie (raisin pie), Funny Cake, and more. Of these you will find Shoo Fly Pie in each of the buffets in the area. The other desserts mentioned will be found at various times at various buffets. Shoo Fly Pie is a pie shell filled with a wet and gooey mixture of molasses and table syrup (sugar syrup or corn syrup) that is thickened and poured into the shell. That is then covered with cake crumbs. The traditionally favorite of Shoo Fly Pie is called wet bottom and that means that the molasses syrup mixture is moist. It has been a long time since I have seen dry bottom Shoo Fly Pie - and never at a buffet. This version tends to be more cake-like at the bottom. As I say, you can go to any buffet in Lancaster and find Shoo Fly Pie. It is best served warm but few buffets do this. Top it with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Another variation is Chocolate Shoo Fly Pie. This replaces the molasses with chocolate and is a real treat. The Bird in Hand Restaurant buffet has been known to serve this but don't expect to find it on every visit.

The Bird in Hand Restaurant has a dessert only buffet as an alternative to the full buffet and if you like to skip the "real" food that your mother wanted you to eat before you could have your dessert and get to the good stuff, you can go all you care to eat with desserts alone.

The ultimate dessert buffet is in Boston where you can have an entire meal of chocolate desserts. This has been featured in my article on Cafe Fleuri at the Langham Hotel. This is for the extreme dessert eater. I know I could not do it. I know that many do. And it is all done with elegance in one of Boston's top hotels.

The best dessert selection at a buffet that I have been to - and I have written about this several times - is at a small buffet in an out of the way town called Waynesboro in Pennsylvania. This is just above the Maryland border and the restaurant is called Mountain Gate Family Restaurant. The buffet at Mountain Gate is good and the food is American/Pennsylvania German. The desserts are given a section of the room all to themselves and there were more varieties of good cakes and pies than just about any other buffet that I have been to - and included with the buffet at a good price. There was nothing fancy here but the baking was good and there was just about every kind of pie and cake that one can think of. This is an out of the way place to go and there is little around it except a lot of nice scenery, but if one were on a trip to the meccas of dessert - this is the place to include. Of course, there was puddings, fruits, and ice cream, but with all of the things to try... well...

Casino buffets tend to go big on dessert offerings but they are not always so good. They may dazzle you with presentation, but the taste does not always stand up to the show. There are some that are very good. The two casinos in Connecticut - Mohegan Sun (with two buffets) and Foxwoods Casino - both have large and good dessert offerings. Both offer hot desserts and crepes filled with ice cream are the most tempting. Top that with syrups and whipped cream and eat it before it melts! At both you will find cheesecake, layer cakes, fruit pies, ice cream, pastries, and, of course, fresh fruit. While I have not been impressed by the taste of the Atlantic City casino buffets' desserts - I really can not say that any one of those have stood out and there are several casino buffets in the casinos in Atlantic City - the desserts at both Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun deliver taste along with the presentation.

I wish that I could say that desserts are not to be missed at so many of the other buffets that I have written about and been to. When something stands out I do write about it - but too often they do not excel when it comes to dessert. The Chinese/Asian buffets are the worst when it comes to dessert and almost everyone - no matter where it is - serves the same or close to the same little, overly sweetened and commercially baked squares of cake. I have referred to these many times as the "Little Debbie" cakes. "Little Debbie" is a discount brand of snack cakes sold in supermarkets throughout the US. They are small squares of cake - and if you are in need of a sugar rush, well they fill that need quite well. The cakes at the Chinese buffets are just like that. And I have found out that they come from commercial, wholesale bakeries that cater to Chinese/Asian buffets. They are boxed sheet cakes that are cut into those little squares. I have yet to be at a Chinese/Asian buffet - all along the East Coast of the US that has not had these same cakes. Some of these cakes pretend to be something that they are not. If it says cheesecake it is yellow cake with a light spread of cheese and sugar on top. Not cheesecake.

I should note that the Japanese buffet chain - Minado (in NY and other locations) - does have hot crepes made to order with ice cream and toppings. They are good and a pleasant change from the sweet little cake squares that they also serve. Many Japanese buffets also serve green tea ice cream and that is something different to try. It is very refreshing after the meal.

Now, the chain buffets - Old Country Buffet, Ryans, and Golden Corral. Frankly, the desserts are not that great. At one time the desserts at Ryans were pretty good but since the take over by Buffets, Inc. that then turned Ryans into a carbon copy of the other buffet chain that it owns, Old Country Buffet, the desserts took a downturn. Golden Corral is not much different though I have on occasion have had a nice cupcake at Golden Corral. These are not always offered. There is always soft serve ice cream at all of them and with that a section of syrups, nuts, and candies to put on top. Golden Corral has fresh fruit - mostly melons of various types cut up and without syrup added. You will also find hot bread pudding at all three and some form of hot fruit cobbler - fruit filling in a pan with pie crust on top and kept hot in the steam server. At Old Country Buffet right next to the fruit cobbler you will find a hot chocolate dessert that is brownies mixed with hot chocolate syrup. While this sounds tempting, it is overly sweet. It is a good thing to mix in with vanilla ice cream. Do avoid the "haystacks" at OCB - these are canned Chinese snack noodles covered in chocolate and allowed to harden Not good at all though they look good and are tempting until you try one.

When the desserts merit talking about, I always talk about them. I just wish they were worth talking about more often. As I say, you really have to go out of your way to find a really good dessert selection at a buffet. The standard is fine to fill a sweet tooth and I know that many fill plates to the brim with more dessert than a family of six should eat together - and devour the whole thing, and if they enjoyed it then good. Keep in mind though that as I do with everything that I eat at buffets - take a small sample of what appeals to you and if you really want to, you can always go back and have a little more of what you really liked.


RemixedCat said...

I know the ryan's location that was closed near and dear to me had the best soft serve ice cream! I miss it! it tasted very sweet the way I like it and it was perfect consistency.

Hope C. Ritchards said...

Desserts are now a big enticement for customers at buffets. A manager once told me this. The reason is that desserts at menu restaurants can now cost $3.00 to $8.00 or more, often just for a small slice of cake. Some members of our bunch are big dessert eaters, and sometimes they eat dessert FIRST, so a buffet is a great value in this regard. If you have two desserts at a buffet, it almost can cover a lot of the meal price.
Thanks for the article, we always like to see the desserts described. And by the way, you have misspelled "dessert."

Writer said...

You get the award title of Editor of the Week - thanks for pointing that out.

Though desserts at some buffets can be a vast waste land...

Parsimonious Papa said...

I am suprised you downplay Shady Maple's vast array of delicious desserts. From their "eclair delight" to the baked apple goodie, Shady Maple defines delectable buffet dessert eating. I do admit, however, that Shady Maple has some dud desserts, especially the low-carb choices -- yuck!

Writer said...

Shady Maple has some wonderful desserts! I think that some of my readers are tired of me talking about Shady Maple so often. Always check both ends of the Shady Maple buffet - often there are different desserts put out on each side of the building!

Slammin' Stan A. said...

Hope is correct. Sometimes desserts "make the buffet." We recently went to a national chain menu restaurant -- besides the $2.99 sodas, the desserts were $7.00 each! Often desserts are the best value and best reason to be a buffet diner. Keep writing about the desserts -- my dr. always says that the desserts aren't a big problem for most people, it's the fats and the meats. Thanks for the great dessert article.

Writer said...

Diabetics will disagree that desserts are not a big problem and diabetes in the United States is on a steep increase. And many desserts full of cream, milk, butter, and oil contain more fats than the meats.

I always talk about the desserts when there is something to talk about. As this article points out - really special desserts at many buffets are few and far between.

Graciella said...

you have a point about the fats, however, meats are loaded with hormones which the richest desserts don't have. Especially commercial meats found in most restaurants. We have been taught that the animal fats are far worse than the dairy/plant fats, unce for ounce. I'm a 2nd yr. medical student in NY and am learning about that. Love your blog though. be well.

Marilyn said...

I grew up in Saranac Lake, NY and my father was in the restaurant business for over 45 years. He owned, managed or had partners in at least 11 restaurants in that time period. But we still went out to eat at restaurants! The reason was that he wanted to see what competing restaurants were doing and learn from their successes or mistakes. My father always told us (five kids) to avoid most of the meat, fish and fowl, and especially pork, at AYCE restaurants as it was usually poor quality, or worse. His suppliers told him that time and time again. The AYCE's just couldn't turn a profit if they offered menu quality meat at buffet prices. Simple economics. He is 94 now and would probably say the same thing. The reader who wrote about the hormones reminded me of this. To this day, we all load up on the salads, fruit, vegetables, breads, desserts, maybe soups, etc. at most buffets. And we've never gotten sick at one yet!

Anonymous said...

I eat meat. I like meat. I eat meat at buffets and have never gotten sick yet. Choose your buffets wisely. It is likely if the meat at one would make you sick, so would anything else that you would have to eat there.

I have rarely found a buffet where the desserts were very good. They certainly are not the $8 desserts that are served at better restaurants. Most of the time you get a better dessert buying a box of Twinkies than what you get at most buffets - even at the "better" buffets.

dave1973 said...

Desserts at buffets vary for sure. You're on target with the chinese buffets having the worst dessert selection. Many have the same small selection. For those that have ice cream, it's either the soft serve with few to no topping options, or those that have a chest freezer filled with ice cream you scoop out the ice cream. One chinese buffet I used to go to used to have cheesecake (real cheesecake & not what described as cheesecake), but they stopped carrying it for whatever reason.

Ryans & Old Country Buffet also vary. Some are alright, but most of the time, they're not worth having.

Ponderosa varies too from location to location. Some offer cheesecake, while others don't. If they have cheesecake available, that's the one dessert I'll get for sure. Ponderosa does not have a large selection at all (most cases, just as small, or smaller than the chinese buffets at some Ponderosa locations).

Golden Corral overall seems to make theirs way too sweet, that I didn't have much in the way of desserts. I won't rant further on them as I have such serious issues with them.

Czerwone Jabłuszko (Red Apple) is a Polish buffet in Chicago's Avondale & Forest Glen neighborhoods, & their dessert selection is good, but would be better if they didn't taste stale. All desserts are made on site according to Polish recipes, with no added preservatives, or any of that artificial stuff found in commercially made desserts. So with that in mind, they don't stay fresh very long. I don't know about other Chicagoland Polish buffets, but most Polish buffets are known for their outstanding food (especially Jolly Inn in Chicago, Sawa's Old Warsaw in Broadview, IL, & Warsaw Inn in Lynwood, IL).

The best selection I have found to be good have been at the local casino buffets (near me, that would be the buffets inside Horseshoe Casino in Hammond IN., Ameristar in East Chicago IN., & Majestic Star in Gary IN). Horseshoe Casino has the largest selection of the 3, & for some desserts, someone takes the desserts out of the case, & places them either on a saucer if it's 1 or 2 small desserts, or a regular plate if you're wanting lots of different desserts. The casino buffets are not cheap at all. You pay a premium to eat there.