Friday, September 27, 2013

Old Country Buffet, Ryans, Etc. Updates

Have you been to an Old Country Buffet or Ryans lately and noticed the absence of the Stir Fry station? This is now gone from the Buffets Inc. owned buffets after some locations went through construction to install a permanent station for what was to be a regular offering at the restaurants. An anonymous, inside source at Buffets Inc. tells me that this is only temporary and has been done due to poor overall earnings in the past quarter.  It was implied that cutting out the stir fry would save on employee salaries and other expenses related to the stir fry area. An email survey sent out to some OCB customers on their email list makes me suspect that they have other plans.

The survey asked about having breakfast omelets available all day. These would include a variety of omelets  containing your choice of a number of ingredients. To further enforce that this is likely going to happen, at a local OCB where a special area was constructed - taking away already limited table space - for the stir fry. That sign above that is now gone and a sign for omelets has taken its place. I am sure that area has been used all along since its installation for omelets for the breakfast buffet but suddenly this very large sign was put up over it. An earlier similar survey had asked about baby back ribs and those made an every night dinner appearance on the buffet several weeks later.

I am, frankly, not surprised that the Stir Fry is gone. It was very dependent on the skills of the people cooking at it, and that there was actually someone assigned there - and not that someone wandered over eventually when someone came up to the grill which I observed at several OCBs. The other problem was the ingredients. While the chicken was passable, the beef always looked like dried out scraps of left over roast beef and more than once I heard people ask with a face, "What is that?" pointing at the beef in the tray behind the counter. It was quite unappetizing in appearance.

So far, no omelets yet. But I suspect that you will be seeing them soon at an OCB, Hometown Buffet, or Ryans near you.  Will I try one? It will depend upon how they are being cooked and what the ingredients look like. I have not been to an OCB for breakfast so I do not know how the omelets are made. If they are cracking fresh eggs then I will try one. If they are pouring an egg mixture from a pitcher, then no, I will stay clear.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Baby Back Ribs Seem to be Everywhere

Several buffets this summer have featured baby back ribs. This is unusual. I have not seen baby back ribs at a buffet in a number of years. What are baby back ribs? These are pork ribs that are taken from the top of the rib cage from market weight but young hogs. These are not taken from adult hogs. There is meat between the bones and on top.

I summer I have tried baby back ribs at Shady Maple Smorgasbord in East Earle, PA, several Golden Corrals, Ryans, Old Country Buffet, and while they were not labeled "baby back ribs" but just "ribs" at Dutch-Way Family Restaurant in Gap, PA. Some were very good, some were OK and some were not so good at all.

I will start with what I consider the best and this I am sure is going to surprise many of you with this coming from me. The best have been at Old Country Buffet. These have been consistently good over several visits. The sauce is not too sweet and not overly applied. Additional sauce is available on the condiments counter. The meat was tender and has fallen completely off the bones. There was sufficient meat on each rib but not so much meat that it was no longer like a rib but a chunk of pork with a bone. These ribs kept me going back for more with little interest in any other entree on the buffet. The baby back ribs were a summer special feature every night and by the time you read this article they may no longer exist - at least for this year - at Old Country Buffets - or maybe not and they are still being served.

The second best were at Dutch-Family Restaurant in Gap, PA where they were on the buffet on two different visits on different nights. At Dutch-Way the menu changes nightly and you may go in and find or not find ribs. At Dutch-Way the ribs, as I said above, were just labeled "Ribs" and not baby back ribs but the size, bone, and meat were consistent with what baby backs are. Here the sauce is a tomato based sauce that is barbecue sauce but more like tomato sauce. It is not overly sweet and it was good. The pork was tender and also fell off the bone. Had OCB not come out with their ribs mid-summer, these would top the list. With Dutch-Way there is a good chance that you will find these ribs showing up on the buffet throughout the year, but do not expect them to be there on any particular night.

One would think that since Ryans is owned by Buffets, Inc. as OCB is, that the baby back ribs there would be the same as at OCB, but on the two occasions on different nights that I tried them at Ryans they were not as good. This may be the fault of the particular Ryans, though as Ryans Buffets go this particular location is pretty good. The sauce here was sweeter. The meat was drier and the ribs were over done.

The baby back ribs at Shady Maple Smorgasbord were as feature on the Fourth of July dinner buffet and having been back several times for dinner over the summer I did not see them again. These baby back ribs had the most meat on them and that was the problem. These were like eating a chunk of pork with a bone in it. Eventually, the bone did come away from the meat. The sauce was OK but sweet. I was thrilled to see this on the buffet but was disappointed when I got them. They were served from the grill. It is odd to complain about too much meat, but that is what I found as fault with these ribs.

The worst of the baby back ribs were the ones at Golden Corral and I tried them at four different Golden Corral restaurants. These ribs from restaurant to restaurant were consistently dry and overcooked to the point of crunchy where you could not tell if you were biting into meat or bone and when what came away was just as indistinguishable - burnt meat or burnt bone - neither of which was easily chewed or swallowed.  The baby back ribs were part of a summer feature of hot wings and baby back ribs. At one of the Golden Corrals they were being carved from the rack at the grill. At the others they were out on the buffet next to the grill in a tray. It did not matter how they were served. They were not good.

I am hoping that Old Country Buffet keeps the baby back ribs on the dinner buffet for a while longer - maybe even making them a regular on one particular night or more. OCB has served other ribs but these have always been like a pork roast sliced and served as ribs. What they call Country Ribs are not ribs at all and are hard to distinguish from what they just serve as pork. Those and the honey riblets are also overly sauced and excessively sweet. Nothing like the baby back ribs. If these are discontinued in the Fall, I very much hope that they make a come back again next summer!

Friday, September 13, 2013

DJ's International Buffet, Carle Place, Long Island, New York

It has been about three years since I have been to D.J.'s International Buffet located in Carle Place on Long Island in New York. This primarily Asian buffet is local to me but it is a lot more expensive than other Chinese buffets in this area. We used to come here more regularly. Now, this is one of the buffets that we save for a special occasion. We had such an occasion recently and had dinner at D.J.'s International Buffet on a Monday night.

Had we come on Sunday which was the day of our special occasion it diner would have cost us $25 each. We decided to wait until Monday night when the price is $18.99 per person. Soda is an additional $2 each. It was supposed to be Coke products and came from a Coke dispenser but it did not taste like Diet Coke.

The restaurant has been well maintained. The dining room and the buffet area have been nicely kept up. There has been an effort to keep this restaurant nice. There are two dining rooms that sit behind the buffet area which can be seen from the dining room through large doorways and windows. There is also a party room in the restaurant. There is a separate section that has a bar and nightclub and when something is happening in there it can be heard in the dining room. On this Monday night there was nothing going on there. There also were not a lot of people here - and this was mid-August. There were a few large groups and a few couples at tables along with us. Monday nights are not very busy in most restaurants.

The emphasis on the food served on the buffet has become much less on International and much more focused on Asian and in particular, Chinese. Gone are the Italian dishes and American dishes. On the weeknights there are crab legs but no lobster. At one time there was lobster served on the buffet and at the grill on weekends - I do not know if that is still served. A lot of seafood is served on the buffet and there are a number of dishes that are not found at the less expensive buffets. While my wife does not eat seafood, she had no problem finding plenty of dishes to choose from that had no seafood.

There is a large sushi bar here and there are sushi chefs (two) behind the sushi bar continually replenishing dishes. The sushi here is a cut above the other Chinese/Asian buffets in this area. The fish seemed fresher and there was a broad variety of types of fish - similar in some ways to the large Japanese sushi buffets - one of which is this buffet's competition (though there you will pay a lot more for dinner).

I am not going to list everything that we found. There are six large buffet servers with hot and cold foods in addition to the sushi bar, a raw bar, a grill, a soup bar, a dessert bar and a dessert crepe station.  They still serve lobster bisque which is good. It has been thicker at times here in the long past when I have had it but the taste was just as pleasing on this visit.

I tried the raw oysters and even a raw clam on the half shell. They were very fresh, cold and had a clean taste with no sand or pieces of shell. There is also peel and eat shrimp. There is someone behind the raw bar counter who shucks and replenishes.

The grill has several trays of items such as overly sauced spare ribs, skewered grilled beef, skewered shrimp, lobster balls, and tempura. There was a sign on the grill that said, we have steaks, ask us to grill one to order for you.  I decided to wait until I had sampled some of the Asian dishes before I came back to try a steak. I never did try a steak and I will tell you why. This restaurant is open until 10:00 pm on weeknights and they were still seating people at 9:30 pm when we were finishing. At about 9:00 when I was thinking about going up for a steak, I looked from our table through to the grill and there was the grill chef with a wet broom/brush cleaning the overhead vents over the grill and then moved down to the wall right behind and over the grill. I got up to take a closer look and he had large basin of soapy water on the fry grill and was cleaning the wall with the soapy water on the broom behind the char-grill. Whatever was dripping down from the wall and the overhead vent was coming down on the grill. So much for asking for a steak cooked on that grill. Even if he would do it - I now did not want it considering what was dripping down from the greasy wall and vent onto and into the grill. The restaurant had people in it dining and it was at least an hour to closing. Maybe he wanted to get home early but what he was doing would certainly been frowned upon by the Board of Health.

I tried a variety. The steamed flounder in ginger sauce was very good. It was a huge whole flounder. The sauce was very light. I prefer the thin sauce with more taste, but the fish was good.  The bones just peeled away. Do be aware that these whole fish still have the bones in them. You scooped a section of fish out of the tray from the whole fish for yourself. There was a "King" seafood roll that was mostly crab meat though I am not sure if it was real crab or mock "Krab" and it was rolled in a batter with crumbs and fried. This was good. The stuffed crab - a section of a rock crab that was stuffed with crabmeat was good.There were steamed crab legs that could have been hotter. These were partial clusters. They could have been hotter and took mine from a recently put out tray so they were not sitting long. When a crab leg is no longer hot or warm, it is harder to open and the meat will not come out of the shell without a struggle. These were just that way. There were small crab cakes that were not real crab meat. They were too dense, chewy, and did not have the texture of real crab cakes. I tried two different beef dishes - one was Chinese Steak served from the hot buffet and the other was grilled beef on skewers served at the grill. With both dishes the beef was tough and difficult to bite and chew. No matter how good they might have been, it was not worth trying to chew them. A dish called "seafood hot pot" was a mixture of steamed seafood including shrimp and vegetables. My wife liked the shrimp from this but she likes very plain dishes. I felt that the same shrimp when I tried this were tasteless. There was a stuffed scallop shell - a large shell that was covered in melted cheese. Inside there was a sweet milky sauce with little bits of what must have been chopped scallops and undercooked corn.

While there were not many people dining in the restaurant, there were too many dishes that were drying out on the buffet. Some needed some attention from the staff and some just needed to be taken away and replaced - which, of course, they never did. After a while no one will take from them to eat in this condition. 

There was a lot of hidden sugar in the dishes that were served here. Some dishes were sweet that did not need to be and I found after the meal that my blood glucose level was much higher than this meal elsewhere should have put it - so if you need to watch your glucose level (and those of you who do know that you do) then beware of eating here.

Desserts are a slight step above the usual little squared of commercial cake. There are still little squares of cakes but they are not what you usually find. There is hard, scoop yourself ice cream. There is a large assortment of fresh fruits and also - still remaining from the old days at this buffet - creme caramel (egg custard with a thin caramel sauce). There are large signs at the dessert bar that say if you take any dessert out the door you will be charged for it at the per pound take out rate. The same sign was at the ice cream case and said if you walk out with an ice cream cone you will be charged $5 for it.

The meal was OK. The atmosphere was nice. The bill came to $50 for two including soda, tax and tip. This is a lot for a weeknight dinner at a buffet - particularly in this area. It is less than the big Japanese seafood buffet nearby. For us it is something that will be reserved for special occasions, but I have to admit that I have enjoyed much less expensive buffet meals a lot more - around here and in our travels. Perhaps on a busier night - which means a weekend night and another $6 per person coming to about $75 for the meal for two - the food may have been better tended and the selection may have included more. I have to say that many buffets push off Krab (fake crab) as real crabmeat but at this price that is really wrong. If I had a star system to rate buffets this would get a 3 out of 5, which is right in the middle - neither great or bad. They are missing a lot of what there was back in 2010 when I was last there.

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 no website.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Shady Maple at the Height of Tourist Seaon

We were at Shady Maple Smorgasbord, in East Earle, PA at the end of July on a Saturday night - and this is a Saturday night at the height of the summer tourist season in Lancaster, PA. I love Shady Maple, but I have to say that I love it much more when it is not overwhelmingly crowded with tourists.

There is usually some line and wait to get in and be seated but there were more people here on this night than there were on the Fourth of July when we had been there before this. And so many people that were here were on this night must never have been to a buffet before. And given the many places that people come from to visit this area and those that dine at Shady Maple - on this night some of the rudest people found there way here. To avoid waiting on the longest line, we opted to wait on a shorter line and sit at a booth. We very much always prefer to sit at a table no mater where we are dining. Well, the booth was fine but there was a man in the booth behind us that had to keep his arm over the back of the booth and next to me sitting there the whole time he was there (and there was absolutely nothing wrong with his arm). I am not sure how he could eat without this arm - though he did not seem to be doing much of that. Going around to the buffet servers was pretty much an exercise in avoiding those who wandered aimlessly perhaps in a daze from all the good food around them and those who had to line up cafeteria style at the end of one of the very long counters with the idea that everyone will just follow behind them as they go along tray by tray as they come. No - a buffet is not a cafeteria. You walk up to a tray, wait your turn if someone is there, and then take what you want and move to another part of the buffet and do the same.  Oh and the "plate pilers" - the ones that start filling the plate from the bottom up and keep stacking everything that they are going to eat until it is a foot high - they were all around on this night. One guy had a plate stacked high and from what I could see the foundation was potato salad and covering that for several inches was mashed potatoes. Another had a soup bowl of soup balanced on the edge next to the steak. It is really sad that people come to a buffet and forget that it is going to be there all night (at this buffet there is no doubt about that) and that you can take some and eat it like a person and come back and take another course or some more. Oh, and then there were the "touchers" - at the dessert area - who had to touch every piece of cake and pie that was out - picking the plate up, looking at it, and then putting it back.  And the guy as he is being seated who is saying loudly to the people he is with - "Do you think they will give us styrofoam containers so we can take it home with us?"

So what did I have? I have written about Shady Maple and its good food so much that it is a given that I will tell you about good things to be found at Shady Maple - at any time of the year. Well, even during tourist season this buffet shines like the brightest star. One of my favorite Shady Maple soups was on the buffet - Maryland Crab. This is a red tomato based crab soup with plenty of REAL crabmeat in it.

 I did something on this night I don't usually do. I ate mostly what was on the grills with little from the buffet tables. I have been to Shady Maple many times but I have not been there (not sure how) when they were serving their own Shady Maple made country sausage on the grill. This was wonderful and I went back several times for more - taking just one at a time. There was New York Strip Steak on the chargrill and while I prefer the Delmonico they also serve on Monday nights, I had a NY Strip. It is not my favorite cut of steak but the lady behind the grill had one rare and it was pretty good! There was also kielbasa on the grill and I have not had that before at Shady Maple. That was pretty good also but the country sausage was a winner for me on this night and that was the main focus of this meal.  I did take a few things from the buffet servers as side dishes but the only thing entree item I took from there was the cod cakes - which were not like the cod cakes that I had here on my last visit that were called Portuguese cod cakes and were made on the grill iron. Those were spicy. These were not spicy and very tasty. 

Service was excellent as always. The servers here are top notch!

You already know that I am going to say that the food and the meal itself was excellent - and it was. It was just the tourists - the buffet noobies - that I, for one, would rather avoid. Well, if you want an excellent meal in Lancaster County in the middle of the summer you have to put up with this almost everywhere - especially on a Saturday night!

Please take note - I am not mentioning prices because prices change but at Shady Maple always be aware that the  price listed is the price you pay in total at the register and it includes a pre-added tip and the local sales tax. It may look high but it already includes what would usually be added on top. There is always value here for your money and compared to other buffets and the overwhelming amount of good food you are offered here it is well worth the price!

Shady Maple is open from Monday to Saturday until 8:00 pm. They are closed on Sundays and certain holidays. Shady Maple Smorgasbord is located at 129 Toddy Drive in East Earl, PA. Take Route 23 East from Lancaster or Route 322 South to get to the restaurant. (Put the name in your GPS and it will know it.) The phone numbers are 1-800-238-7363 and 717-354-8222.  There is a website and it is listed at the side of this page.There is also a very active Facebook page!