Friday, September 23, 2016

Shady Maple - Lancaster, PA

We don't go to Shady Maple Smorgasbord as often as we used to. Not because it is not as good as it was, but because our trips to that area have been in the middle of tourist season. I cannot fault a buffet for the people who dine there, but when the tourists descend on Shady Maple, it can be overwhelming. And the problem is so many who have not been there before who are there are overwhelmed.

We went on a Monday night in August. We arrived for dinner and found a busy parking lot, but not as much of a line as one might expect when going to Shady Maple. Once past the cashiers, there were the usual two lines to be seated. The one nearest the cash registers leads to the front area of dining booths. We prefer to sit at a table with chairs so we always head to the side. It has been awhile since I have seen the side dining rooms being used but they were busy. The center dining room was full but we were found a table near the front which is what we prefer. But even on line I was surrounded by first timers.  Once at the table we were even more surrounded and once inside the area of the buffet serving tables there was a mass of people who could not get the idea of just not standing in the middle of the aisles, but walking along the serving tables to find what they would like to eat. And these are not kids - these are adults in all age ranges.  I always tell people that Shady Maple is an experience and perhaps this is part of the experience.

There is a lot to eat at Shady Maple - they now say that they have over 200 feet of serving tables which is certainly true but it seems like more. I am not sure if they are including the space around the three grill areas. I understand that this can be overwhelming. What I realized on this visit is that some of the PA Dutch dishes that were on the buffet as standards in the past were not there and this was disappointing. I am there to eat Amish or PA Dutch. The rest is nice too but not what I come to Lancaster for.  We also found that where there had been two sections of four different soups in each of those sections, now had less soups and  their space was now trays of hot wings. I am sure that they are gearing their selections to the types of people who are coming - and in the summer perhaps they feel that this is what their customers are looking for - which I am not looking for. My picky eater wife (remember her?) has been disappointed in the past few visits because she does not like change and some of the dishes that she would go for have been changed. She notes the sliced beef is now chunks of beef in brown gravy, sliced ham that was not topped now has a thick pineapple sauce poured over it, and the slices of turkey breast she insists is now a different turkey.

And then there are the other dinners who are very obviously not locals and who just stop and stare, the ones who stand at the buffet trays and eat what they have put on their plates, and the ones who pile their plates so high that what is under the pile is no longer recognizable. There were two businessmen sitting at the table next to us - from their conversation they had never been there before. It appeared that they were up to the point of their meal for dessert and then one came back with a steak and a plate of food, along with a plate of cake covered in ice cream. I so much wanted to lean over toward their table and say to him, "You do know that you can go back and get more and you don't have to bring it all at the same time?" I just sat quietly and watched. Perhaps steak and ice cream is a good combination. This is not the first time I have seen someone eat the two together at a buffet. They also had to make a big show of handing the woman who was assigned to their table to take their dishes away a large tip. They were upset that the ticket that goes on your table to show it is occupied says "No Tipping". This is not to be unfair to their employees - the tip is included when you pay for your meal going into the buffet. It is shown on your receipt as the tip. I know that as I get older I am getting less and less tolerant of things going on around me - but this type of thing has kept me away from Shady Maple.

Now I am not saying that you should not go. Absolutely go to Shady Maple - but if you can avoid the summer months you will have a more relaxing experience. It is still a top buffet - one of our Top Buffets in 2015 and has been consistently on the Best and Top list for years. The food is very good. The service is very good. The value and quality is still there. There really is no other buffet like it - and I guess that gets around. During the summer I go more to where the locals go with fewer tourists. We went on this occasion because I was missing dining at Shady Maple - and I knew what to expect there on an August night.

Shady Maple Smorgasbord is located at 129 Toddy Drive in East Earl, PA. Take Route 23 East or Route 322 South to get to the restaurant. There is lots of parking (free, of course). 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. Like most other local buffets and restaurants in Lancaster County, Shady Maple is closed on Sundays - and some holidays, but not all. Dinner ends at 8:00 pm.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Grilling a Steak - An Article for the Buffet Grill Chefs

This is an article that will be appreciated by our buffet goer readers and is written for the information of all those buffet cooks that are cooking/grilling steak.  I like steak. I wish that I could afford to go to a great steak house and pay what they want for a "great" steak but somehow I know that it will not be cooked much better than the steaks that I get at buffets for a small fraction of the price. When a buffet has steak on the grill I will try it. More often than not I am disappointed and my disappointment lies in how it was cooked even when it is cooked to order. I suppose that those of you who like their steaks well done are never disappointed. I like my steak rare. I don't mind a steak medium rare. The problem is a steak at many of the buffets will go from raw straight to well done.

Now, the grill chef will often cut the steak when you order it a certain way and look at it and then decide for himself or even show it to you - from a distance so that you cannot really see what he/she is showing you and then plump it down upon your plate. Back at your table you look down at what is going to be a great steak and cut into it and if you ordered that steak rare, you will find totally raw meat inside or a well done steak. A problem contributing to this is that most steaks cooked in buffets are a thickness of 1/4" or less. The one buffet where the steak is a thick steak (which also can contribute to its doneness) is Golden Corral.

Here is what I have experienced lately - in some buffets that are excellent in other ways. I ask for a steak (where you can ask) "rare" and the steak goes down on the grill - whether a flat iron grill or a flame grill -  and sits for half a minute on each side - no iron plate on top - and what you have is a grey outside and totally raw meat inside.  That is how you get it. So the next time you ask for a steak "rare but not raw", and the steak goes down on the grill and after a minute or less, an iron weight goes down on the steak. With a quarter inch thick steak that iron weight is going to multiply the heat going into that steak and turn it to medium well within two minutes - and they leave it there cooking. That steak will be well done by the time it goes onto your plate (or by the time that you get your plate to the table as the heat in the meat keeps cooking it). Where I consistently get steaks with actually raw meat inside, I will try asking for "medium rare" with hopes that raw then goes to actual rare - but no, medium rare translates to medium or well done - the rare part not heard of ignored.

At Golden Corral they also have this problem - even though the steak is an inch thick or more. Rare means raw or rare means grey on the inside. On a few occasions, I actually got a properly cooked rare steak at a Golden Corral. I should add that I pretty consistently got a properly cooked rare steak at one particular Ryan's in Fredericksburg, Virginia (Now Closed) where the grill chefs knew exactly hot to cook a rare steak and got it perfect almost every time. That Ryan's - even though about 500 miles away is very much missed! 

I like my steak crispy - even flame burnt (on a flame grill) - on the outside and red in the center. That is what a rare steak is supposed to be.

Let's look at what the designations are supposed to be - and I actually saw these on a menu once (not at a buffet but also not at a steak house) on how to order your steak.

RARE - cool, red and soft on the inside, crisped on the outside. NOT RAW!

MEDIUM RARE - warm, red, and a little firmer on the inside, crisped on the outside.

MEDIUM - pink on the inside with firm meat and crisped on the outside.

MEDIUM WELL - hot and slightly pink in the very center and crispy on the outside.

WELL - grey/brown completely on the inside and very firm meat with a very crispy outside.

INCINERATED - not a professional term and good steak restaurants will refuse to serve steak this way but it is burnt throughout with a charcoal exterior. (If you are in a charcoal crunchy mood and the steak has a decent amount of fat on it, this is not bad. As I found out when given one like this when it was supposed to be "medium rare" - rather crunchy - but not something you want to eat much of.)

Chefs - if you are working in the position of grill chef, if you are not cooking steaks like these when someone asks for one of these designations, you should not be in that job. Either you don't care or you don't know what you are doing. Unfortunately, sometimes I am sure it is because you just don't care. I know that you want to throw steaks on the grill, cook them through, and stake them up on the side of the grill where they may or may not stay hot and just serve them off from there. At grills where you are to be cooking to order - as some of these buffets state to their customers - then you need to be able to put a steak on when asked for and cook it to properly rare, medium rare or medium. Beyond that is where your pile of steaks fall. I and others are willing to wait. I will stand on the side and not rush you. I just don't want you to forget that my steak is being cooked and requires some of your attention until it is ready to put on my plate. I don't want to be made to feel that my order is not as important as anyone's. I paid the same price coming in.

Now the cuts of meat that are being used is another story all together and even in some of my favorite buffets that serve steak, I have had too many steaks that one cannot chew. I am also certain that you are slicing beef that should be a roast and cooking it as steak - which it is not.  I assume that is a question of economics - and you are not getting even decent cuts of meat. But we will leave that for mention about those buffets in their own articles.