Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bulldozing the Buffet

One of my favourite pastimes is to take my wife to a buffet dinner at a five star hotel. I love buffets but I don’t do it too often otherwise the novelty runs out rather quickly. Read in one breath: “Going to a buffet to us is more than just stuffing ourselves silly with the most expensive perceived food items in the shortest time possible to stretch the maximum value of our hard earned dollar.” Does it sound like how we would eat in a buffet? Sadly that is the mindset of many people who go to a buffet. I must say that many of the buffets offered by five star hotels have seen tremendous improvement in taste, presentation, quality and variety. Engaging professional designers and specialists for customized concepts, most buffet lines now are stunningly spectacular yet practical in operation. Example, Melt Café @ The Oriental, Straits Kitchen @ The Grand Hyatt, Cafebiz @ Traders Hotel, Vibes @ Negara Hotel, Greenhouse @ The Ritz Carlton, Aquamarine @ The Marina Mandarin, Square @ The Novotel Clarke Quay, The Line @ Shangri La Hotel, Elements @ Amara Hotel

Eating involves our five senses and the first thing is presentations which tells our mind whether we should check out this item offered or just skip to go to the next one. Cold food displays are now presented in smaller portions with more finesse. Rather than sending the food out in big sliver trays and huge porcelain bowls with the same tired looking display artifacts, foods are now plated or presented in smaller portions with natural edible garnishes on free spirited designed containers that delivers elegance and sophistication in perceptions. More on spot cooking stations are incorporated into the buffet lines to provide bigger varieties of food that is freshly prepared. This creates aromas which not only entices the diners, watching the Chefs prepare food in the different live cooking stations is somewhat also a kind of showmanship that provides a little entertainment to the whole experience of eating in a buffet line. The fun is further added on in some buffet lines where customers can also prepare their own salads, simple desserts like shaved ice with syrups, condiments and the now raging trendy chocolate fountains
With food presented in smaller portions and more live cooking stations; these factors have help to improve the overall taste of the food served in a buffet. Many customers will perceive this as an important factor in quality measure of a buffet. The varieties of dishes have also invariably expanded in buffet lines and their respective stations. The buffet line presents more different types of cuisines now but instead of having all items in a single line, the dishes are separated by their ethnic roots or cuisine regions in different stations that come with different kinds of culture decor and display according to the cuisine in focus. Customers demand to see less processed foods in the line, expecting more in variety, freshness and quality.

Inevitably, along with vast improvements in food standards, the dinning room and menu prices have also changed. Many hotels keep the market competitive by constantly innovating and renovating their menus. It is true that prices have also gone up but with greater customer expectations and demand due to affluence, it is no doubt justifiable. Most of the buffet dinning rooms have been given a makeover to accommodate new menus as well as a change of ambience that keeps regular customers interested.

So with all that can be done to improve the standards of buffet dinning in Singapore, is the picture really completed? Not really. The average Singaporean mindset about buffet has still not changed despite being more educated, traveled and exposed. We will always have a streak of “Kiasuism”(scared of losing out) in our blood that turns us into ugly monsters when we hit the lines showing no respect for food, other dinning guests in the line nor the people who have worked hard to put everything together in front of us. We dig, pick and flip to find choicest cuts and pieces, leaving a trail of mess and irreversible destruction to others behind us. We take more than what we can finish and stuff ourselves silly in fear of that there would be no more replenishment which in the case of good buffet restaurants should never be so as the customer is entitled to tasting everything on the line. When we turn up in groups, we operate like organized crime dispatching runners to every corner loading up plates of food assuming that everyone in the group has the same taste buds. When regrouped, we share the bounty on the table and while keeping one eye on the replenishments coming out of the kitchen in anticipation of a second raid. Ask most tour operators what they observe most when they take Singaporeans out to overseas trips and many of them will tell you that we turn into a pack of hyenas when we hit the daily breakfast buffet lines.

The buffet dinning concept was invented as a new way of dinning when restaurants faced severe shortage in labour. The concept allows the restaurant to continue to operate efficiently with labour shortage as customers serve themselves with food from the buffet line while the service staffs focus on clearing up and reorganizing tables. From the customer’s angle, the buffet allows the individual to sample a wider variety of food at a fixed price. Of course the servings are unlimited but one should also respect the concept and never eat like a pig. In fact, there are some “rules” about the buffet that one can consider to make the experience more pleasant.

Arrive early and on time when the buffet starts. Give yourself time to sit down and relax before hitting the starters. Check if there are complementary beverages with the buffet price package. Most buffets provide unlimited free flow of flavoured hot teas and regular coffees. Some will also throw in a glass of fruit punch or a welcome drink. So why not have something else for a change other than just plain water?

As there are multiple cuisines in every course of the meal, take your time to enjoy the food slowly. Avoid using the same plate for the different types of food. I can’t understand how people can pile Curry Chicken with Sushi and Spaghetti Bolognese plus fresh fruit together. I love to use those little condiment saucers and dessert bowls to keep foods with sauces separated so that flavours do not get confused. I avoid having different cuisines on the same plate and even when I am choosing for example a variety of Thai starters, I will keep the salads separated from each other and the dips using the little bowls and saucers provided. Anyway since paying for service charge is mandatory, I might as well use an extra bowl or two so that I can have a better idea of what I am putting in my mouth than a mess up of flavours.

Each time when I go back to the line, I will never pile my plate high with food. Sometimes people are just plain greedy and or lazy so everything from head to toe in the line gets onto the same plate. I rather walk a few more times which is also a good way to get some light exercise and browse the spread more thoroughly. More interesting to me is to play with food from the line. When I go for soups, I try to look for additional garnishes and condiments to go with it. For example, when I am given a plain creamy corn and crabmeat chowder or a tomato soup, why not get a prawn or two or even half a baby lobster from the raw bar, have it peeled and put into the soup? Get some chopped spring onions or coriander leaves from any of the live cooking stations for your garnish and pick up a nice slice of country style bread from the cheese display to compliment the whole experience.

When I hit the main courses, I will also try to put some of the items together as a pairing. If there is a grill station with steaks and another with a nice mushroom ragout sitting on the line, why not top the steak up with the wonderful mushrooms and some roasted or sautéed potatoes on the side instead of the usual boring mustard from the jar? If the sauce comes with the meat/seafood, look for a neutral vegetable dish to go with it. Better still, make a simple combination of salad leaves with semi dried tomatoes and get a piece of freshly grilled steak or seafood to go with it. I am sure u can find a selection of dressings to complete the whole ensemble if not just a squeeze of lemon and olive oil will do the job.

For desserts, take a good fifteen to 20 minutes break before going for it. This is a much needed rest to allow our stomachs to digest what we have eaten earlier. If you are a cheese lover, it is a must to check it out as it is not easy to get such a wide selection on a regular cheeseboard order. Be sure to pull some grapes from the fruit selection if they are not provided with the cheese board.

Forget about the over hyped chocolate fountain. If you want to stretch the value of your dollar further, take on desserts that need to be handcrafted. Cakes and Gateaux are such examples and plated petit portions are also worth sampling. Most Nonya Kuehs are supplied by caterers so it’s not worth for it. Look for ice cream flavours that tells us that it is most likely home made. Exotic flavours like Ginger, Cinnamon, Chendol, Chestnuts, Green Tea and Vanilla with black specks indicate that the ice creams are made in the in house pastry kitchen. These are the ones that we should try and look for freshly made waffles, soufflés, cookies and chocolates to go with it in the dessert stations.

As you sit down to enjoy your desserts, do not forget to order your complimentary tea and coffee to go with your selections. If you still have space after that, maybe u can still consider the chocolate fountain.

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