Alice Eats: Grand Buffet
66 Pearl Street, Essex Junction 802-879-9669
It's no secret that we live in a culture of irony. Everyone knows that entertainment has become little more than a wink and a nudge these days. Just turn on the Cartoon Network. Fewer pundits have addressed irony in food.
Oh, it's there. Thousands of websites are devoted to it. Cake Wrecks blogs embarrassing birthday and bachelorette pastries every day. This Is Why You're Fat tweets peeks at excessive culinary creations several times a day.
This outlook is helpful with a job like mine. It's better to be amused than angry at quirky service or food that is just plain weird. My visit to Grand Buffet last night was a powerful exercise in ironic eating. World, let me introduce you to "hot dog fried chicken" (right).
I've seen all sorts of chicken roulades, but this creation is new. I also never expected to find it at a Chinese buffet. But with three room-spanning buffet tables filled with more than 80 dishes, Grand Buffet offers plenty of surprises. None, of course, can compare with the bizarre splendor of slightly rubbery chicken thighs stuffed with a bisected frankfurter, then coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried.
I arrived at Grand Buffet and was immediately led to my table by one of the half dozen or so young ladies dressed in bright red qipao-style tops. She instructed me to head right up to the buffet. I started the meal with soup. Wonton, hot and sour and egg drop were all available for the ladling. I chose wonton, which had a few whole sticks of celery floating therein. Wontons were in a steamer next to the soups. They looked dry and were laid across a layer of lettuce that I imagine left this mortal coil early last week. The dumpling skin woke up once in the broth, which had a canned, though not unpleasant, taste, aided by the fresh celery.
The layout of dishes was not always particularly intuitive. Beautifully vivid crawfish with chilis sat across from kiwis and homemade cheesecake (above right). Most chicken dishes were together, though, and I tried most of them at once (right). I had my concerns about the dry-looking skewer of chicken teriyaki, but was pleasantly surprised. It was lightly sweet, with a taste of rice wine, and moist on the inside. Flaming red Hong Kong chicken was also surprisingly subtle compared to the puckeringly saccharine versions I've had elsewhere. Honey chicken, however, fit its name and was almost inedibly sweet. Strangely, my favorite chicken dish was a simple wing. The meaty drumette had been lightly marinated and coated in cornstarch. It burst with moisture, and stayed admirably crispy while waiting for me on the steam table.
Chinese classics are not a strong suit at Grand Buffet. Vegetable lo mein tasted wholly neutral. Pork fried rice wasn't much better. The meat therein was greasy and tasted of the same.
I found the back table at Grand Buffet particularly curious in its global reach. I knew I risked having my head in the toilet the next day, but I tried a tuna finger roll and a spicy take on a California roll. On the outside, the fish was slightly dry and rubbery, but inside, it tasted just fine, if a tad mushy. Nothing to write home about, but compared to the pallid lettuce and tomatoes on the salad bar, this was the better light option.
Next to the sushi was an "American" section. I was slightly unnerved by the massive beef roast sitting with a carving knife in a pool of grease and labeled "Steak." The center, however, was nicely pink and tender to slice. It had a mysterious taste of green peppers, but was otherwise better than I had feared. The green-pepper thing was a pervading theme at Grand Buffet. Salt-and-pepper chicken had the same flavor. So did the too-dry grilled chicken. It took me only one bite of the cheese-topped creamed spinach to know "American" is not the restaurant's forte.
Dessert, on the other hand (right), was interesting. Next to the crawfish, I found longans and loquats along with the canned peaches and fresh grapes so large that I initially thought they were plums. Banana slices in what looked like strawberry sauce somehow tasted like artificial banana, but I liked them. The red, chunky sauce was also perfect for dipping the fluffy, sugar-covered, fried "biscuit" that I found between a couple of seafood dishes.
I was excited to see almond cookies very much like the ones I found in Chinese groceries as a kid. They were chewy instead of the crumbly texture I remembered, but I was happy to find them nonetheless. It was also fun to try the "homemade rice cakes." The day-glo pink and white slices of gelatinous dessert tasted of almond and were unlike anything I've ever found in Vermont.
There was a dignity to the desserts at Grand Buffet that the rest of the meal lacked. I think the owners might be smart to add more authentic Chinese dishes, so diners could discover unique treats throughout the meal and not just at the end. Until then, I'll still likely return — for irony's sake.