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April 17, 2006

Things That Make Dom Cry

On Sunday, I had one of the most disturbing culinary experiences in recent memory.

I know many a foodie who insist that buffets are universally horrible. I say bah. It's true, putting a large tray of something out for picking takes the focus off small-scale quality and puts it on large-scale quantity. And it's pretty much a given that almost anything you have from a buffet isn't going to be as good as if it were prepared for you a la carte. But that said, I've been to some phenomenal buffets. The Thanksgiving buffet at the Four Seasons Los Angeles in Beverly Hills was awesome. If we're in Hong Kong on a Sunday, we'll usually partake of the buffet brunch at the Conrad Hotel. Delicious food, comfy surroundings, great care on the part of the staff not to let anything languish... models for what buffets should be.

Yesterday, we were invited to another hotel buffet. While the Wyndham Hotel in Itasca, Illinois doesn't quite have the cache of the other two I've mentioned, it was Easter, it was family, and hey... how bad could it be, right?

Wellllll, I knew we were in trouble the moment we stepped in the door and were greeted by two enormous lines, one labeled A-L and the other labeled M-Z. The next thing we saw was a disturbing 12 foot Easter bunny constructed entirely of white and pink balloons. As we would later discover, he was one of four such monstrosities strewn throughout the area. There was an area to have a professional photographer take your Easter family photo, there were wandering clowns and magicians, there was a movie theater where you could take a break from the feasting to watch The Incredibles, and there were a number of strolling musicians playing selections such as "That's Amore" and the theme from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast". You might get the impression, thus far, that this was a large production. Let me just say that the Wyndham in Itasca is a large atrium hotel, and nearly the entire ground floor was taken up by the Easter buffet. I don't just mean the atrium. I mean the atrium, conference rooms, ballrooms... everything but the front desk and restrooms. The number of seats had to be well into four digits. Now, there are many levels at which I could potentially appreciate such an epic event, not the least of which is ironic, but I think that said appreciation is predicated upon there being something at least semi-palatable hanging around. It is, after all, a buffet brunch. But really... when the best item at the buffet is the chafing dish at the kids' table full of soggy tater tots, it isn't a good scene.

At the breakfast area, there was leathery bacon and rock-hard biscuits with gravy that I'm certain could be used to layer bricks. A little further down the line, there were three consecutive meat dishes that had been overdone and oversauced to the point that the nature of the beast was completely unidentifiable. Whole poached salmon is pretty fool-proof, but despite the fact that there was a large, flat utensil present for cutting away large pieces, the crowd had evidently decided that the spiky tongs intended for the vegetable accompaniments were more appropriate, and our majestic piscine friend had been reduced to a pile of shredded salmon carnage, his cold, dead eyes pleading "Why, oh why couldn't I have ended up in the hands of a respectful sushi chef?!?"

The omelet station didn't look too bad.

Over at the carved meats station, there were enormous lamb shoulders that were apparently subjected to volcanic heat for weeks to ensure that they were well-well-reallywell-done and bone dry right down to the core. The ham had clearly been sitting in a saline bath since last Easter. The pasta bar... good god, the pasta bar... nothing makes my heart cry like enormous piles of cold, par-cooked pasta... your choice of shape... waiting to be tossed in a skillet for a few seconds with a couple ladlefuls of marinara or alfredo sauce. And the crowning touch... "a microepidemiologist's dream", as my doctorwife put it... a huge pile of the nastiest, greyest, slimiest, sludgiest most deadly-looking raw oysters I've ever seen. They didn't even bother with the pretense of ice, almost as if to say, "go on... we dare you." A five pound sack of iocaine powder could only dream of the killing potential of that pile of ex-bivalves. I saw a woman walking by with a huge plateful of them and quietly hummed Taps to myself.

So I guess there are two things to be learned from this experience. For all of you, the moral of the story is that if this is what you expect from holiday buffets, trust me... there are wonderful ones out there. For me, the moral of the story is that whenever my extended family is planning a culinary outing, much as I love them, I need to be sure that I'm the one making the plans.


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