The appeal of a buffet is rather obvious. It’s that notion of having no limits. No limits, unlimited, all you want—all you can eat. Human beings respond to the notion of no limits very positively.
And yet…about 99% of the buffets I’ve encountered are pretty bad. Food is either dried out horribly (such as chicken, or the surface of sushi rolls), is overcooked (such as…chicken again, or fish), or smothered in an insulating blanket of sauce that effectively chokes out any kind of real flavor.
Foods that fare well on a buffet counter: most desserts if they are prepared well to start with. After all, most of the time a pie or a cake does stand around for a bit and is eaten at room temperature or slightly cooler. Ice cream can stand around for hours at the right temperatures. Soups can be okay too, since soup is generally better the longer it’s cooked. Stew type dishes are the same thing.
But you know the glamor items on a buffet - the “all you can eat” shrimp, the “fresh crab legs”…the sushi. Shrimp that’s been boiled then left to sit for a while on a bed of ice has generally leeched all its flavor into the ice, and as for those “fresh” crab legs, they are so watery as to be despicable unless the mere act of cracking open those hard shells appeals to you. As for sushi…well, I am even sceptical of those conveyor-belt sushis, and usually buffet sushi has been sitting around for a lot longer time than the conveyor-belt variety.
So, what’s a good buffet, if there is such a thing? The really good ones I’ve been to are the great cheap Indian lunch buffets one can encounter in big cities (and similar spicy-saucy cuisine buffets, such as Thai). Breakfast buffets can be okay too, especially the ones offered at many smaller hotels in Europe, with a small but adequate selection of bread, cereals, cold cuts and the like. Of the more general kind, any buffet that has an extremely fast turnover of items can be okay. Such buffets are rare though.
The other issue is—do you really eat that much at a buffet? Food, any food, is the best at first tasting, the first mouthful. After that, only the most extraordinary food gets better. With buffet food, the first mouthful, or the first plateful, maybe okay. After that, it’s a matter of loosening the belt and going determinedly back to the lines with the idea that you have to get your money’s worth. At least, that’s what it seems like to me.
The very concept of the buffet seems very American to me somehow, though I do know that the “all you can eat” smorgasbord originated in Scandinavia (and, a real smorgasbord can be a fun experience indeed, especially if you love smoked fish). Lining up at a stainless steel counter, staring at flourescent-lit food. It’s a rather lonely feeling, especially when you’re on the road on your own. It’s “fressen”, not “essen”. Feeding, not dining.