The all-you-can-eat buffet is a curious animal. Almost an equivalent of the popular Sunday carvery – but without the vast sweaty bird – the nature of the buffet system is to prioritise quantity over quality.
In places like Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth where you have huge crowds of hungry diners all day, every day, this could be a reasonable business model. But in a quiet, traditional seaside town it’s a courageous enterprise. The opening of Planet Buffet in Shanklin’s High Street this summer was just such a venture – offering dozens of dishes from around the world, all at one price. It’s a similar setup to the Asia Fusion restaurant which is an established feature in the former Lake Working Men’s Club; when Matt and Cat visited they were favourably impressed. Would Planet Buffet prove to be a similar success? Matt rounded up one hungry teenager, and Cat enlisted an enthusiastic colleague, thus a party of four set out to put Planet Buffet to the test.
The former Siam Pearl restaurant is a striking building, with a mock-mediaeval early twentieth style that is unusual on the Island. Big leaded-glass windows and an impressive manorial staircase give a banqueting hall feel to the venue, which Planet Buffet has matched with heavy dark wooden furniture and classy linen napkins. Entering the half-timbered entrance, a polite waiter immediately greeted the party and showed them to their seats, explaining in detail how the buffet worked, and pointing out some of the dishes on offer which were all laid out at one side of the room, ready for investigation.
Buffet dinner, 2 @ £14.50
Sparkling water £2.75
Less 20% discount for IWCP voucher -£6.94
The Planet Buffet flyer made lavish promises about the wide variety of food on offer. “Each cuisine boasts its own dedicated chef who likes to dazzle the diners with live and flamboyant cooking”, it claimed boldly, adding “It truly is a food-lover’s heaven”. With promises like that, it wasn’t long before each in the party had grabbed their plate and peered under the bain-marie covers to see what they could find. Planet Buffet hadn’t misled when it came to variety. Indian, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Mexican, and Thai food were all represented, with a token item from Japan labelled intriguingly ‘Imitation Salmon Ball’. The English fare was reminiscent of Iceland – the shop not the nation. A selection of dry oven-baked morsels sat under searing heat lamps – themselves perhaps a metaphor for the blazing scorn of every other country who unfairly condemns our national cuisine as bland and unimaginative.
There was little sign of the team of dedicated chefs – presumably at least eight of them, one for each cuisine. Maybe they were out the back dazzling somebody by “whizzing up a stir fry” or “swirling pizza dough in the air” as the flyer enthusiastically suggested.
The food was, in the main, surprisingly good. It was all pretty hot, the dishes were regularly replenished and there was a reasonable representation of various nations’ dishes. Between them the party returned to the buffet thirteen times, trying the different dishes sometimes more out of curiosity than hunger. Cat volunteered to try the imitation salmon ball; cutting it open she was reminded of the marbled bouncy powerballs of her childhood. It probably didn’t do the Japanese chef justice.
All agreed that the strongest suit of the kitchen was most definitely Indian – despite a blackened saag bhaji that was the temperature and texture of lava. Matt had a passable lamb rogan josh, and Cat had a spoonful of chicken tikka masala that she liked a lot – so much so that she went back for more. Another highlight was a decent beef hotpot that was hopefully described as ‘Spanish stew’. The bains marie were perfect for keeping the stews and Thai and Indian curries hot, but other dishes hadn’t aged gracefully – fried noodles really don’t keep for long before they turn into an accident in an elastic band factory. The Italian spaghetti carbonara looked a great deal like penne with minced beef. And it’s probably kindest not to mention the English range any more.
Matt and Cat could pick through the dishes and critique each of them in turn but, as the menu is not set that may not be particularly helpful. The elephant in the room about buffet versus carvery is the fact that only with the latter is the dish is assembled from complementary components to create a recognisable dinner. Have you ever seen a child playing at cooking? They’ll get a doll, a teddy and a toy car and seat them around a table and serve them some freshly-picked grass, a portion of plastic fruit and a scattering of different coloured Lego bricks on a page torn out of a colouring book. In a similar way the buffet allows you to mix and match; a bit of spicy fajita there, a dollop of Thai curry and pasta there. The resulting plate may contain what the trendies call a food fusion but do you really want to have rogan josh with olives and salad cream? Mind, if you do, you’ve only got yourself to blame.
Desserts were even more random. Front and centre was a chocolate fountain. Yes, a real, massive fountain of chocolate. There was fresh fruit and marshmallows with sticks, and without a doubt it really was fun to dip the morsels in the chocolate. In a chiller cabinet were some curious things. Rice pudding, Swiss roll, some extruded stuff that could have been cream, and a ‘carrot pudding’ that looked a lot like cold swede. The carrot pudding turned out to be very nice indeed – if it had been presented in a more appetising way people would probably get used to eating it.
The service was pretty keen; empty plates were whisked away and fresh ones regularly provided. When the bill came there was a bit of a commotion when it turned out that Matt and Cat’s companion had been charged £2.75 for a small bottle of sparkling water. Ouch. Otherwise, the fixed price deal seemed to be as expected. You pay your £14.50 and eat as much as you like. Some of it is excellent, some of it is less so, and some of it is frankly incomprehensible.
Within a week, Matt and Cat took a family party to a slap-up carvery at the Ponda Rosa for only £10.50 a head, and couldn’t help but draw a contrast with Shanklin’s all-you-can-eat buffet. The carvery is cheaper, the food is better and more consistent; but there were no international novelty dishes and you only get to go around once.
At Planet Buffet the chaps in the party were willing to refill their plates repeatedly – good value for them indeed. However, it’s all a bit subjective. Picky Cat was not so enamoured; the concept of all you can eat is of no interest to her. She’d rather have something small and of quality. So, dear reader, the camp you fall into will help you decide whether or not Planet Buffet is for you.
- A wide choice
- A striking venue
- Keen service
- Some very strange foods on offer
- Not that keenly priced
- Wildly optimistic publicity