Welcome to Glutton for Nourishment, a new feature in which Gut Check descends upon area buffets in our finest drawstring sweat pants seeking the biggest bang for your buffet buck. We've offered up our waistline for you, dear reader, waddling down aisle after sneeze-guarded aisle, filling plate after plate with the mass-produced, the deep-fried, the gravy-covered, the All-'Merican.
Where: Sweet Tomatoes (9846 Watson Road, Crestwood; 314-966-3882)
Price: Children age three to five $2.99; age six to twelve $4.99. Adults $8.69 before 4 p.m.; $9.99 after. Seniors receive a 10 percent discount.
What you'll find: Sweet Tomatoes is not comfortable in its own skin. It's just as much an unhealthy, gluttonous feast as the next buffet, but it hides behind its fruity name and the milelong salad bar that stands between you and the cash register, practically forcing you to at least pretend to eat salad.
Beyond the green facade, there's a bar with several (four to five) soups, some pizza and a bin of baked potatoes with all the fixins. Keep walking and you'll find, quite literally, the bread and butter of the buffet. Apple cinnamon muffins, white and wheat bread with your choice of butter, margarine or "honey spread." Want more carbs? You're in luck! There's also a pasta station, where a cook pan fries noodles with sauce right in front of you. Choose your noodles and then choose your sauce (cheese, alfredo, tomato).
The dessert bar consists of fruit (cantaloupe, honeydew), puddings (vanilla, tapioca), Edy's soft serve and chocolate chunk "brownie muffins."
Eat this: The salad bar sits in a prominent spot for a reason. The bar contains nearly anything one could want on their salad. Yes, there are carrots, there are croutons. But there's also butternut squash! And beets! Most importantly, alongside the premixed dressings, there's a small decanter of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, for those who prefer to keep their salads light.
The chili was hearty, spicy, but not too heavy. The warm whole-grain bread slathered in honey butter was crunchy along the edges, fluffy in the middle, and it melted in our mouth. The apple-cinnamon muffins are so much better than any mass-produced mini muffin should reasonably be. Sweet enough to be dessert, small and light enough to justify eating two, three... five?
Normally, soft-serve ice cream is a sad, sad joke. Why waste those calories on that sludge when you could eat real ice cream? Or frozen custard? Or extra bread? Sweet Tomatoes' soft serve, however, is slightly better than standard soft serve. It's creamier, and it actually tastes like vanilla.
Avoid these: The macaroni and cheese looks amazing, but don't be fooled. It gave us the blue box blues.
Skip those premade salads. We tried all of them, and none warranted a second bite. The salad we threw together with spinach, slivers of butternut squash, beet and cucumber, sunflower seeds and a light poppyseed orange dressing was perfect in its simplicity. The others were simply too much.
Atmosphere: At the time of our visit, Sweet Tomatoes was clean and not very busy. It felt a little more like fast food and less like a buffet, since employees tend to the food, standing behind each bar, some of them preparing food within sight. The best part? An employee carried a tray of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies from table to table, offering them to diners. A man after our own heart.
The Verdict: While it's not gourmet, it's not bad. There's almost no meat served here, so with the exception of the soups, it's pretty vegetarian-friendly. The macaroni and cheese and ice cream are likely to keep the kids happy. The few exceptional items were carby and starchy, and the pile of plates left on our table did not hold the crumbs of a balanced meal. So, would we go out of our way to visit Sweet Tomatoes again? Probably not. Of course, we did consider stuffing a few apple-cinnamon muffins in our purse.