From the moment the hostess first led me into the dining room of the Emperor's Palace, an all-you-can-eat-and-then-some buffet that opened in Chesterfield Commons in January 2005, I was overwhelmed.
I staggered from station to station with my empty plate, punch-drunk. When I reached the far end of the buffet, my plate was still empty. I told myself I must be hallucinating. I had to be. How else to explain the pan brimming with golden melted butter and nothing else? Or the seven-foot-high fountain of chocolate syrup?
The Emperor's Palace is enormous. It's more like a shopping-mall food court than a restaurant. Three levels of seating surround the buffet line. One table sits inside an actual, full-size gazebo. A tiny waterfall trickles over rocks into a pool where the goldfish don't bother to swim but just kind of hang out maybe bored stupid, maybe brooding over the metaphysical ramifications of the fact that they're pretty much the only thing here that's not on the menu.
The buffet travels from Japan to China, with pit stops in Mongolia, Vietnam, the United States and whatever nation Willy Wonka calls home. There are stations for sushi, dim sum, Mongolian barbecue and pho. There are steam-table pans heaped with familiar dishes like orange chicken, lo mein noodles and egg rolls, and there are dishes like chicken feet, jellyfish and tripe.
There's chicken, beef and pork in too many different forms to count. There are frog legs, eels, clams, mussels, scallops and squid. There are sautéed shrimp in a variety of sauces, popcorn shrimp, fried shrimp still in the shell (with the head still attached) and steamed shrimp resting on a bed of ice. Also on the bed of ice are raw oysters on the half-shell. The oysters I saw were large, but they were also a dull, matte gray oysters you should probably eat only in months that end with "Q."
There is a spread of French fries, onion rings, fried cheese sticks, T-ravs, mac 'n' cheese, mashed potatoes and pizza. There's a salad bar, which is conveniently located near a soft-serve ice cream machine. Don't want soft-serve ice cream for dessert? You can eat your share of cookies, cakes, brownies, tarts, muffins, pies, cobblers and even caramel apples.
I hadn't hallucinated the pan of golden melted butter, after all, or the seven-foot-high fountain of chocolate syrup. The syrup bubbles out of the top of the fountain and flows over several decorative curves into a reservoir about three feet off the ground. On a cart beside the fountain are marshmallows and a platter of strawberries although I should mention that the fountain is unsupervised, so there's nothing to stop you (or anyone else, for that matter) from dipping any old piece of food into the syrup.
How do you even review a place like this? I mean, it's more or less axiomatic that the sushi or the dim sum or the Mongolian barbecue or the pho or even the traditional Chinese-restaurant fare at an all-you-can-eat buffet won't be as good as the sushi at a restaurant that features it. I tried a piece of nigiri sushi made with salmon and one made with shrimp, and the best I can say about them is that they didn't taste funky. They made that little an impression.
Likewise, I couldn't tell much difference between the piece of barbecued beef from the Japanese station and a piece of barbecued pork from near the pho station. Despite its location, I think the pork was a Chinese dish; at any rate, it was right beside Peking duck served off the bone. And I might as well include the Peking duck in this comparison. All three cuts of meat were tough. All three had very little flavor, though the duck did come with its crisp, flavorful skin.
When I visited the Emperor's Palace for Saturday lunch, dim sum was the most popular station. This is always a good sign at a buffet for the hottest, freshest food, if nothing else so on my first pass I loaded up on steamed buns and dumplings. The exterior of the "Pork Roll" was sweet and incredibly chewy, but the interior may as well have been hollow; there were only crumbs of pork. On the other hand, dumplings with shrimp and pork and with leek and shrimp were both very good, brightly flavored and not too heavy.
Another popular station was Mongolian barbecue, nearly as overwhelming as the buffet itself. First, you put noodles and raw veggies from a salad bar into a bowl. Then you add a raw meat chicken, pork, beef or squid and all but the squid comes in thin, curled slices. Then you choose a sauce (Mongolian, black bean, Szechuan, Kung Pao) and extra cooking liquids (sesame oil, lemon juice.) You hand your bowl to the chef, who dumps it onto a large, round flattop grill. The cook quickly sears it, using a set of very long tongs, then returns your creation to you.
My creation (pork, green bell peppers, scallions, Szechuan sauce, sesame oil and a dash of lemon juice) was good, not great. This was partly my fault: I added too much sesame oil. But it was also a result of the thin meat being seared slightly too long.
Still, I felt I was missing something. Not a particular dish. I knew I could try 30 dishes (and I came close) and still miss 30 better dishes and 30 worse. But none of the other diners seemed as stressed out as I was. In fact, they all seemed to be having fun.
And then I noticed all the kids. Of course, I'd already noticed them. The Emperor's Palace, like any all-you-can-eat buffet, is a restaurant for families, and there are kids everywhere: waiting in line for Mongolian barbecue, cutting in front of you to snag the last caramel apple, grabbing frog legs to go with their mac 'n' cheese.
It was this kid, a girl of seven or eight years old, who caught my attention. Maybe she already knew she loved frog legs. Or maybe she grabbed them on a dare from an older sibling or to gross a younger sibling out. Or maybe she just thought to herself, "What the hell?"
That, I realized, was what I was missing. The Emperor's Palace is a place you can say, "What the hell?" You can try something you've never eaten before, maybe something you've never had an opportunity to eat.
So rather than find out whether the pho here measured up to my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, I took some jellyfish and some chicken feet and a dessert from the dim sum station called "Long Life Peach." The ball of dough did look like a peach. It also looked faintly obscene. The flavor reminded me of a Dunkin' Donut hole with jam inside, though here the filling was a thick bean paste.
The jellyfish looked like a pile of sliced onions. It had a mild, slightly acidic flavor, most likely from a marinade of lemon juice or rice-wine vinegar. The texture, though, was something else. Not just chewy, but resistant, as though the jellyfish were still alive and fighting your every bite. The chicken feet looked impressive or disgusting, depending on your point of view with their talons gnarled and clutching, but they're mostly skin and bone. The flavor and texture were innocuous, the flavor like a sweet barbecue sauce, the texture like fatty skin from any other piece of chicken.
I said, "What the hell?" one more time. I dipped a marshmallow into the chocolate syrup. The syrup was thin and just barely above room temperature and, I noticed, had started to form a crust along the sides of the reservoir. The marshmallow was tasty, though, a pure sugar rush, and for just a second caught up in the madness of the Emperor's Palace I wondered how it would taste with a spoonful of that golden melted butter on top.