Another day, another buffet restaurant, this time at the kind invitation of a good friend. A drive to Romford and the busily functional Brewery retail park allowed me to find the agreed meeting place of Cosmo easily enough – opposite Sainsburys and next to the Toby Carvery.
I’ll say up front, as I’ve said many times before, that in my humble opinion buffet restaurants cater for the lowest common denominator and are not honed by the desire to achieve any form of excellence – indeed, piling plates high with food inspired from a raft of different traditions is not about respect for food or ingredients. These restaurants treat customers like cattle, to be seated, fed and exited without delay, and yet they are enduringly popular. Why? A few suggestions:
- They offer the illusion of value for money, if you equate value with “never mind the quality, feel the width” – so it is no surprise this dining style is much loved in the USA!
- They reduce staff intervention and the waiting cycle since the buffet style you can help yourself repeatedly at times that suit you
- They eliminate the “snobbish” element of dining that puts off many people – waiters calling you “sir” and offering faux-deference, multiple cutlery and glasses, that sort of touch.
Don’t get me wrong, there is obviously a space in the market for all manner of restaurants, and buffets can be very good. The Sunday lunch buffet at the Chilli Banana in my home town of Wilmslow always impressed, though that is specifically Thai food cooked by a Thai chef. My mother’s favourite, Red Hot buffet, impressed with high standards and mind-boggling choice, even if it also retains many of the disadvantages.
Upon arrival at a huge aircraft hangar of a dining area, we were shown to a table for two crammed into one corner, while a gulf of empty tables remained unfilled. Indeed, it was perfectly possible to listen into the neighbouring conversation about their kids, though most people seemed to take the hint about lack of privacy and lapsed in silence – not that this reduced the overall decibel level any. For myself, I tried as best I could to tune out the hum of conversation and to focus on my friend’s words, not easy with deficient hearing. On this occasion the company was superb, whatever the food was like.
In fairness, the waitress who took our drinks order was warm and bubbly throughout, even though I had to repeat my request for black coffee three times. Maybe she had problems hearing above the hubbub too? Then it was off to the food. The serving area was doing a roaring trade in spite of the mostly empty restaurant, which begs the question of what it is like when the restaurant is packed on evenings and weekends. The disadvantage is that a wrong turn could easily result in a collision, with laden plates and food flying in all directions. That this did not happen I put down to good fortune, but I would be surprised if the mops and buckets were not called into service at regular intervals.
Starters are easy enough, being mostly straight from the freezer to the frier, but then everyone loves wings, samosa, pancake rolls and suchlike, and you could adorn them with your favourite sauce too. Mix and match global cuisine sorted! Crispy duck was of course available, de rigour for this style of dining, though it proved neither crispy nor especially warm. Key to success proved to be waiting until fresh pots of a dish were brought out, rather than partaking of those that had been baking for some time under the ever-present UV lamps. Spare ribs in BBQ sauce (which had the very straight lines of meat cut with an electrically-powered blade when frozen) proved tough and stale, but then that was before I learned the key lesson.
One thing I noted instantly is that all of the “live cooking” counters were unpopulated by staff, which is clearly one difference to justify the price hike between lunchtime and evening bookings. That would have been the greatest saving grace, but sadly it was not available. Apart from the cabaret element to watching your dish cooked to order, the fact that it is cooked fresh makes a huge difference and would unquestionably have improved my view of the establishment.
Nevertheless, there were plenty of choices on offer, the bulk being Chinese, Indian and Italian in style, with the odd Thai thrown in for pan-Asian variety. Some were good, some less so. Lamb and chick pea curries were tasty and had not been sitting around, though of course they will have been heated from a plastic tub rather than cooked to order. The foodie in me would dearly love it to have been cooked from scratch, but that was never going to be the norm in a restaurant and indeed chain geared to rapid fulfilment.
Desserts also pander to the crowd-pleasers, including comfort foods like chocolate gateau, ice creams, jelly (!) and fruits. More than a touch of the kiddy party about that, though for the grown ups I half expected a Greens caramel creme, of the type beloved in the 60s and 70s; maybe that is reserved for the evening session too.
I can’t deny the popularity of these places, but I do wish the clientele would give feedback that a higher standard of food is essential, and that while we Brits are happy to suffer in silence where the standards are not what we expect, there is no alternative but to speak out if we expect them to be raised. It’s not that buffet dining can’t do better, it clearly can. But from the perspective of Cosmo chain, why try harder if customers are prepared to accept a proportion of mediocre dishes in exchange for sheer blinding quantity and variety?
The very nature of the restaurant means consistency is patchy and can’t please everyone – though it is their “philosophy” to “exceed expectations” (see here.) Success in that particular ambition will seldom be achieved by delivering Asian comfort food, and I’ve yet to find a similar concept that surprise and delight. Don’t be fooled – the concept is deliberately to provide familiarity – customers expect things which they know well and can understand. But note that the Cosmo website does include a “contact us” option with telephone and email options, though I did at length find a feedback form – not that I expect anything to change as a result of my feedback.
With very little effort and not much cost Cosmo could be a lot better, but unless the public complains more or vote with our feet they will feel they have little incentive to change, which is indeed a shame.
My solution is this: my friend is a great lover of mushrooms. As it happens, only one mushroom dish was available on this visit, so I will compensate by cooking her more mushroom dishes. She has eaten and enjoyed my mushroom risotto, but I’m quite sure I can find plenty more creative options to show what a fungi I am (see what I did there?) That way she can be assured of fresh cooking from raw ingredients, bespoke to her requirements and with quality standards guaranteed. Oh, and being able to hear yourself think too. Does that sound like a deal?