Taipei’s Top hotels are rolling out elaborate all-you-can eat buffet spreads to the delight of diners.
Photos By Matt Fulco
Chef Bernard Noel loses track of time when he enthuses about the quality of the Regent Taipei’s Brasserie buffet restaurant, especially the seafood. “It’s always the catch of the day,” says the native of Alsace, France. “We have a dedicated supplier in Hualien.” The Brasserie’s top-grade seafood has helped make it one of the most popular buffet restaurants in all of Taipei, with dinner bookings full through February, he said in early December.
Suddenly a look of urgency comes over the face of the Regent’s corporate executive chef. “It’s almost 5 o’clock,” he says. “If you want to take pictures, we’d better get you down there quickly.”
And then we’re off. With Noel leading the way, we glide down the several flights of stairs separating the lobby lounge from the Brasserie, and then make a quick stop at each buffet station to snap shots of the dishes before the hungry crowd descends on them.
Noel’s sense of urgency is well-placed. At the stroke of 5:30, the floodgates open. Dozens of guests pour into the Brasserie and head straight for the seafood station. They stack their plates high with gleaming slices of salmon, tuna, sea bream, octopus, squid, and more. The chefs are working at full speed to keep up with demand.
The teppanyaki stations are soon just as busy, with the cooks grilling up sizzling sirloin steaks, chicken filets, salmon filets, and jumbo prawns for a long line of eager diners. “You don’t see anything like this in France,” Noel says. “For us, a buffet is not such a rich experience.”
“You don’t see anything like this in France,” Noel says. “For us, a buffet is not such a rich experience.”
Nor in the United States, where buffets have historically been synonymous with low-end dining. Although that’s starting to change with the advent of higher-end buffet dining in Las Vegas, overall a-la-carte dining remains far more popular than all-you-can-eat in the West.
By contrast, in Taipei, where five-star hotels contain some of the city’s best restaurants, buffet dining is exploding in popularity. But tourists staying at the hotels are not the ones fueling the surge. “When you visit from out of town, you want to experience the local cuisine; you want to have lunch and dinner outside of the hotel,” says Simon Wu, food and beverage group general manager at the Regent. “Nearly all of our guests at the Brasserie are local.”
A different experience
Managing an all-you-can-eat buffet is a considerably different exercise from overseeing a standard restaurant. Since customers line up to serve themselves, the need for wait-staff is considerably lower. In the kitchen, meanwhile, food preparation is based on each day’s pre-arranged menu rather than proceeding according to guests’ individual orders.
The crux of buffet dining is variety, and with variety comes flexibility. “A group of people with different tastes in food can go out together to the same restaurant and everyone can still enjoy the meal,” says Tan Bankhim, executive chef of the Grand Hyatt Taipei.
The crux of buffet dining is variety, and with variety comes flexibility.
Part of the allure of the buffet lies in customers’ perception that they are receiving a great deal, says Pippen Lin, executive sous chef of Western cuisine at the Sherwood Taipei. Some consumers go so far as to set out to extract maximum value from the meal, he observes. “Their view is that for every NT$100 they spend, they want to get NT$150 worth of food.”
The bargain hunters are especially active during afternoon tea, served in most of Taipei’s top hotels from 3 to 5 p.m. To be clear, “afternoon tea” in Taiwan is not about leisurely sipping a cup of Darjeeling and munching on scones topped with raspberry jam and clotted cream.
Those items might be available, but diners are there to enjoy a full meal at prices up to one-third cheaper than lunch or dinner – a repast that includes many of the same menu items. On a recent Tuesday afternoon at the Sheraton Grande Taipei, there was not an empty seat in the restaurant by 3 p.m. Guests tucked into plates of roasted meats, shrimp cocktail, and an assortment of salads. Others devoured made-to-order noodle soups.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon at the Sheraton Grande Taipei, there was not an empty seat in the restaurant by 3 p.m. Guests tucked into plates of roasted meats, shrimp cocktail, and an assortment of salads. Others devoured made-to-order noodle soups.
“For many guests, this meal will be a late lunch or an early dinner,” says Sarah Chen, assistant manager of marketing communications at the Sheraton.
A high volume of guest traffic is essential to maintain profitability, especially given the affinity of local diners for pricey seafood, says Lin of the Sherwood. “Seafood is very popular here to begin with. When it’s fresh, high quality. and available in unlimited quantities, guests are going to eat a lot of it.”
That seems to be the trend across Taipei. During a recent visit to the Grand Hyatt’s Cafe, one of the more premium all-you-can-eat options in Taipei, this writer noticed several elderly patrons who had stacked their plates so high with boiled crabs that it became a delicate balancing act just getting the crustaceans back to their table.
What happens when diners “eyes are bigger than their stomachs?” All of the chefs and hotel managers interviewed by TOPICS emphasized the importance of keeping food waste at a minimum, but acknowledged it cannot be eliminated.
Several elderly patrons had stacked their plates so high with boiled crabs that it became a delicate balancing act just getting the crustaceans back to their table.
Shangri-La Hotels has a standardized food waste management program used across its global network, says Marcel Holman, general manager of Shangri-La’s Far Eastern Plaza Taipei. “We monitor waste trends, so we have a clear idea of how much of each food item is consumed and when,” he says. “Food is never reused. We don’t take that risk. Reducing the size of the dishes gradually over the course of a meal so that portions become smaller helps us to cut down on waste.”
Seeking competitive advantage
Given the popularity of buffet dining in Taipei’s hotels, competition is intense. That requires hoteliers to invest heavily to stand out in an increasingly crowded field, especially as freestanding buffet restaurants are becoming more numerous and are competing for the same market segment.
The Grand Hyatt’s Café has carved out a niche for itself as a high-end marketplace, says the hotel’s marketing manager, Kelly Kuo. The restaurant is divided into sections by transparent glass partitions, which “does away with the confusing and cluttered layout of a typical buffet restaurant,” she says. She adds that the newly renovated Café offers 10 different food stations.
Grand Hyatt head chef Tan recommends several signature dishes. One of those is a whole chicken braised with Ningbo lotus seeds, a classic Chinese dish featuring red shallots, garlic, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and star anise. Café’s skinless tandoori chicken, prepared by the restaurant’s Indian chef based on a recipe from his hometown, also comes highly recommended.
Additionally, Tan suggests sampling the black truffle risotto, prepared with Italian rice cooked al dente with white wine and chicken stock. It is baked for eight minutes in order for the rice to further absorb the rich stock, Tan explains. Finally, the dish is mixed with mushrooms, onion, cream, Parmesan cheese, and black truffle sauce before being finished with a drizzle of black truffle oil.
One of the biggest draws on the menu at the Sherwood this fall has been hairy crab, also known as Chinese mitten crab, from Jiangsu province’s Yangcheng Lake. Hairy crab doesn’t have a lot of meat, but the best ones have rich roe with a consistency that experts liken to a mixture of duck egg yolk and foie gras.
Male crabs are the first batch to be in season. The females, with their more solid roe, ripen later. The crabs are cooked alive to order, which is very popular with Asian guests, says Pippen Lin of the Sherwood.
For Western guests, who are less adept at extracting the edible parts of the crustaceans, the Sherwood has offered made-to-order crabmeat soft tacos. To best savor the delicate white meat, go easy on the fixin’s: A bit of mild salsa, lettuce, and guacamole are all that’s needed.
At the Regent, the freshness, high quality, and variety of the seafood – there are typically 30 dishes available – are a big draw for customers, says Simon Wu. “We buy only whole fish, which allows us to provide a much larger selection to guests than if we bought individual pieces.”
In buffet dining, “you cannot focus on one market alone,” Holman says, stressing the importance of having a “wide variety of fresh, high-quality, locally sourced foods that cater to different tastes.”
Salmon, for instance, is typically available as sashimi, nigiri sushi, maki rolls, made-to-order teppanyaki, or smoked slices. The heads are even sometimes served up salt-grilled Japanese style; after all, the cheek meat is arguably the most succulent, local gourmands say.
Meanwhile, the Shangri-La’s Far Eastern Plaza invites guest chefs to feature their signature dishes at its Café all-day dining restaurant. These quarterly promotions often highlight cuisines that are not widely available in Taipei. “The key is to offer guests something different,” says general manager Holman.
For instance, in August, to celebrate Singapore’s 50th anniversary, veteran Singaporean chef Jimmy Sim presented a variety of dishes from the city-state over a 10-day period. During the promotion, guests had a chance to win round-trip air tickets to Singapore and complimentary two-night stays in two of Shangri-La’s properties there.
In October, to celebrate Spain’s National Day, the Far Eastern Plaza brought in Chef Sergio Garrido Cantero from five-star resort Hotel Vincci Seleccion Posada del Pati. Chef Sergio cooked up Spanish delicacies over a nine-day period including Seafood Paella, Cured Ham Terrine, Iberian Pork Loin with Green Apple, and Spanish Stewed Oxtail.
In buffet dining, “you cannot focus on one market alone,” Holman says, stressing the importance of having a “wide variety of fresh, high-quality, locally sourced foods that cater to different tastes.” Given the minor role of service in buffet dining compared to a la carte, “what’s in the buffet does the talking,” he concludes.