It's easy to forget that "buffet" isn't just a six letter word for "outlet of shamefully excessive consumption." It's also the old fashioned precursor to the term "family style"—an overflowing cornucopia of a meal that is as inviting as it is inclusive, one that facilitates big crowds of friends and family and the varying tastes and distractions they bring to the table. A buffet can be okay; sometimes you just want a hot meal with plenty of options so the kids get a few bites in between running around. The fact that the food is really, really good can make it worth seeking out. Case in point: the Sunday Brunch Buffet ($19.95 for adults, $9.95 for children 10 and under) at Chief O'Neill's Pub & Restaurant.
Though patrons here usually choose from a menu of celebrated pub fare, all bets are off on Sunday mornings. The center of the restaurant is cleared and retrofitted with zigzagging tables ladened with chafing dishes, steam trays, platters, and a carving station. Brunch is served from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and reservations are recommended. If you arrive at 10 on the nose like we did, you'll have your run of the place. By 10:45, though, the place will be hopping.
I'm an old pro when it comes to buffets, and I followed my normal procedure of seeking out relatively small portions of whatever has come out most recently to sample as many items as possible. They make it easy here to follow my lead: dishes are replaced often, in manageable quantities that rarely sit long enough to get cold or deteriorate. Bonus points for the signage on the Fish & Chips advising patrons to keep the lid open to prevent steaming. Even more bonus points for well seasoned fillets of flaky cod and exemplary tartar sauce.
You'll be perfectly happy if you stick to the classics: the omelet bar, breakfast casserole, bacon, sausage, and the like are all solid. The French Toast is deep fried, rendering the slices custardy smooth in the center and crackly on the outside. Whipped seasoned butter is a nice touch, but an upgrade to maple over the hotel lobby pouches of "syrup" would put these suckers over the edge.
Venture into the buffet's swirling vortex for a wide array of dishes beyond breakfast. The Pasta Salad is well seasoned and generous with the olives, and the Deviled Eggs are dangerously plentiful. The house Corned Beef is a little dry under the carvery heat lamp, so be sure to request the crisp, fatty Ham, too. By the way, these are the resultant portions after a request for "a slice of each." Most impressive on this plate, though, are the Wisconsin Cheese Curds, which are rushed from the fryer and still plenty squeaky.
You'll need something to wash all these options down, and the Build Your Own Bloody Mary ($9.00 for Ketel One based) fits the bill nicely. The drink arrives au naturel, concocted with your choice of vodka plus tomato juice, Guinness, and just enough horseradish to make it interesting. Keep in mind that they're a little skimpy on the booze, so you may need to knock back two or three of these before airing any family grievances.
It's up to you to head to the DIY bar to garnish the drink. Cubes of salami, various cheeses, and olives work nicely, but don't overlook the marinated grilled shrimp.
By the way, the shrimp work nicely on the plate by themselves, too.
Of course, not everything is a hit, but there are no strings attached in buffet dining. When the Corned Beef Hash and prepared Caesar Salad weren't up to snuff, I kicked those dishes to the curb without another thought. The buffet table is always willing to patch things up, if only you'll come back up for another look.
For me, the last trip to the buffet is mostly a 'best of' run: french toast, bacon, mac and cheese, and more of that amazing shrimp. Bands always sneak in "bonus tracks" on their greatest hits, though, so I did, too. The Irish Eggs Benedict features a Guinness forward Hollandaise and impossibly runny poached eggs. The Irish Cheddar Soup has more Guinness and is as rich as can be. And I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention the Salted Caramel Bread Pudding, which is full of melty chunks of chocolate.
Finally, the Dessert portion of the buffet. The Milk and White Chocolate fountains dominate, but there are chocolate chip cookies and cannoli to be had, too. However you choose to end your meal, make sure you don't leave hungry. The offerings at Chief O'Neill's are much, much better than most, but don't forget that you're still at a buffet. That secret fifth plate you just fixed yourself is just between you and me. That's family business.
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