Today I want to talk about the all-you-can-eat buffet. No, I haven’t lost my mind, or my taste buds. An unexpected invitation dropped in to our inbox a couple of weeks ago, and though we had reservations as to whether it was ‘on-brand’ for us, we eventually conceded that it would be wrong, and frankly arrogant to dismiss it out of hand.
I am pleased to report that having graduated a good number of years ago now, gone are the days where a student budget dictates where I eat. We’re lucky enough to be able to eat out a couple of times in a month, without it resulting in beans on toast for the following two. On one hand, our blog is aimed at like-minded people, who are willing to pay the extra for gourmet food. On the other hand, we’re not naïve enough to think that everyone is able to eat like that, or would even want to.
So, when the Coventry branch of buffet chain COSMO asked us to give them a go, we decided to be open-minded. There might be something in it, we thought.
Now, I have to mention that we were not COSMO virgins. We had visited the chain individually in our student days, and a couple of years ago we ate there together. The only word for that occasion is ‘shambolic’. The details are vague in my memory now, but the service in particular sticks out as being disordered and sloppy. Bland food (apart from the Indian, which has always been pretty good actually), sticky tables, and rude staff culminated in me announcing to Mark that I was done with “world buffets”, and I would never darken COSMO’s doorway again.
Our invitation from COSMO actually came off the back of an unsuccessful visit from the EHO in March. The Coventry Telegraph really let them have it. The public took to social media, and claims of food poisoning started rolling in (it couldn’t possibly be that you were already full 1/3 of the way round the buffet and still you kept on gorging yourself, could it?).
This was a challenge. We wanted to be proved wrong. We wanted our previous views to be dashed. And we wanted to see the kitchen before we ate anything.
We were welcomed to the restaurant by the new General Manager, Danny. Our request to see behind the scenes took him aback at first, but he was very accommodating. He gave us a tour of both the front of house, and also the upstairs kitchens that normal customers never see. Not a rat in sight. In fact, the kitchens seemed very organised, considering the amount of food on offer; clean, and surprisingly spacious, with dedicated areas for each cuisine.
EHO officers are notoriously harsh, and so they should be. To get the boring stuff out of the way, before we talk about the food, ultimately COSMO’s fall to a ‘1’ rating came from crap management. When your kitchen is primarily made up of young students, you need to kick some ass to get procedures followed. Head chef leaves, manager is useless, staff get lazy, things don’t get done. Simple. Not an excuse to let your business nose-dive, but an explanation none-the-less. We were satisfied that COSMO had addressed these issues and our digestive health was not at risk.
So, the important stuff. The food.
Much of it is as we remember - lots of beige, fried and baked elements along the first half of the buffet. A beautiful but bland sushi counter. A couple of interesting and more appetising elements in between.
The more recent introduction of options like a roast dinner and mushroom soup jarred with us. We just didn't get it. A world buffet restaurant in a UK city, to us, should cater to anything BUT the classic British roast dinner. We discussed this openly with manager Danny, however, and he explained that COSMO's objective is to cater to as wide a range of clientele as possible, some of whom turn up very much in the mood for plain meat and two veg. Especially on a Sunday. Fair point. We must remain objective here. (But seriously, if you go out for a meal at a restaurant dishing up cuisines from around the world and you opt for gammon and peas, !?*~#%!!?)
The best elements at COSMO, if you're a foodie, lie in the live cooking stations: the Teppanyaki and Noodle bars. I'd personally never tried them before, but it seemed like our best bet. We opted for steak and squid from the Teppanyaki, which the chef cooked with great skill and panache. Lots of sizzling and fire, tossing of seasoning and clashing of spatulas - worth it just for the show. Plus, may we remind you, you paid £15 for your entire meal and the man is cooking you a sirloin, exactly how you asked for it, right in front of your eyes.
We had a mixed chicken and seafood udon dish from the Noodle Station, which again was very enjoyable to watch, and one of the best things we ate. Eating at a place like COSMO - which if you want it to be, can be awfully bland - I think it's down to the customer to be braver, and take advantage of these options.
It might also surprise you, as it did us, to discover that they actually have in-house tandoor and pizza ovens, and they make the dough for the likes of pizza and naans from scratch. This wins points with us, because we're massive pizza lovers and dough-dorks. I think a lot of us make the assumption that because these buffet restaurants are priced low, so the skill and quality must be too. Granted, their margins can't allow for everything to be hand-made on site, but it's good to know that a lot of it is.
The desserts we tried were average, but once you've taken on so much savoury, who really cares? It's an exciting area for kids, with enough to choose from and in small portions to limit wastage. We thought the addition of popcorn and ice-cream machines were cool, but it's a shame the ice-cream machine handle keeps getting snapped off. I'd have liked to try some (it was out of order when we were there).
There were a few labelling issues, in terms of accuracy and readability. For instance, if the signage for the Teppanyaki was larger and instructions simpler, I think customers would be more likely to use it. Better than that, it would be great if the person seating customers could ask them "Have you eaten with us before?" and give them a run-down of how the counters work. The English of some of Coventry COSMO's counter staff is very basic, so it should be the job of those team members that can engage the customers, to do so.
Overall, they've made a vast improvement to the restaurant since our previous visit, both in terms of aesthetics and service. The new management looks to be competent and enthusiastic, and we hope this continues to spread to the rest of the team. Looking around while we were there, the other patrons seemed to be having a really good time, and isn't that the real point of a high street joint like COSMO? They want to create an enjoyable group experience that caters to everyone's tastes - from your partner who loves a curry, to your toothless great aunt who only sups mushroom soup, and your sister's kid whose diet consists of 80% bread-crumbed food.
A buffet-format restaurant might not be our first choice of eatery, but we won't be so quick to make our excuses the next time someone invites us to a birthday meal at COSMO. We'll head straight for the Indian and the noodle station.
N.B. We were invited by COSMO to dine with them and give honest feedback. The meal was complimentary, however all opinions are our own.