Buffets are something I usually try to avoid, on the not-unreasonable grounds that most of them consist of too much food and not enough good food. But I'd heard and read nothing but raves about the buffet at the Sofra bld restaurant at Abu Dhabi's Shangri-La hotel. Its delights, I was told, included: an all-you-can-handle oyster bar (and when it comes to oysters, I can handle way more than my fair share); top-class sushi; good roast beef; fish and seafood cooked to order; kebabs fresh off the grill; and - always a consideration in these harsh economic times - not unreasonable prices.
It's all true. The Sofra bld dinner buffet, which a friend and I tackled recently, has so much to offer it's hard to know where to start - unless, that is, oysters happen to be your favourite food in the world and you find yourself living and working in a city where they're not all that easy to track down and usually not all that easy on the pocket. After spending five minutes or so reconnoitring the various food stations - more about the array of choices in a moment - we spotted the cold seafood, which included a large tray of oysters sitting enticingly on a bed of ice.
Only a couple, however, were shucked, which had the cynic in me immediately wondering if this was some sort of catch: all the oysters you can eat, as long as you pry them open yourself? We sought help, and, within a few minutes two or three dozen freshly shucked oysters had been added to the mound, a dozen of which quickly found their way on to my first platter of the evening. They were splendid, every bit as good as those I'd sampled a few weeks previously at one of the city's finest seafood restaurants, where a dozen had set me back Dh135. Given that the price of the entire Shangri-La buffet was Dh170, this was not only delish, it was a deal, and if I hadn't been there in the line of duty, with an obligation to sample and report on as many dishes as I could, I'd have been happy to wrap myself around five or six dozen and call the evening a success.
They came with the usual trimmings of sauce mignonette, lemon wedges, horseradish, hot sauce - all surplus to requirements: the oysters were so juicy and succulent they needed no embellishment. My companion settled for a more diverse platter from the seafood bar, including fresh mussels, boiled shrimp, smoked salmon and a selection of salmon and tuna nigiri and various rolls from the well-stocked sushi bar.
The mussels were fine, the smoked salmon more than fine, the shrimps bland and virtually tasteless and the sushi outstanding. I lived for many years in Vancouver, the sushi capital of North America, and the selection would have been very much at home in that city. Back into the fray. Rather than two or three production-line tables, this buffet has a number of individual stations. Among them: pizza, breads and cheese; a kebab grill; roast beef, lamb, meat and fish; salad; cold seafood; sushi; dessert; fruit; Moroccan; Indian; hot seafood (with fresh fish, crabs and giant prawns cooked to order), and a couple of inviting soups.
We did battle next with the main meat and fish station, and it was another hit. The roast beef - a rib-eye, my personal favourite - was quite superb. I went for the medium-rare; my companion settled for the medium and had an end cut. The meat was melt-in-the-mouth tender, juicy and would have easily constituted a meal in itself. A couple of chops from a beautifully cooked rack of lamb were equally good, as was a small hammour fillet, simply prepared and elegantly presented on its own small plate.
My companion also sampled a spicy seafood dish, consisting mainly of nice rings of squid, which was very good, as were a couple of offerings from the Indian selections: curried eggs and spicy potatoes, and a mixed kebab, with excellent cubes of lamb, chicken and beef. I couldn't resist trying a couple of dishes from a separate table of seven Moroccan dishes, one of which, lentils in a tangy but delicate sauce with cherry tomatoes, was quite superb.
Complaints? It would have helped enormously if the dishes had been clearly labelled. We asked why they weren't, and were told many of the offerings changed each evening and it wasn't practical. Nonsense - any establishment that puts this much effort into getting things right could surely spare someone for an hour or so to print out a few dozen customer-friendly labels. The only serious complaint we had about the food was with the shrimp. We tried them prepared three different ways. Two of the varieties were simply overcooked; the other, the tiger prawns cooked to order on a giant hotplate and brought to the table, were overwhelmingly seasoned and didn't taste particularly fresh.
By now, we were more or less on the ropes, and decided to content ourselves with a little ice cream from the abundantly stocked dessert station. It was the perfect end to a meal that was worth every dirham, and then some. * Mr Creosote Sofra bld at the Shangri-La, Qaryat al Beri, Abu Dhabi, 02-509-8888. Our reviewer's meal for two cost Dh340 without beverages. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and the meals are paid for by The National. Mr Creosote is a nom de plume.