Tai all-you-can-eat Buffet

January 14, 2009

Everywhere you go in London people are dishing out flyers. For clubs, bars, restaurants, sales and as likely as not for a Tai (sometimes spelt Thai) all-you-can-eat buffet.

The flyers must work for there are Tai buffets right across the city, from Kentish Town to Islington to Soho. What works even better is the price; it’s a mere £5 to eat in or £3.50 takeaway. Really, at that price you can’t go wrong, can you? It’s also completely vegan, so you get to feel virtuous when you’re shovelling in the stir-fried noodles.

And yet…How can it be so cheap? Is it fresh? Just how long have the Chow Mein and the Green Thai Curry and the spring rolls and the steamed broccoli and the peas (yes plain ordinary boiled unspiced unsalted unbuttered peas) been sitting there in their little metal containers under the sweltering lights?

There is also something uniquely unappetising about the sheer quantity of dishes. It’s impossible to choose between them and in the absence of a menu you haven’t a clue what they are, so you end up having a bit of this and a bit of that and then a bit of everything. You have to go back to try the one you missed and then back again for some more of that really good one you couldn’t cram onto your plate before and then back yet again because – well because it’s free.

And slowly but surely that little stroll along the bain marie becomes a walk of shame. Your jeans stretch, maybe the bottom button of your shirt pops open and all the journey home you berate yourself. Why oh why did I eat so much? Is there in all the world a glutton like me?

So no, I didn’t expect ever to find myself in a Tai buffet again. I’d done one a couple of years back, and that was it as far as I was concerned. Tai buffets – done them. Finished. End of story.

But then, this week, it happened all over again.

And it was exactly the same. No learning from experience whatsoever. The same number of trips to the counter, the same popping button, the same trip home head in hands.

How did it happen? How come I didn’t know better?

Well I was in town to meet my Italian friend Gianluca, who I hadn’t seen for almost six months. I’d worn a jacket and uber-stylish brown boots, because Gianluca loves to berate me (and all the English) for our lack of sartorial oomph. Our trainers, our baggy jeans, our t-shirts, no no no, says Gianluca, where is the elegance, where is the chic?

He noticed and even complemented me on the boots and so perhaps I was feeling a bit careless. Three pints of lager may have had something to do with it too. When Gianluca suggested the Tai buffet, neither of us having much money, it sounded like a great plan. Yeah Tai buffet. Let’s go there!

You couldn’t see through the steamed-up windows as we sidled towards the entrance, and the door flew open and we were virtually dragged in by the effusive staff.

But no, it didn’t look bad inside at all. The decor was rather dull,  assorted frames with nothing in them (you know, so the frame’s the thing) and large mirrors in heavy gilt surrounds, but so what, it had the one essential attribute which I insist on after eating in some dire dives in Chinatown: it was clean.

And the food? Well the food was pretty good. A little luke-warm but hey…And the staff were friendly and very attentive. Again the volume of dishes felt oppressive to me and I’m not a huge fan of that soya fake meat which looks like half-chewed chicken, but I had some very tasty sweet and sour tofu, delicate stir-fried vegetables, and wolfed down at least five types of noodles, thick and thread-thin, fried and steamed. The fresh minced coriander relish and the sweet chilli sauce were things I would even like to cook at home.

So I’m not saying never again. In a year or two. And if you want somewhere very cheap and filling it’s a better place than many. But never go with someone you actually want to talk to. You’ll be so busy eating, heads sinking down nearer and nearer to your plates, and then so turgid under the weight of your swollen stomach, that anything more than a mumbled ‘This ‘s goo’ will be out of the question.