Todai (aka the buffet formerly known as Minado)
Here we go again. I love the buffets… and on Friday I visited another one (with my wife and a few of her co-workers). I had actually been to this buffet back in March for my brother’s birthday- when it was known as Minado. We went for dinner, and it was pretty good. Decent sushi, some good hot things, not too crowded- but things were still fresh, and a huge selection. A couple of months later, I had read that it was sold to Todai, a Japanese buffet chain with locations mostly in the west coast, Texas, Illinois, Virginia & New York. My one previous visit to a Todai (in Los Angeles) left me with a bad taste in my mouth (literally). The rice they used to make the sushi was disgusting, and the warm food was not so great either.
With that in mind, we went to the New York Todai, hoping that some of the Minado goodness was held over in the transition. Todai is what is known by buffet aficionados as a “Super Buffet”. It’s a very technical term, and might be difficult to understand for the buffet lay-person. ”Super” refers to the awesome size and nature of the buffet in question. Most Super Buffets have many stations, and at least 50 items (I just made that up… I don’t think there is any real measure).
Super Buffets also require a totally different technique from your small scale and regular size buffets. With the small buffets it is easy to load your plate up with the 10-20 items they have available… but with a Super Buffet you need to be more cautious. I like to take small bits of as many items as possible, scope out the real winners and then return for larger portions of the 3 or 4 things that I really loved.
Tackling Minado, the food porn, and the +/- after the jump…
The biggest problem with Todai because apparent from the second we arrived there. The set up. Most of the best buffets have multiple stations, usually in a square or circle format where you can rotate around different squares picking out things you want. See something you like, jump in load up and step out. Plates are available on every possible corner with empty space, and it’s easy to get a fresh one and fill it up with tasty buffet treats. This set up has been tested extensively (mostly in fat buffet rich states like Texas and Massachusetts) and then adopted by the rest of the countries Super Buffets*. Todai is set up as one long gigantic line, with only one side available to take food from (the other side is where the workers replenish the food). (* Scientific testing on buffet set ups probably did not happen… the set up described above is just common sense.)
At Todai, one end of the long line is the sushi, on the other end is the hot food, and in the middle is a very large selection of cold and warm “salad” type items… or as I like to call it “filler”. In this case, it literally was the filler between the hot food and the sushi, and while gigantic lines formed on either side of the buffet (to get to the hot food and the sushi), the middle remained largely empty and accessible to anyone who could fight through the crowds on either side to get an empty plate.
I knew we were in trouble when I saw the stream of people coming down the stairs from the balcony (all with nametags on). Five minutes before we got there, I’m pretty sure 27 buses had dropped of the most gigantic tour group imaginable and the place was totally packed. I waited on line and attempted my “take a tiny bit of everything” strategy, but it was tough. Because of the sheer number of people, a lot of the good things were totally out when you got to them, and then once you made your way across the the line of hot food (and salads) towards the sushi, the sushi line from the other side was trying to fight past you, to get to the salads and hot food. A total disaster.
I managed to snag 4 or 5 pieces of sushi (which was also pretty depleted because of the crowds) to add to my fried calamari, one chicken wing, shrimp on a skewer, two selections of fish, and my one piece of “tempura roll”. At most buffets, you like to see a little bit of a crowd, because it insures that the food will be finished quickly and replaced with fresh, hot food. An empty buffet, means the same containers of food sit out there for 30 mins to an hour waiting to be eating. Surprisingly many of the hot foods were not that hot… despite being constantly swapped out.
This could have easily been overlooked (as I do at many buffets- after all freshness is not a buffet’s fortay) if it had been easy to stuff my face. But the food was hard to get to, and the lines on either side were long for the entire time we were there… resulting in what I’m pretty sure is easily my “WORST SECOND BUFFET PLATE OF ALL TIME”:
Pathetic. I was embarrassed. But the crowd and frustration of waiting in line had taken it’s toll… thrown me off my game…. and this was the result. I’m almost embarrassed to post the picture. In Boston I was a buffet eating master… second only to a small Chinese girl named Cyndi. (I still don’t know how she always beat me… it’s like that hot dog contest eating guy. A miracle of science.) I hope Cyndi never sees the embarrassment of this meal. I’ll never live it down. (Click here to see a real second plate… courtesy of one of my wife’s co-workers. She knew how to do it up right…)
That’s not to say the buffet is terrible… but I think there are certain things that might help your enjoyment. First, maybe Friday at 12:30pm is a bad time to go. Maybe it’s buffet day for tour groups. I’m guessing on a Monday or Tuesday it will probably be less crowded, and easier to stuff your face. Secondly, I think Todai might be a buffet for people who don’t love buffets. I’m a fat guy… and buffet eating for me is about winning the game. The place charges a price, and puts out food. Then it challenges me… “Can you eat enough food to make it worth the price that I have set forth?” At some buffets, the challenge is super hard… like the Bellagio which forces you to eat over $30 worth of food! When a buffet is under $10 it’s almost laughable. I can eat $10 worth of bad buffet food 15 minutes after Thanksgiving dinner, blindfolded and handcuffed (now that would be an appetizing sight!). Of course “tougher” or “smarter” buffets will set up obstacles- like bread, rice, and french fries. Small money items that really fill you up, but work against you winning the game. It’s like Chess for really fat people.
Needless to say, on this day Todai beat me. $13.95 (plus tax and tip) is more then I usually like to pay for a Midtown Lunch, and with the long lines and poor set up, it proved to be too much for me in the end. If winning the game is not your objective… and your strategy is just to have a nice lunch with a lot of variety, that includes sushi and some healthier salad type options that most Asian buffets usually don’t have… then you will really enjoy Todai. For us buffet athletes… I’d recommend going on a Tuesday- or just head one avenue over to the $9.95 small scale Korean/Sushi Buffet Arang. The selection might be smaller, but at least they make it easy to leave feeling disgustingly stuffed. After all, with buffets, sometimes bigger doesn’t always mean better.
- Huge variety. It’s a “Super Buffet” so there are a ton of different options for every taste…
- A lot of fish options (aside from sushi). A much larger number of the hot options are fish, comapred to your normal buffet…
- A lot of really good Japanese salad/vegetable options. The middle of the buffet had all sorts of things that will leave you full, but feeling better then buffets dominated by the fried stuff. Delicious roasted eggplant, cold soba noodles, tofu and more. (I usually preach to stay away from these “fillers”… but if you are into a buffet with some non-fried healthier items- you might really enjoy Todai)
- Sushi is made fresh right behind the counter, and although it was depeleted because of the crowds it was much better then the Todai in Los Angeles. (Not great, but better then a lot of buffet sushi… and a huge selection)
- The set up makes it very difficult to go up for multiple visits on a super busy day (which clearly Friday is).
- A lot of the things were depleted because of the crowds… something that wouldn’t be an issue if it was easy to get back up there when the new things came out.
- A lot of the hot food wasn’t that warm
- There was a great looking grill station where they were cooking up various things on sticks but it was so popular, I think the chef was rushing the stickes off the grill. My shrimp on a stick was slightly undercooked.
- The price. $14 is a little too much for a Midtown Lunch ($17 after tax and tip)… especially when don’t get free reign to eat as much as you want. (And especially when Arang is a few blocks away for $10)
Todai, 6 E. 32nd St. (btw. 5+Mad), 212-725-1333