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Friday, February 8, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Go through Todai's Japanese buffet for the quantity, not quality

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Todai


*

$$

Redmond Town Center, 7548 164th Ave. N.E., Redmond.

Reservations: 425-376-1922.

Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5:30-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5-9 p.m. Sundays and holidays.

Prices: all-you-can-eat lunch $12.95 Mondays-Fridays, $14.95 Saturdays-Sundays; dinner $21.95 Mondays-Thursdays, $22.95 Fridays-Sundays; children 12 and younger $3.95-$6.95. Senior-citizen discount with ID.

Parking: Redmond Town Center lot.

Sound: noisily festive.

Beer and wine / credit cards: AE, MC, V / no smoking / no obstacles to access.

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There are a couple of things you need to know before reading this review. First: Given a choice between a meal at a fussy four-star restaurant and a seat in front of my favorite sushi chef, I'd choose the latter. Second: My life is an all-you-can-eat buffet, so you typically won't find me rushing out to a restaurant billed as such.

Taken together, those facts bring me to an interesting conundrum: Todai Restaurant — Redmond's new all-you-can-eat Japanese seafood buffet. Here, 40 kinds of sushi play a starring role in a seafood-eating extravaganza that has actual Japanese people converging upon Redmond Town Center in unprecedented numbers.

Wooed by the promise of massive quantities of sushi and encouraged by the vision of Japanese diners embracing this Malls-Across-America chain, I headed to Redmond with hope in my heart. Here, I was overwhelmed by a vibrant, Pokemon-style cafeteria and underwhelmed by a spread that delivers big dividends for those seeking quantity over quality.

Todai translates as "lighthouse" and has as its mascot a bright-yellow doll that looks like a cross between a rubber ducky and a light bulb. The doll, sold here in various guises (plush toy, sports bottle), has an oversized ceramic likeness that greets customers at the entrance, as did the happy host who whisked us to a table and proceeded to introduce us to the wonders of Todai.

"First things first," he said. "Is it anybody's birthday?" Show your ID on the Big Day and you eat for free. Otherwise, adults pay $12.95 or $14.95 for lunch and $21.95 or $22.95 at dinner, the higher tariff reflecting a weekend premium. Birthday celebrants are serenaded by staff who bang tambourines for attention before launching into off-the-wall versions of "Happy Birthday." You haven't lived until you've heard these Todai-for ditties. Especially when accompanied by shrieking from tired tots whose parents have yet to explore the bad, bad, bite-sized bonanza disguised as a dessert buffet. (Best bet: Technicolor Jell-O.)

Cheerful servers who take orders for beer, wine and sake, oversized soft drinks and mugs of hot water served with green-tea bags school newcomers in the Todai drill. Gesturing la Vanna White, they point toward the fresh fruit bar, the sushi bar and various other food stations carefully tended by an army of hard-working youth who keep things cold or hot, replenished and tidy.

Midroom, a colorful display of salads includes such forgettable fare as anemic kimchee, tough edamame, "imitation" crab Louie (I'll say), and that Japanese buffet favorite, the overdressed Caesar. (Best bets for Japanese food fans: seaweed salad and eggplant.)

The hot entree buffet starts with such staple starches as fried rice, soggy tempura and the yuckiest of yakisoba. It ends with a soup station where you can find a pleasing bowl of udon noodles whose mild broth is garnished with nori and green onion. I recognized this flavor profile, which is not unlike the plastic-wrapped udon sold with a foil "soup" packet in the refrigerated section at my grocer's.

And therein lies the trouble with Todai. Even the appealing-looking goodies — chicken teriyaki, salmon fillet, coconut shrimp, beef with vegetables — taste like something cadged from the heat-and-eat counter at the Big Box supermarket.

That said, this well-rehearsed exercise in mediocrity appears to impress the many power-eaters seated here at lunch and dinner. I watched with awe as nearby neighbors demolished mass quantities of snow crab, which tastes fresh enough given the large amount of water it retains after thawing. Carefully extracting the tail meat from their broiled baby lobsters (and obviously enjoying the goopy custard slopped over the lobster, the heads-on jumbo shrimp and green lip mussels), my neighbors refueled time and again, blithely ignoring the prized sushi bar.

After seriously grazing my way through that sushi bar on two occasions, I'm sorry to report that there wasn't a prize to be found there. No winner among the nigiri sushi, the sashimi or the many rolls I sampled. Not the BLT roll, the salmon-skin roll, the eel roll, the spicy tuna roll and certainly not the futomaki, whose distinctive crunch came from a mouthful of sandy spinach.

Greater Seattle is home to an extravagant number of good Japanese restaurants. Most proudly serve combination meals that will fill you up and then some for a reasonable price. I've spent as little as $7.95 on such meals, enjoying soup and rice, sushi and sashimi, tempura and teriyaki, secure in the knowledge that all-I-could-eat was worth eating. Would that I could say the same for Todai.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com.

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