I’ve recently had two invitations to try ‘all you can eat’ style restaurants – Spice Route at the Red Dragon Centre, and Red Hot World Buffet in the City Centre. Neither of these are places that particularly appealed to me in the past, as the buffet style food detracts from many of the things I enjoy about eating out: perusing the menu, enjoying the company of my fellow diners while we wait in eager anticipation for our dishes to arrive, (hopefully) excellent service at the table and receiving a beautifully presented plate of food to eat. It’s particularly not a great concept (for me) if there are only two of you, as you have to choose between taking it in turns to sit alone at the table and effectively eating in relays, or taking all your valuables up the buffet with you each time. Mr W persuaded me, however, that I should broaden my horizons and give the buffets a try!
The first was Spice Route, which has an Asian theme, but describes itself on its website as “A World of Food”. The website also lists numerous awards that it has won, so I was looking forward to visiting! It’s an independent restaurant, and – we were told – unlike some of the chains, they prepare almost all of their food (bar the black forest gateau, apparently!) on the premises. The buffet area is set up with an open kitchen in the centre and the chefs perform ‘live cooking’ of dishes such as naans, dosas and noodles to order. Prices vary depending on when you visit, but on a weeknight, which is when we went, it is £13.95 per adult, although there were a lot of signs around the place saying that plates of waste food would be charged at £11, with £1 of this going to charity.
We started with some drinks at our table. I decided to try the cocktail menu. Our waiter told us that the barman’s speciality was a Cosmpolitan, and I wasn’t going to turn down one of these! It was nicely presented and was a very good Cosmopolitan – comparable with some of the better bars in Cardiff, on everything but price. Cocktails here ranged between £3.80 and £4.20 so very reasonable indeed. Mr W had a glass of wine, which was also really good and very reasonable. A good start! Not so good was the fact that the restaurant seems incredibly noisy. Whether it’s the extraction system because of the open kitchen, or simply the air conditioning units in the building, there was a constant, very loud noise of fans, which made me feel a bit like I was eating in an industrial setting!
We were shown round the buffet, which comprised – in addition to the live cooking area – a salad bar, chaat station, ‘warm starters’ (this was what the sign said – I’d prefer to think they were hot!), a Mexican chilli area, hot dishes in big tureens (mostly curries, but a few Chinese and British dishes) and a dessert area – again, mostly Indian, bar the aforementioned black forest gateau and a soft ice cream machine.
I have to admit that my first impressions here were not great. We’d already noticed that the restaurant itself looked quite ‘tired’ inside. It’s been there 6 years and it doesn’t appear that any of the furniture, fixtures or fittings have been replaced in that time. The buffet counters were therefore quite worn and didn’t look especially inviting. Likewise, a lot of the food looked as if it had been out for quite a while. Some of the salad looked limp, and a bowl of carrot sticks that were so dried out they had started to curl up was particularly uninviting. Likewise, the ‘warm starters’ were hit and miss – particularly noteworthy were some almost totally colourless chips, which looked almost as if they’d been taken straight from the freezer and put in the bowl there to warm up, rather than given any kind of proper cooking. I also found it odd that chips, chicken nuggets etc. were with the Indian and Chinese starters. The whole thing felt like a bit of a mish mash.
That said, we did manage to pick some dishes that looked more appealing. I started with a few salads and some chaat, as I fancied trying some of the array of sauces that were on offer here. The salad I tried, and the chaat, was all very nice, but the onion bhajis did taste as if they’d been hanging around on the buffet for far too long, and a vegetable samosa was downright unpleasant – a thick, stodgy pastry-type case around a non-descript vegetable filling with no discernible texture or pieces of vegetables.
We both tried the curries from the buffet, and these were very good – especially Mr W’s lamb rogan josh, which contained whole pieces of lamb on the bone. My murghi makhani was also very nice, and the rice seemed fresh and well cooked.
We tried a naan, freshly prepared for us, and this was definitely the best thing we ate all night, despite the fact that the oven they normally use to cook the naans was not working at the time we visited! Less successful was a keema paratha requested by Mr W, which was way too thick and very greasy, although the chef did tell us at the time that he’d give it a go, but wasn’t sure how it would work out!
We were given a South Indian speciality dish to try – unfortunately I didn’t catch its name, but it was a pancake, topped with cheese, served with a dish of vegetable curry sauce and a selection of chutneys. The sauce and chutneys were tasty, but the pancake was way too greasy for us. Having not tried this dish before, I don’t know whether it’s supposed to be that way, although the manager did say – mysteriously – that it’s normally served with herbs and onions, but the chef had made us a cheese one. Perhaps the addition of the cheese was the reason for the infusion of grease?!
I tried a few of the Indian desserts which were nicely presented and came in small, bitesize pieces, which made it easier to try several of them without filling yourself up. I didn’t fancy the ice cream machine – it looked like a bit of an afterthought, and, again, looked tired and as if it needed sprucing up.
It’s really difficult to summarise my visit to Spice Route, even putting aside my preference for table service. I should say at this stage that we were looked after exceptionally well by the manager and other staff, and, unlike some buffet restaurants I’ve been to, they were on the ball with clearing away plates between buffet visits. The cocktail I had was really good, and exceptionally good value. Some of the food we had was really good, some not so good at all, and some of the food on the buffet just didn’t appeal to us at all. I also think they may have got a little confused as to the concept, and which type of food they are going for. Perhaps, by trying to please too many people and attract families where the grown-ups like spicy food but the children want chicken nuggets and chips, they’ve ended up with too much of a mish mash – and they don’t really have the space to do justice to each of the cuisines they’re trying to cover. I’d be much more inclined to try and do one or two things really well, rather than just dabbling in lots of different things. We were told that they are very busy on Sundays (when, apparently, they offer a roast dinner on top of everything else!) and I would imagine that, had we gone at a time when the customer turnover was higher, we might not have experienced so many tired-looking dishes of food, but I would still expect staff to keep on top of this, and either put out smaller portions at less busy times, or just accept that there is going to be some waste. Likewise, the interior of the restaurant really needs sprucing up. The manager did tell us that he has ordered some new counter tops for the kitchen area, so hopefully this is just the start!
Food: ** Service: **** Ambience: *
Spice Route, Unit 6, Red Dragon Centre, Hemmingway Road, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff CF10 4JY
I was invited to Spice Route as a guest and as such, our food and drinks were complimentary.