July 21, 2011

Behind the buffet line…

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Travel at 5:20 am by dinaheng

If you love tasting a little bit of this and a little bit of that, the Bellagio Buffet in Las Vegas is the place to be… and if you look behind the scenes, you’ll understand why.

While many buffets suffer from heat lamp exhaustion and unimaginative menus, the buffet  at the Bellagio offers a varied selection of freshly made items from cuisines around the world, as well as traditional American favorites. 

On a recent visit, I watched fresh offerings rotate through the line constantly, with no dish sitting more than 15 to 20 minutes before being replenished with fresh fare. Now that’s how you keep customers coming back for more.

“At 10 p.m., we still have people paying to come in, so the entire line is restocked for the last half hour,” explains Executive Chef Gerald Harrington, who oversees the buffet. “Whatever’s not eaten at the end of the day on the line gets thrown out because you don’t want to contaminate anything. We have large dumpsters of organic scraps that go to a pig farm.”

Leftovers that have not been put on the line go to the employee dining room, which I can attest — after a sneak peak — looks better than most casino buffets in Vegas.

A walk through the kitchen was a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how soup is prepared and stored, how fruit is cut and plated, and how intricate garnishes are put together. You think it’s hard cooking the Thanksgiving turkey?

Imagine preparing 1,000 to 2,000 lbs. of crab legs, 800 to 1,000 lbs. of shrimp, and 500 lbs. of prime rib a day, not to mention all the side dishes, salads and accompaniments. Mashed potatoes are made four to five times a day (that’s Yukon gold with heavy cream and butter). Ice shrinks, so the cold stuff under the sushi must be changed three times a day.

Nearly 5,000 guests a day are served what must be the best food deal in the casino hotel.

The all-you-can-eat buffet features fresh seafood, live-action cooking stations with meals made-to-order, selections from China, Japan, Italy, Mexico, and more at prices — that in Vegas — are quite reasonable.

Open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., breakfast costs $15.95, lunch is $19.95 and dinner is $29.95. A gourmet dinner on Friday and Saturday nights is $36.95, and brunch is $24.95 ($29.95, with champagne). Kids ages three and under eat free.

“We try to change things with the seasons,” Harrington says. “I grew up in New England, so I like the apple, the maple, and will try to incorporate fall thinking through the year. A lot of things that you do in a restaurant, you can’t do in a buffet. If you put risotto on the line, it doesn’t hold well. So we cook our pastas al dente. Once they sit in the steamer tables, the sauce soaks them.”

Formerly the quality assurance chef for the hotel, Harrington knows what needs to be changed with the seasons. A couple of weeks ago, green beans were at their best. Now, it’s asparagus. The hotel buys from farmers in Mexico, following crops up the West Coast to the Napa Valley area, to ensure that vegetables are at their best. Winter crops come from Florida and South America.

“People love buffets because it’s six to seven restaurants in one,” Harrington says. “They get to pick up whatever they want. There are some people who only want the fish or sushi, and pile up on that. Our most popular items are the crab legs, rack of lamb, and Chilean sea bass.”

If guests have food allergies, some items can be cooked to order. Harrington notes that one regular customer always asks for a plate of salmon with nothing on it, so a chef will grill eight to nine pieces of salmon for him with no seasoning or butter.

That evening, my sister Linda, friend Michael, and I sampled the buffet for ourselves. In the mood to nibble, I tasted as much as my stomach could hold, and couldn’t have been happier. The prime rib and Chilean sea bass were my favorites, along with a three cheese tortelloni with sorrel, which was wonderful. The grilled asparagus and maple-glazed carrots were great, as was the bok choi and fusilli with eggplant and smoked mozzarella.

My only complaint would be that the leg of lamb was undercooked. It was so rare, my knife couldn’t cut it. Michael said his shrimp was a little mushy from sitting on ice too long, but everything else was great. Linda, who has a very discerning sweet tooth, thought the sugar-free cheesecake was excellent. Michael and I voted for the tiramisu.

Before leaving, Harrington suggested that I try a red velvet apricot, which I’d never had   before. It had to be the most delicious apricot I’ve ever tasted.

“Seeing people try something for the first time is great,” Harrington says. “I tell folks, try it. You’re at a buffet. You can leave it on your plate if you don’t like it. The biggest part of my job is walking the floor and talking to guests. It makes the long hours worthwhile.”

There were more dishes in the buffet than anyone could possibly eat in one sitting. Be warned that if you go during peak mealtimes, the line to get into the buffet may be long.

But it’ll be oh, so worth it.

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