MANILA, September 15, 2003  (STAR) TURO-TURO By Claude Tayag  - We used to call it smorgasbord, a Swedish word meaning an abundant assortment of hot and cold dishes, served as hors díoeuvres or a full buffet meal. Nowadays, we simply call it by its French name, buffet (pronounced boo-fay), originally meaning sideboard, or as in the British usage, a restaurant operated as a public convenience (as in railway station) or a meal spread out on a table for ready access and informal service.

Today, to many Pinoys, buffet simply means an eat-all-you-can of 30 dishes or more. We love to feast our eyes and gorge ourselves as if thereís no tomorrow. Parang fiesta araw-araw. From the value-for-money thing, it has become a volume-for-money industry. True, buffet tables are bursting to the seams, but itís mostly fillers anyway. Todayís mechado was yesterdayís leftover roast beef. (I have yet to meet someone who actually eats mechado, just like the recyclable Christmas fruitcake.)

Buffet dining here in the Philippines hasnít always been accessible to the general public. It used to be offered only in five-star hotels until the late 1980s. By the early 1990s, the Triple V chain of Saisaki, Dadís and Kamayan started the eat-all-you-can/no-leftover promotion at very affordable prices. This started a bandwagon, creating the buffet phenomenon as we know it today. Buffet dining has become de rigueur in most establishments in the metropolis like Cabalen (Pampango food), Una Mas (Spanish), Havana (Cuban), Emperorís Court at the New World Hotel (Chinese), to name a few.

Sometime ago, Mary Ann and I were in a pizzeria, where one of its features is a self-serve one-time-only salad bar. We were so amused (and amazed!) watching how a young dad neatly stacked up an assortment of greens, carrots, red Jell-O, corn, macaroni, pineapple tidbits, etc on a 8-inch plate for his two robust boys and wife. When he finished putting at least six inches of layer upon layer of condiment, there was no longer a plate in sight and the entire salad overflowed unto the tray. I must say it took some talent to fit into a small plate the whole salad barÖ well almost all of it. A work of art, I said, reminding me of the mammoth coliseum, though somewhat a collapsed one.

A buffet that Mary Ann and I found very impressive is at the Paseo Uno of Mandarin Oriental, Manila. We arrived before the lunch crowd came in and got a table far from the buffet table, enjoying our own little corner with a full view of the falls and pond just outside.

As we approached the cold buffet section, Mary Ann got excited at the sight of her favorite, fresh oysters. They were very fresh, firm and sweet and were flown in from France. To the right were fresh salads of both imported and local greens, with an assortment of salad dressing and imported cheeses to choose from. To the left was the assorted sushi, sashimi and cold soba, which when mixed with soy and lots of wasabi could clear any sinus.

Greeting and attending us were not waiters but chefs who were busy preparing Asian and western specialties. One was frying tempura, another was mixing hot Chinese noodles with soup and dim sum, and in yet another section, one grills an assortment of meats and Chilean sea bass. The carvery boasted of prime roast beef and leg of lamb. The prime rib was succulent and juicy, carved to oneís liking. Mary Ann was deliberating whether to have the prime rib or the roast leg of lamb and decided to have a little of both.

"And, how do you want them maíam?" the chef asked her.

"Burnt for my lamb and medium-well for my prime rib" she replied.

"No problem, maíam" he replied, while his eyebrows tied together.

And she got her prime rib pinkish brown next to her charred lamb slices.

For dessert, which we didnít have room anymore, thereís a creperie with an assortment of fillings to choose from.

Paseo Unoís 143-seating is spread out over varied themed sections, as do the open kitchens that dramatize the chefs performing as in an open theater, replete with an interplay of sensory effects of lighting, sound, textures and smell.

Buffet is served at breakfast, lunch and dinner, although a new a la carte menu has been introduced, including all-time popular dishes like Hainanese chicken rice, chicken and pork adobo, Malaysian chicken curry and nasi goreng.

Are we going back? Definitely! As a commitment, we bought the hotelís privilege card to have an excuse to frequently do so. As a couple, we get to pay half the tab every time we dine at any of the Mandarinís outlets. And thatís value-for-money.

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Paseo Uno is at the lobby level of the Mandarin Oriental, Maila where the Brasserie used to be. It is open from 6 a.m. to midnight. For inquiries and reservations, call 750-8888.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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