Sakes, Rice and Videotape

Sushi enthusiasts belly up to the buffet

I'd have to be a moron not to go for the deal the Blockbuster guy is offering. I came in for one DVD, but the store is running this special, and the salesman's got me doing the math. One movie for $4. Two movies for $8. For a limited time only, though, I can get three movies for just $7.99 plus tax. It's a real deal. I'd have to be an idiot to pass it up. So out I go with a trio of new release action-thrillers tucked under my arm and visions of a weekend curled up in front of the tube.

First, though, I've gotta eat. My stomach is rumbling so loudly it would drown out even the most sophisticated surround-sound system. I'm just down the street from Biltmore Fashion Park, and, ordinarily, I'd stop in at one of my favorite places, Ayako of Tokyo -- the elegant but frayed-around-the-edges Japanese restaurant that's been there for decades. But that would be nuts.

Because Todai has opened next door, in the failed Wolfgang Puck's ObaChine space, and I'm doing the math. Their lunch is prix fixe at $12.95, and it's an all-you-can-eat buffet. For pretty much the same money, it's either a single dainty dish at Ayako, or Todai's 160-foot expanse of 40 types of sushi, 15 salads, dozens of hot entrees and 20 desserts. So in I go, hoping what I've heard is true: that the food, though manufactured in mass portions, tastes as good as the made-to-order stuff at venerable standbys like Ayako.

Quantity doesn't cancel out quality at Todai upscale Japanese buffet.
Erik Guzowski
Quantity doesn't cancel out quality at Todai upscale Japanese buffet.

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602-957-9123

Hours: Lunch, daily, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Mondays through Thursdays, 6 to 9:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Sundays and holidays, 5 to 9 p.m. Lunch, Mondays through Fridays: $12.95
Lunch, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays: $14.95
Dinner, Mondays through Fridays: $22.95
Dinner, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays: $23.95
Seniors 65+, 20 percent discount at dinner
Children 4 to 5 feet, 50 percent discount
Children under 4 feet priced by height

2502 East Camelback (Biltmore Fashion Park), Phoenix

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Reality: The Blockbuster bargain turns out to be a bust. I can only keep the movies I rented for two days, which means I have to somehow find time for three flicks between Friday evening and noon Sunday. I manage only Heist. I can't admit defeat, though, and renew the other two until noon Tuesday. I doze through half of Don't Say a Word. Training Day doesn't even make it out of the box. The final tab? $16 plus tax for my $4 film, and I still don't understand half of what was going on in Heist.

But at Todai the reality is that I've scored a real deal, big time. Even in the less-than-an-hour usually afforded for lunch, I manage to pack in so much sushi, broiled salmon, seafood soup, shrimp with rice noodles, spicy calamari, shumai (dumplings), mussels and baby squid salad that it would have maxed out my credit card at Ayako. At a leisurely dinner later, the damages would easily run in the three figures at any other restaurant, bingeing as I do on lobster, jumbo shrimp cocktail, snow crab legs and half-shell scallops (the fancier fare is served in the evenings only). Even better, while I can't pretend that the stuff at Todai is of the same quality level as our finer full-service Japanese eateries, it is much better than we might expect of a place that serves food from a trough.

It's also a lot more interesting than typical chain-restaurant food. While Todai operates 18 locations nationwide, management isn't afraid to send out non-mainstream edibles like pickled radish roll, oden (fish cake soup) and sea snail salad alongside its teriyaki chicken. Perhaps its unique selection is the reason behind that unfriendly sign in the lobby, warning us against "videotaping the buffet."

My lunch date is drumming her fingers on the table, impatient for me and not at all interested in why I'm late (hey, it took a while to pick those two extra movies). "I almost didn't come in," she announces. "It looks like a place where tour buses should go." Indeed, the barren, street-level entrance is a turnoff, the small lobby crowded with park benches, an unmanned hostess podium, an elevator and a staircase so narrow that if someone's coming down, we can't go up to reach the second-floor buffet hall. "And what's with that creepy yellow thing?"

She's gesturing to a giant neon lemon critter that's Todai's Teletubby-meets-Pokémon mascot (versions of which are for sale at the cash register, because what's a good restaurant without a gift shop?). It waits in ambush for guests rounding the staircase, standing perhaps five feet tall and giving us a taste of the psychedelic cartoon sculptures that pass for wall art here.

My companion confides that she's always harbored a secret fear of raw fish, but now, she can't wait to hit the buffet. The aromas have gotten to her while waiting for me, the gentle perfume of shrimp with lobster sauce, the sizzling sukiyaki, and the earthy black mushrooms with bok choy.

But where to begin? In full chain-store spirit, Todai is huge -- a big-box buffet spanning 12,000 square feet -- and divided into three sections. If we want to start with soup -- say, the excellent miso broth, full-bodied and stocked with plump tofu -- we start our trek from the hot-food side. If we want to wade in with salads or sushi, though, we chart our course from cold-food side, beckoning us with an endless landscape of buttery yellowtail sushi, meaty tuna tataki, crispy tempura rolls, salmon avocado salad and those long, slender crab legs lounging on a bed of ice. My lunch buddy votes that we strategize over the central dessert station, laden as it is with bite-size beauties like chocolate cake, tiramisu, walnut cookies and carrot cake.

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