Sakes, Rice and Videotape

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

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.

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.

My recommendation: Start at the udon station, where management hides the lacquered trays. The trays are set aside to carry the heavy soup bowls, but really should be provided for everyone. I'm actually offered money for my tray by other patrons as I wend my way through the lines; less fortunate diners are relegated to balancing individual plates on their hands.

Then, I head straight for the showcase stuff: the seafood. The diners around me, many dressed in un-Biltmore-style tank tops and flip-flops, know how to get their money's worth, mounding their plates with plump lemon shrimp, admirably fleshy lobster claws and lobster tail, salty nibbles of ikura sushi (salmon caviar), moist swordfish with butter sauce, and half-shell baked lobster. Because despite the sheer volume of food to be found, this is no bargain-basement merchandise.

Sushi has never struck me as prime buffet fodder, yet even my fish-fearing friend is piling her plate here, seduced by the pretty presentation of gorgeously displayed trays of fish lined with cut citrus, seafood salads framed with artistically cut vegetables, and spicy scallops strewn about like jewels.

Me, I go wild with sashimi, gorging on tooth-tender octopus, fat slabs of salmon and red snapper spiked with dabs of fresh wasabi mixed with soy sauce served at the table. I throw in a Philadelphia roll (salmon, cream cheese and cucumber), a cut of rainbow roll (assortment of fish encircling a California roll) and some velvety uni (sea urchin). A spicy tuna roll adds heat, boosted by a daily special of fiery tuna poke. It's a dream meal, rounded out with edamame (unfortunately cold, but acceptable), sunomono, fluffy white rice, and a big steaming bowl of udon, the thick noodles slithering in a savory broth adorned with fish cake and jumbo shrimp tempura.

This buffet is restaurant quality, hinting of real chefs in the kitchen, who manage to charm lovers of authentic Asian food like me with honest goods and balanced, not-too-sweet sauces, while still playing to mainstream tastes with plenty of familiar rice-bowl-style flavors. And while it's true these dishes can be found most anywhere, they're rarely as good on a buffet as they are here -- like light-as-air pan-fried noodles, crunchy tempura, expertly grilled yakitori, moist crab cakes and meaty pork spare ribs. In an un-buffet-like-extra, lovely udon dishes and crepes are prepared to order. Meanwhile, staff members constantly scurry around to replace picked-over platters and freshen everything from pillowy gyoza to fried blue crab to green-tea cheesecake.

Some things are odd: My lunch date practically spits out her inari sushi (the vinegared rice wrapped in a bag of fried tofu is studded with some sort of off-putting vegetable) and my "special tempura" roll is stocked with unidentifiable chewy bits of gunk. It's irritating, too, that we've got to pay extra for beverages. More money for Todai's limited selection of wine, beer and sake I understand, but an extra charge for soft drinks and iced tea is miserly.

My lunch date is trying to explain to me how Heist works.

"The girl's a rat," she says, as if that's really enough to help me understand all the betrayal going on among the gold thieves. Then she admits that she, too, fell victim to the same Blockbuster special, paying a lot more for what, ultimately, she was unable to enjoy. This makes me happier.

As far as bargains go, I'll have to pass on the $7.99 DVD trio from now on. But for savings on sushi, Todai is an excellent investment. In chasing value, it's the same plot, with a much better ending.

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