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Martin Benjamin

When Buffet Met Barbecue
By B.A. Nilsson

Golden Phoenix Buffet

St. James Square Plaza,2309 Nott St. E., Niskayuna, 344-7518. Serving lunch Mon-Sat 11-3:30, dinner Mon-Thu 3:30-10, Fri-Sat 3:30-11, Sun noon-10. AE, D, MC, V.

Food: ***
Service: All Yours

Ambience: Buffet Hall

Start with a close-up: a single pink baby rose, its petals spangled with tiny drops of dew. Perfect in its imperfections, it’s a fake, those dewdrops frozen against the silky fabric of the flower. The soundtrack is “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago. Pull back slightly and a series of buffet tables is revealed: seven of them, a row of three and a row of four, one behind the other. Each is several feet long, with a waist-high assortment of food and a chin-high hood to light it. In the space between you see the torsos of the hungry, in this case four very fat bodies drifting in criss-cross symmetry, plates piled high. The music changes to “Summertime,” with an accordion solo.

The phony foliage, the amusingly multicultural music, the all-you-can-eat concept—only on the surface is this an Asian restaurant. Welcome to America, baby. Assimilation is the watchword at the Golden Phoenix, with convenience, its brash younger brother, slewing over into excess. You pay your $6 or $9 or $10 (depending on time of day, and day of week) and you take your choice, over and over and over. And you serve yourself.

All of which align this place with the many other Chinese buffets that dot the area. Golden Phoenix has something else, however, that sets it apart from most: a Mongolian barbecue station at which you put together your own bowl of selected items.

Here’s a concept that has fueled full-fledged restaurants (even chains) in other markets, but it hasn’t succeeded the few times it’s been tried here. But it is sneaking into other area Chinese buffets (Clifton Park’s Dragon Buffet is another). It’s based on the notion that Mongol warriors, who had to eat on the go, cooked meals at their campsites over heated shields.

What this gives you is the opportunity to put together something a little healthier than the fat-saturated items offered at the other stations. And there are enough flavoring agents to make a meat-free dish taste terrific.

Unlike what’s at most of the other buffet tables, the Mongolian barbecue ingredients are raw. Shaved pork, beef and chicken are the meatstuffs (I saw no lamb, usually another staple of these setups). There are onions, mushrooms, sprouts, snow-pea pods, peppers and other veggies, and minced garlic and ginger mingle with the many sauces, offering a range of flavors and spiciness intensity. Assemble the ingredients you prefer in one of the large bowls provided, and hand it to the sautée chef: It’s cooked as you watch, over a large, hot grilltop.

(Avail yourself, while you wait, of the adjacent sushi offerings. They’re freshly assembled throughout the day, and include nothing more ambitious than a variety of rolls, sporting nothing more adventurous than shrimp or salmon.)

Because I like strong flavors and hot peppers, I was generous with the garlic and spicy black-bean sauce. Back at my table, enjoying the cooked result, I considered the proportions and mentally adjusted them for my next visit. You don’t usually get this level of interactivity with a restaurant.

To my daughter, an Asian restaurant holds the bright prospect of what’s essentially an American dish: General Tso’s chicken, invented, as best as anyone can determine, in New York. According to Eric Hochman, it was part of the mid-’70s incursion of Hunan and Szechuan dishes into the Chinese-American Cantonese tradition, and first appeared on the menu at Peng’s in Manhattan.

Like many sauce-dependent dishes, it’s best appreciated when hot out of the wok. Time spent in a chafing dish takes its toll, but those who seek a gooey sweetness in their comestibles—and this certainly includes those who are 5 or are 5 at heart—won’t complain.

My strategy, when considering such dishes, is to slowly roam the buffet aisles so that I’m able to see which trays are getting refreshed. Then I snap up that item only.

All the standards are here: beef with broccoli, sesame chicken, roast pork with snow peas—you know the stuff. Egg rolls, fried dumplings, crab Rangoon and such are there for the taking, and I’ve even seen crab legs, still in the shells, alongside a supply of drawn butter.

A raw bar gives you clams and shrimp, a salad station offers iceberg lettuce and the usual array of vegetables, and you’ll even find standbys like macaroni salad, to which my wife shamelessly helped herself. Soups include wonton (add the wontons separately) and hot-and-sour, and the latter is one thing that does well while simmering in a steam table. All in all, the Golden Phoenix’s buffet boasts an array of more than 200 items at any given time.

Steer your food-phobic parents here and let them heap their plates. You can grab a tasty Mongolian meal, and all should be happy. Fine dining it’s not, but it doesn’t pretend to be. The staff circulates constantly, removing plates and refilling drinks. They’re very pleasant and add to the easygoing sense of accommodation that informs this place.

Dinner for three, with tax and tip, was $29.

TABLE SCRAPS

Look for the old State Street Pub to reopen next month with a new face and a new name, and an old friend as chef. Andrew Plummer, chef of the now-shuttered Allegro Café in Troy, will helm the kitchen at McGuire’s (Lark and State streets, Albany), which promises an upscale menu similar to Allegro’s. Building owner Tom Despart said that he waited many years to find the right fit for the building, something other than the kind of bar it’s been in the past. Meanwhile, the old Allegro space (33 Second St., Troy), under the thriving Daisy Baker’s, is slated to reopen in the fall as a more casual dining venue called Bacchus. . . . also in Troy, the LoPorto family has opened another restaurant, this one a sandwich shop. Francesca’s (Broadway and Fifth ) offers a breakfast and lunch menu on weekdays that includes salads and an imaginative variety of sandwiches, including wraps, as well as pastries. It’s open Monday through Friday, 7:30 AM to 3 PM. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)


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