Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tokyo House - All-You-Can-Eat Sushi? How Arkansan.

11 Shackleford Drive, Little Rock, AR (in the former Tony Roma's Rib House)

I'm not sure I should write this because I still have very mixed feelings about my lunch yesterday at Tokyo House, but good judgment has never been my strong suit so I'll take the plunge.

The quick facts: pretty good, familiar types of sushi and hot Asian dishes in an all-you-can-eat buffet setting. Price for two with drinks about $24 with tip for the "weekday" buffet. Evidently, prices go up on the weekends.

Sounds sort of nice, doesn't it? I mean, the sushi (and I'm no expert at the sushi-construction process, I just know what tastes good to me) seemed to be fresh and very well prepared. And, so were the dishes in the hot food area, with the exception of the shrimp tempura. They just tasted old and pre-fab. Too bad.

So what's the problem? Probably nothing. My friend commented that he liked the roominess of the place, which is in stark contrast to places like Panda Garden that maximize available floor space by filling it with a zillion tables. And, you know, in retrospect, I think that's what I didn't like about it. It felt, to me, like I was eating sushi in a bus station. Maybe that's not bad, but maybe I actually like being crammed together with other diners.

Again, the food quality is good with a few exceptions. The sushi is prepared constantly and there is a broad selection of fairly common types. You'll have to go elsewhere for the more exotic (and interesting) varieties. But, again, this is a buffet, so you need to set your expectations accordingly.

There is also a fresh fruit area and a salad "bar," of sorts. So, they have effectively covered all bases. The parking lot was quickly filling up when we arrived, and our fellow diners seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Now, I don't want to be too critical here, but the popularity of all-you-can-eat buffets in Arkansas seems well-established. This is a market where quantity will always trump quality. There seem to be a number of reasons for this, but I'll leave them to a trained sociologist to parse.

A number of years ago, a trend was established in many chain restaurants: increase the portion size by 50% and double the price. Diners thought they were getting a bargain when their huge plates were set down in front of them. What they didn't realize was the incremental cost of the larger servings was miniscule to the restaurant, while the diner paid significantly more for the food. It was a smart financial move by the restaurants and their managements, but a cynical one, nonetheless.

The all-you-can-eat buffets work on the same principle. The prospect of eating as much as you want is attractive to certain diners, so they'll pay the higher cost thinking they'll get their money's worth. Of course (and as my mother used to point out to me), their eyes are bigger than their stomachs, so they only eat as much as they normally do (with, again, some notable exceptions) and the restaurant profits nicely. These diners pay for the expectation that they're going to get a bargain, and I think, quite often, are happy with the deal they strike with the restaurant. Happy, but delusional.

Enough of this. If you enjoy buffets, you could do a lot worse than Tokyo House. I realize that is less than a hearty endorsement, but it simply reflects my ambivalence to buffets and not the quality (or quantity) of the food they provide.


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