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Mini reviews: Panda Buffet, Northern India, McQuade's Marketplace

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published March 31. 2011 4:00AM   Updated February 28. 2012 1:44PM

Some joker left a message telling me Jean Georges AND Aquavit had instituted $9.99 all-you-can-eat buffets, and I sprinted to Manhattan with a 20 dollar bill and a doggie bag.

Alas, it's not true.

In my sorrow, I visited three local buffets in search of appeasement.

Sunday Breakfast Buffet at Mcquade's Market, 7:30 a.m.-noon, Mystic, $7.99

Adjacent to the prepared foods/deli counter is the very pleasant Gallery at McQuade's, a surprisingly large dining area with comfy tables and high-backed booths, pergola-style suspended wood-and-vines, and actual nice views out the windows. From 7:30 a.m. till noon each Sunday, queue up to take advantage of a modest but reliably tasty array of standards. In addition to fresh fruit salad and a bin of wheat toast and pancakes, there are fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, link sausage, bacon, Eggs Benedict, and a free-standing carving station with spiral-cut ham.

About that ham: YOU are the carver. There's no chef in whites waiting to custom-slice your request. Partly because I could, I eschewed the perfectly adequate pre-sliced samplings, lifted the ham-scimitar, and hacked off a section the heft and bulk of which reminded me of something you'd see lassoed to the hood of a pickup truck during Arkansas' deer season. It was a very fine and honey-infused product and a beautiful thing. I ate it happily and with a modicum of grace.

That's not all. The scrambled eggs were fluffy and didn't have that neon-yellow color one associates with some buffets. They were real, is what I'm saying. Bacon was crisp, thick cut, lean and maple-y, and the links of sausage, while slightly greasy, were flavorful.

There's a beverage bar with fountain soft drinks, coffees, teas and milk, though the glasses you get are about the size of those little cups you get in a hospital that hold your medication.You can also order off a regular breakfast menu, and some guests were doing that.

Lunch Buffet at Northern India, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, New London; $10.95

Okay, before you go further, please place your initials here: _____. This means you promise to obey my following request. Do NOT read this and go immediately to Northern India. It's a small, quaint place and cannot presumably handle the onslaught of humanity that might ensue when you understand how superb this buffet is. It's insanely great, is what it is - so y'all parse it out over several days and give everyone a chance. Let's not overwhelm and ruin this.

Tucked in the back of the dining room are steam trays featuring four entrees for vegetarians - Bhindi Masala (an okra curry), Navraton Korma (cauliflower, broccoli, cashews in a cream sauce), Yellow Lentil Dal with steamed basmati rice, and Chana Masala (spicy chickpeas with a citrus tang) and four for meat folk - chicken ginger kabobs, shrimp curry, chicken Tikka Masala, and Lamb Bhuna.

Here's the best way to describe the NI lunch fiesta: these are not remotely steam table-style buffet offerings. These are uniformly excellent. The seasonings are distinct and savory, the ingredients fresh and plentiful, and the sauces are rich and piquant. This is an amazing food experience and a true bargain.

Lunch Buffet at Panda Buffet, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. daily, New London, $7.95

It's been a while since I visited the Panda, and it's a reliable and solid place. Every day they trot out over 100 hot and cold items - both mainstream Chinese fare and assorted Western items - and last week I dropped by and tried every single one of them!

Well, of course I didn't. Maybe 94.

When you're dealing with so many options, it stands to reason the goal of the restaurant is a filling and reliable experience, as opposed to, oh, the gourmet attention to detail for each dish you'd expect at Commander's Palace. As such, seek out reliable favorites, and don't try to get too adventurous in terms of the exotic or even with items such as french fries or macaroni and cheese.

For me, the consistent winners include coconut chicken, sesame chicken, and chicken and broccoli - all are fun and feature nice bits of breast or thigh meat - and shrimp and cabbage is pretty cool, if only to see folks pick through the abundant cabbage to find and pick out the crustaceans.

Speaking of that - it's crawfish season and, believe it or not, Panda recently had a bin of broiled crawfish. Now, there was no corn, potato or sausage, but the large crawfish were redolent of the spicy Lou'sanna style seasoning. They were perhaps a bit overdone, but it was so unexpected that I laughed out loud and ate a few. (A problem with such offerings is that peeling crawfish is messy business, and it can interfere with the momentum of the rest of the meal.)

Anyhoo, load up. Barbecue spare ribs, veggie lo mein, crispy green beans, egg drop soup, peel 'n' eat shrimp, stuffed clams, mussels in bean sauce, pepper steak with green pepper, California or tuna rolls, and a peanut/avocado sushi ...

None of these will win James Beard trophies, but they're authentic and prepared with efficiency and care given the massive daily turnover of customers. (FYI: The dinner and weekend buffet is even more expansive and only slightly more expensive.)

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DETAILS

PANDA BUFFET

351 North Frontage Road, New London

Lunch buffet, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. daily, $7.95

(860) 447-3366

NORTHERN INDIA

150 State St., New London

Lunch buffet, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, $10.95

(860) 437-3978

MCQUADE'S MARKETPLACE

14 Clara Drive, Mystic

Sunday breakfast buffet, 7:30 a.m.-noon, $7.99

(860) 536-4606

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