Chopstick Gourmet 

2275 W. Main St., 208-345-8965. Open Mon.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

A few factors permanently encumber the buffet industry. One of them is presentation. Distinguishing a buffet from a hospital or a high-school cafeteria and creating ambiance is no easy task. Another difficulty is portion size. How much of each dish should be made so that it'll be eaten before it's stale but so that it won't run out before half of the diners reach it? Lastly: heat. Keeping the food warm without drying it out under heat lamps or in hazardous chafing dishes is a challenge. More than once I have attended a buffet only to find that my favorite dishes were gone and the remaining options had been heated for so long that all the sauce had evaporated leaving meat sticky and veggies floppy.

Chopstick Gourmet Buffet has mastered step one. When I stopped by for dinner last Monday, I was pleased by how open and bright it was. The dining section was separated from the buffet with shoulder-high Japanese-style translucent panels atop wood paneled dividers. Most of the restaurant had the same rich burgundy-stained wood and the resulting effect was clean minimalism. The buffet was open to the restaurant from every area, allowing for many trips back without diners without having to go through the whole line like cattle.

My friend Nicole and I opted for the all-you-can-eat buffet—a moniker I find horribly unappetizing—for $9.75. I was again impressed with the presentation. Buffets conjure images of family reunion meals with children dashing around. Chopstick managed to create the feel of a catered lunch by presenting stainless steel chafing dishes and modest portions of food in each. I was pleasantly surprised for the first five minutes in the restaurant. Unfortunately, this is the last of my glowing praise.

Chopstick sidestepped buffet pitfall one, but fell nose-first into two and three. Each hot entree—and Nicole and I tried over a dozen—showed the signs of too much time under a heat lamp. The potstickers were meaty and flavorful, but the shells were chewy and greasy instead of crisp. The orange chicken was tough and covered in an overpowering, thick sticky sauce. The fried rice would have been delicious—it had a good proportion of rice to other diced ingredients—if it hadn't been so dry. The chicken skewers didn't look appetizing and tasted like sticky turkey jerky, according to Nicole. (I was not brave enough to try one.)

While none of the hot dishes were tremendous, the sushi was surprisingly agreeable. I am easy to please with a decent California roll and some wasabi. The dragon roll was not bad, either. Raw fish is not for the faint of heart, and this restaurant delivered unremarkable but inoffensive sushi. At the fruit and salad bar, the lettuce was slightly dry and the melons tasted like they were cut too close to the rind.

Some of these problems might be due to the fact that Nicole and I went to dinner at an off-peak hour or that the day of the week we dined wasn't big diners-day-out. Undoubtedly, when the dishes are constantly being emptied and re-filled, some of the food might have tasted completely different a few hours before when they were freshly refilled. However, I don't believe even turning back time could have made the baked mussel, surrounded by a heavy, eggy sauce and seasoned within an inch of its life, into a delicacy. The hot and sour soup was watery and too spicy. A stale pink marshmallow on a stick had no excuse either. I have personal experience with the amount of time marshmallows take to petrify, and it is at least 24 hours.

Chopstick Gourmet Buffet ranks high on my list of buffets but low on my list of restaurants. At the end of the meal, Nicole and I gave ourselves the consolation prize that all buffet diners can count on regardless of the entrees: Soft-serve ice cream. Two huge bowls filled the void left by a dozen tasted-and-rejected entrees.

—Kelly Lynae Robinson is working on a book: 101 Ways to Make Marshmallows Mouthwatering.

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