380 Burwood Hwy
Burwood East VIC 3151
+61 3 9887 8011
Ask a self-confessed foodie what they think of all-you-can-eat restaurants and a typical response would be a look of extreme repugnance. Fatty, greasy foods most likely to have originated in a processing plant in Campbellfield before being fried in tallow, then basking in the bain-maries for hours – not exactly the kind of stuff that epicureans go for.
In contrast, a buffet restaurant is what gets a lot of Asian parents going. Take my parents for example, they may be excellent cooks and have reasonable non-Asian food knowledge but when you ask them where they want to go to celebrate their birthdays (which are only three days apart), both of them would have this humungous grin on their face while saying, “All-you-can-eat!” Le sigh. In addition, they kept harping on about the always-packed China Bar Signature Buffet restaurant which has stood atop the hill on the corner of Burwood Hwy and Springvale Rd. I may not like buffet restaurants but I do like making my parents happy and fine, I must admit that I was curious to see what the CHINABar franchise’s inaugral buffet restaurant would be like. I mean, a restaurant with parked Civics and Camrys taking all of the space must be doing SOMETHING right, don’t you think?
When making the booking, we were firmly told that we had to be on time for our 11:30am booking in order to be out by 1pm for the second session diners to arrive. That was cool. What was NOT cool, however, was the fact that we were still all waiting outside the door at 11:35am while waiters frantically ran around inside to get all the tables ready. I also saw the manager and another lady standing at the door, checking their clipboards and looking at the angry line. Unlike their minions scurrying around, they seemed cool, calm and collected, as if to say “Son, look at all the people waiting outside this restaurant!” *chortle chortle* (failed attempt at effortlessly easing a Ben Folds reference in there)
No men’s singlets, but ladies’ spaghetti straps are okay. No sport shorts, but demin Daisy Dukes are okay. No rubber thongs, but 6-inch sandals are okay. Smart casual attire, that means anyone in a three-piece suit will be barred from this joint. Got it.
We may not have been pleased about waiting for 10 minutes outside but once we were at the front of the queue, everything from that point on ran like clockwork. We were shown to our table in the centre of the spacious and ornate-for-a-buffet-restaurant dining room and were, again, reminded that we had to be out by 1:30pm.
Oolong tea was poured from a Bodum and into cute, colourful tea cups. Nice.
Knives and forks as default cutlery at an Asian restaurant? Okay then.
For $29 a head, you were free to roam around and take as many steaming baskets of dumplings as you want, indulge in hearty Malaysian dishes such as nasi lemak or warm your soul with a bowl of piping hot congee. An extra $20-26 a head will not only allow you to dine here for dinner, but also sample dinner-only items such as seafood (oysters, mussels etc), Peking duck and sashimi. I’ve heard from many accounts that the $49-55 cost (depending on what day you choose to visit) was not at all worth it though.
Yum cha staples: sui mai, xiao long bao and har gow. They weren’t the best, as you would expect, but they were certainly adequate given the setting.
The most annoying thing about the yum cha offerings at ChinaBAR Signature was that each bamboo container only held one single dumpling. I think it was to prevent wastage – which I agree with 100% – but it was a pain in the arse having to carry back several containers just for four measly items.
Cramming as many dumplings onto a plate became a bit of a task – both in aiming to use space effectively and in balancing.
Once you’ve had your fill of dumplings, you are free to move onto heartier stuff and a bowl of congee is the best way to warm your heart on a cold winter’s night.
Adam was shocked to find that the Hainanese chicken rice was extremely good, better than most places that specialised in this dish. All the flavours were clean, fresh and there was none of that nasty E621 that seems to infilitrate food court and dime a dozen pan-Asian eatery versions.
There was also no shortage of ‘gweilo’ dishes.
… and dead insects.
If you reckon you can still fit in dessert, there are several dozen little sweet treats for you to choose from. Mini vanilla puddings, creme brulees and chocolate tarts are there for the taking along with desserts of a more Asian persuasian such as the green tea sponge cake and red bean pudding.
Or those Ice Toto icy poles that come in flavours such as durian, melon, taro and red bean (or “fob popsicles” as Shirley affectionately calls them).
For a buffet restaurant, I really wasn’t expecting much. I was expecting third-rate Food Star quality food that made you feel sick after one plate but I was surprised to find that the food quality wasn’t TOO bad for a buffet restaurant. The folk at New Quay at Docklands charge us the same amount for lunch, but the food at CHINAbar was miles ahead of the creamy bacon and strawberry-type pasta dishes at New Quay (true story). For $29, we were all pretty full (and I did eat my money’s worth of dumplings) and it goes without saying that my parents LOVED the place that they wouldn’t stop talking about it. That said, I can’t see myself going here very often and the only reason I would voluntarily come back here would be if my parents specifically requested that I take them there for their birthdays again. Furthermore, I don’t think the $49-55 price tag for dinner is worth it. At the end of the day, you’re basically eating the same thing as well as getting average Peking duck and seafood that’s been soaked in an iodine bath.
The service could be best summed up as an example of Cantonese efficiency. Our oolong teas were constantly being refilled and our plates cleared in a timely manner. I guess the only thing that irked me was when they kept pressuring us to leave at 1:15, even though half the table had not yet begun dessert. While I understand that they need people to be out of the door in time for the 1:30pm session diners to start eating, waving the bill in front of our face and telling us to hurry up (and keep in mind that we WERE kept waiting at the door when we did arrive at the restaurant on time for OUR session) is not cool.
Even though people like myself are wary of buffet restaurants, even if the efficient-yet-almost-rude service might be off-putting to some people and even if there was an insect in my food, I can certainly see ChinaBAR Signature staying around for a very long time unlike the previous few occupants that have stood on top of Burwood Hwy hill and vanished. The concept of a buffet restaurant may not be new but the concept of offering Asian-only foods in a clean, refined setting will always attract a steady stream of patrons. That and an abundant supply of har gow.