THERE are few things that will make your top-end restaurateurs recoil in horror quite like the word ‘buffet’.
To them a buffet is sacrilege. They’d argue it flies in the face of so many basic principles about cooking food to just the right temperature, in a specified length of time and delivered to your table to be consumed at what they’d consider to be the optimum moment.
If quality gastronomy is like carefully composing a work of fine art, a buffet is the equivalent of hurling bucketloads of paint on a canvas. But, as many an abstract artist will tell you, that can work.
Before assessing the food, there are a few things to get out of the way. Firstly, this place is bonkers. Absolutely bonkers.
What they’ve pursued is a concept which takes you on a journey. Not an X Factor figurative journey, you understand, but a round-the-world trip without ever leaving the heart of Leeds. Sounds a little crass? Well, yes it is, but we humoured the place.
You’ll need a sense of humour too because, unless you’ve booked, they’ll make you queue in the ground level bar like you’re trying to get into a nightclub. We were only there for a few minutes but it wasn’t the best of starts.
Things got stranger from there. First you approach a check-in desk at the top of a flight of stairs before descending into a hallway made up of a section of cabin from a jumbo jet, the intention of which is presumably to heighten the idea you’re travelling to a destination.
This does prompt a slightly perturbing question: where do you get hold of a section of aeroplane fuselage?
No matter, when you get to the other end you emerge into a vast subterranean dining area divided over two levels. The lower of the two is the biggest, the higher is slightly smaller but has the main buffet area closest.
Within those dining areas are different themes but it isn’t always clear what themes they are meant to be representing.
The buffet area is also divided up – roughly into Italian, Oriental, Indian and Mexican – with a giant dessert station in the centre (more on that later).
So, like I said, bonkers. You will not find anywhere else in Leeds that looks quite like this, of that you can be certain.
Now, the food. Where to begin.
What they’ve done here is actually rather clever. Yes, it still has the feel of a holiday break in Marbella with vast expanses of containers containing various bubbling concoctions just waiting to be spooned onto your plate. But on the other hand they’ve been rather shrewd with the menu.
For example, yes, you can get your sweet and sour chicken with fried rice, but you can also help yourself to a selection of sushi, which was actually rather pleasant as a starter.
And a substantial amount of the food is cooked from scratch, there and then. You can help yourself to a pick and mix of ingredients in the Oriental section then get it stir-fried in front of you in a few minutes. Which is not only a nice touch but reassures you the food wasn’t cooked hours ago, (even if you’ve no idea how long the ingredients were sitting there for.)
But a key snag is actually assessing what you’ve eaten. Because your senses – that’s every sense – are essentially being blitzed, it’s actually tricky to get a handle on what you’re consuming.
Given its nature, Red Hot World Buffet is bustling with people wandering around, chatting and laughing loudly, your eyes are drawn to your surroundings, while your tastebuds are bewildered by the array of different food types.
If you start with sushi, switch to a fajita then finish it all off with some Italian ice cream you may well take yourself on a journey round the world but your palate gets a touch of jetlag.
Also, to truly sample the buffet you have to take small amounts of everything, which means you never fully assess the worth of anything before you move onto the next international morsel.
It’s not so much I didn’t appreciate what I ate so much as I don’t remember it. I know that after the sushi I had some korma and boiled rice, which was reasonable enough, but beyond that it was all a blur.
Then, by the dessert stage, I made more of a conscious effort to focus. And it does require some effort given the dessert station. This is like something you’d discover on a golden-ticket tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory – a huge mountain of plates and stands covered in jellies and tiramisu, ice creams and cakes with jars of dolly mixtures and other sweets. It’s madness upon insanity.
But, interestingly, I decided to randomly select a dessert and asked myself this question: if this were served to you, in isolation, as a third course, would you rate it?
What I randomly selected was a small bowl of blancmange-like stuff and it was just, well, blancmange-like stuff.
If you had three, maybe four, perhaps five little desserts then that would make a greater impression, granted. But that’s the strength and weakness of this buffet – it relies on the culmulative effect to impress.
Red Hot World Buffet is about delivering ‘an experience’. It doesn’t focus entirely on first-rate cuisine, it delivers reasonable food alongside distractions.
This isn’t dining, it’s eating. It’s also fun, and with lunch starting at £7.99 and an evening meal up to £14.99 for as much as you can eat (in the 90 minutes or so you’re at your table) it’s relatively inexpensive as well.
Already obvious from the clientele was the fact that this has major pulling power for families, not to mention stag and hen parties, or just mates looking for a feed.
The service was pretty good too, to be fair, every time we cleared one plate a waiter would quickly appear with a clean one, though they would rarely find us clean cutlery. Odd. Oh, and they brought our bill to us before we asked for it, which is a polite way of saying: “Time for you to leave”.
They do what they do rather well, all said and done, but aside from the decor and one or clever twists along the way, it’s still a buffet.
Red Hot World Buffet & Bar, The Light, 44-48, The Headrow, Leeds, LS1 8TL
Opening hours: Daily lunch, noon to 4pm. Evening, Mon to Thur, 5pm to 10.30pm, Fri to Sat, 5pm to 11pm, Sun 5pm to 10pm
Tel. 0113 244 0400
***** EXCELLENT **** VERY GOOD *** GOOD ** AVERAGE * POOR