The Weekly Eater

Nadine Kam

Sunday, May 9, 2004

This buffet requires
empty plates, not
empty wallets

Like learning to walk and to talk, learning how to navigate a buffet is a natural part of growing up in Hawaii Nei. The only other place that may outdo us in the buffet department is Vegas, and kamaaina affection for Sin City may play a part in that phenomenon.

Let's just say we like to think of ourselves as buffet pros, with the keen ability to size up any spread in a single glance and come up with a game plan to scoop the most -- and best -- food with the least expenditure of energy.

So why was I so confused at Makino Chaya? The cost of dinner is $21.98 ($22.98 on holidays and weekends) per person, and in the dining equivalent of pinching oneself to make sure one is not dreaming, I kept picking up the bill to make sure nothing else -- except $5 for a couple of soft drinks -- was being added. I just couldn't believe the amount of food I was getting for the price.

A worthwhile buffet is often measured in square feet. You need a lot of space to house those rows of food. Makino Chaya is a bit skimpy on real estate. Apparently, they could have tables full of food or tables full of customers, but they couldn't have both together. The solution: A sit-down buffet. Similar to a dim sum restaurant, you point out your choices -- here on a photo-filled menu -- and it's brought to your table, made to order.

But it's one thing to look at the food in a regular buffet line and grab what appeals to you, and another to study a menu. Here, you'll miss a lot if you don't spend some time poring over the menu.

I think the staff knows this, so there's a salad bar set up to distract you. Who wouldn't charge right over to the rows of assorted sushi, Caesar and seaweed salads, steamed scallops and clams, chicken yakitori, crab legs and deep-fried chicken wings? If you fill up here, you'll likely regret it because you'll be too full to sample other specialties.

Makino Chaya offers more than 100 items on its buffet menu, at top and left. You simply point out the food you want, and they bring it to your table.

IN FACT, the entire experience is quite distracting. The restaurant is always packed, and booths and tables are crammed in close so there's always commotion, whether it's waiters rushing out orders or crying babies (take 'em outside, will ya?). The most elaborate dishes are hot pot offerings of seafood and udon, oyster and vegetable nabe, and beef sukiyaki, but to be cooking dinner with all the other stimuli was too overwhelming.

We settled for a nice calming platter of sashimi: maguro, saba, scallop, salmon and snapper. The platter is subject to change because the photograph we ordered from showed tako, amaebi and ika in place of a couple of items we received. The maguro can be a tad gray, but if the customers are worried about this, they sure don't let on, gobbling everything on their plates with gusto.

That is a rule here, by the way. Surely you didn't believe they would allow massive quantities of expensive fish to go to waste? The rule is, you can order any two items in a round, but you must eat everything on your plate before you can order another round. It seems strange that a massive order of beef sukiyaki would carry the same weight as two pieces of unagi sushi, but that's how it is.

Watching the food go by, it seemed that everyone had to have the shrimp tempura combo, the sushi platter and the sashimi platter. After that, it's all up to you. The crab inside the soft-shell crab roll might arrive cold, but it's still worth ordering. Butterfish misoyaki is slightly overcooked but also worth a try.

There is a crab gratin I would have loved to try if I hadn't blown my appetite on the salad bar. There's no need to sample the jumbo shrimp, which is split and filled with mayonnaise. And garlic maguro was also a disappointment, merely sprinkled with a few slivers of dried garlic.

The fare has customers lining up outside the restaurant before it opens.

This is one place where it would really help to bring someone with a large appetite to serve as a cleaner. That way, if you don't like something, you can shove it his or her way. I couldn't finish the garlic maguro and it was keeping me from dessert. I ended up burying the last few pieces under a couple of Caesar salad greens.

Dessert options include three different kinds of cheesecake, a lifeless organic green tea cake and refreshing combination of vanilla ice cream, azuki beans, fruit and kanten. I liked the last, but you can try one or all three. There's nothing stopping you but your appetite, or lack of it.


Makino Chaya

1936 S. King St. / 955-5966

Food Star Star Star

Service Star Star Star Half-star

Ambience Star Star Half-star

Value Star Star Star Half-star

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. daily

Cost: $10.98 for lunch and $21.98 for dinner ($1 more Fridays to Sundays and holidays for both lunch and dinner)

See some past restaurant reviews in the Columnists section.

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to


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