Now, I'll start this review with a confession: the concept of an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant has never sat easily with me. For one thing, I simply cannot be trusted with it - my eyes are far, far bigger than my belly (hard as this may be to believe), and my plate generally ends up a rather random assortment of items that in no way go together, and often piled so high I can barely navigate my way safely back to my table. I also have a problem with pacing: starters are my favourite part of any meal and as a result the mains often go untouched - this is of course sometimes for the best, as I have in the past been somewhat frightened by the sight of tray after industrial tray of brightly coloured gloop plopping and gurgling away as they stretch miles into the distance, before disappearing into a shimmering haze of their own monosodium glutamate.
So you'll no doubt all agree that I was both brave and professional to give the whole concept another chance when we were invited to try Tops, a world food buffet restaurant on Manchester's Portland Street which opened in June of this year and promises the hungry diner up to 300 global dishes (presumably not all to be consumed in one sitting, although Mr Liz does starve himself during the day of our visit so that he might have a go). You pay when you go in, and already a queue is starting to form at the cash desks - little wonder, as when we visit the Christmas party season is in full swing, and at £14.99 per head on a Friday or Saturday night the value here is hard to beat. Unless, of course, the food is terrible - my worry with any restaurant offering so many dishes from so many different cuisines is a potential case of "jack of all trades, master of none", but the steady stream of customers from a huge range of different nationalities filing into the cavernous dining area suggests that something a bit better than that might be going on here.
And, it is. There are plenty of those scary ranks of stainless steel counters, but the stuff contained within them is, on the whole, pretty good. My starter plate (which you see here in all its random finery - and yes, I do really like Chinese "seaweed", so no snarky comments please) is largely good quality and I particularly enjoy the satay chicken and the large plate of crispy duck that Mr Liz helpfully goes and fetches afterwards for us to share; one or two items are more mediocre (the prawn toasts are nothing special, and Mr Liz feels that his otherwise delicious crispy shredded beef is a little on the cold side), but a first visit to this kind of restaurant is often best seen as an exploratory mission, a kind of recce if you like, to find out what to fill your plate with next time you come. Anyway, I have by this time caught sight of the sushi conveyor belt, and whilst the selection of dishes is not enormous at the time of our visit I do enjoy what there is, and take extra pickled ginger to make up for it.
But the main courses are where Tops really comes into its own, and are the reason I will definitely be coming back. I avoid the dreaded trays because I have my eye on something else, but Mr Liz tries a selection of meat from the Indian mains and enjoys them all - rice is obviously available, but he has a chocolate fountain in his sight-line for the duration of the meal and has clearly decided to start skipping empty carbohydrates). Meanwhile, I am at the Teppanyaki grill, one of a number of food stations around the edge of the room - here, a charming man lets me choose two items (I go for calamari and king prawn) and cooks them while I wait, tactfully turning a blind eye as I slaver hungrily onto his lovely cooking surface. The fish is a revelation - hot, tender, salty from a liberal application of soy sauce; when I come back, I am tempted just to have this, over and over again. I also make time (and space) to visit the seafood counter, where I greedily load my plate with fresh crab and shell-on king prawns - simple but utterly, utterly delicious.
Whilst I attempt to rip the heads off prawns in a graceful manner, Mr Liz (crack squad that we are) is checking out the desserts. There is a huge selection - profiteroles, Eton Mess, mini cakes and puddings of all varieties...but Mr Liz likes the chocolate fountains best, dipping a number of sweets into their molten rivers before finishing the whole lot off with a self-serve Mr Whippy ice-cream. Yes, I agree that it is truly remarkable that he wasn't sick on the bus on the way home.
Obviously, this kind of restaurant will always provide a certain kind of experience - the table is only yours for an hour-and-a-half, and there is a certain element of pile it high, stuff it in, and leave with a sore tummy bemoaning your lack of self control. We do, however, feel that most of the food here is of a far-better-than-average standard, and are impressed with the service, which is fast and efficient (although they do like you to have your cash ready when the drinks arrive at your table: woe-betide a pocket fumbler here) - dirty plates are quickly whipped away so that you can pretend that you've not eaten a thing yet and go and load a new plate up with something else. Tops have taken a difficult concept and raised the bar a good notch or two here, and we will definitely be back - next time, though, I might just bring a doggy bag...*drifts off into enjoyable reverie, picturing casual consumption of whole crab on journey home...*
- Tops Restaurant is at 106 Portland Street, Manchester M1 4RJ; tel. 0161 2371000. Do not, repeat DO NOT, eat anything before you go.