This post originally appeared on The Culture Vulture.
It started with a pie…
Mum and Dad had taken us to Greece for our summer holiday. It was August, sometime in the late 90s, and it was bloody HOT. Energy zapped and tummies rumbling, we piled into the hotel’s air-conditioned buffet restaurant to escape the sear of the midday sun. Lunch was served on help-yourself silver platters, the contents of which incited inevitable grumbles from some.
“How the hell do you pronounce that, Clive? And WHAT is that?!” yelled the lady in front of me, picking at her peeling left shoulder and wrinkling her crimson nose.
“I don’t know June, looks a bit iffy to me. ‘Ere, just have some chips – safer than this foreign muck”.
They piled their plates high and sloped off, leaving me to assess the situation. There were the remains of the usual suspects – pasta, pizza and the few paltry chips left after Clive and June’s obliteration, but there was also a pie. There was something about this pie. Maybe it was the strange name, maybe it was the fact that nobody had touched it, but I had to try this pie. I served myself a slice, hurried back to our table, and took a bite. And that was it. A crisp, flaky wrapper of filo encased a filling so sensational that my mouth instantly waters every time I think about it. Salty feta on the brink of melting was entwined with irony spinach, imbued with the distinctive tang of fresh dill. Simple, but utterly magical; I’d never tasted anything like it and 20 years later, Spanakopita remains one of my favourite ever meals.
That pie changed everything. If that little Greek tourist hotel was serving a dish of such unbridled joy, what could the rest of the world be hiding? My mission was clear. I would become Lisa Farrell, food explorer. Some people travel to discover amazing landscapes, others climb enormous mountains, and the really crazy ones throw themselves out of planes. And that’s all fine; but I would eat, exploring destinations across the world one dish at a time.
It’s been brilliant. To me, food is the key to really discovering a destination, whether you’re in Yorkshire, Florence or a tiny island off the north-east coast of Vietnam. Food is what makes a country, region, or even village, completely unique; a source of pride and passion that not only tastes amazing, but tells wonderful stories. And best of all, you don’t need to step out of the country to explore the world via food. You don’t even need to leave Leeds. Want to visit Italy? Just head to Salvo’s, where you’ll discover the Dammone family’s Italy through fantastic finds like smoked buffalo mozzarella from Cilento. Or how about India? Visit Manjit’s Kitchen, a colourful cart serving incredible vegetarian Punjabi street food inspired by Manjit’s grandmother. Or maybe you’ve got your sights set on North Africa and the Middle East? Forget the passport, you need only go as far as Leeds Kirkgate Market, where Café Moor will amaze you with its inimitable falafel and borek, cooked fresh to order right in front of you. You get my point. In the words of that literary great, Aladdin, ‘Leeds can show you the world’, and the hardest part is choosing which country to visit next.
Enter Leeds’ newest world-buffet restaurant, Cosmo. In theory, world-buffet restaurants like Cosmo should be right up my street. Why choose just one destination when you can choose them all? You can visit Mexico, India, Italy and China all in one night, with a pit stop at America on the way home. Too good to be true? Probably. My last encounter with a world-buffet restaurant was on a Culture Vulture assignment to the infamous Red Hot World Buffet, and the results weren’t good. Vast choice came at the expense of quality; and the result was a soulless buffet of arbitrary ‘world’ dishes lacking the passion, heritage and stories that makes food exploration so exciting.
Although comparisons to its world-buffet counterparts are inevitable, Cosmo was adamant that it was different, and I was recently invited to a food bloggers’ evening* to find out why. It was a typical January evening, and as we stepped inside out of the biting cold, I thought we’d got the wrong place. It felt like a hotel lobby, with marble floors, cream leather sofas, and friendly receptionists beckoning us to their desk. There was barely a hint that a restaurant was lurking nearby, save for a solitary bowl of prawn crackers on a coffee table. The press release did say that it aimed to rival high end buffet restaurants in fancy Far Eastern hotels, but this seemed a bit daft. The restaurant apparently seated 200 – where was it?
But like Red Hot World Buffet, the restaurant was hidden in a subterranean cavern and it was HEAVING. No sign of the January slump here. There was barely an empty table in sight, with families out for their dinner; groups of friends celebrating birthdays; and sparkle-clad girls tottering around on scary heels with their muscle-bound boyfriends in tow. Think what you like about buffet restaurants, but they’re certainly popular.
Cosmo has invested a massive £1million into its Leeds restaurant, and it’s easy to see how that’s been spent. The décor was impressive, channelling Cosmo’s inner luxury hotel with more creamy leather; walls and ceilings swathed in earthy hues; and opulent textures of marble and wood. Perhaps it was a little too nice, jarring with the cheap all-you-can-eat buffet that it was here to serve, but it sent a clear message – Cosmo was the classy end of world-buffeting.
Nice digs aside, we were here to eat; and with a myriad of cuisines to choose from, we were ready to pile our plates high in the scattergun style seemingly used to assemble Cosmo’s ‘menu’. Not so fast. There was method in this madness, and before we were shown to our table; a waitress guided us through the cuisines on offer, explaining the intended order in which we should load our plates. Because of course; Italian, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, and Japanese food need to be eaten in a specific order. How silly of us. So we obeyed, but despite our best efforts, our plates still resembled the wild fantasies of a hungry student whose loan has just come through. (Yes, I’ve been there…)
In spite of my reservations, there were positives. The Indian starters had hints of promise, especially the aloo tikki, which was crispy and spiced just right. The pizza base was also surprisingly good; although it was let down by a topping which had been left to congeal on the pass. The sushi was beautifully presented, albeit a little on the dry side. There was also an appealing side of butternut squash; with caramelised edges and a squidgy centre adorned with well-judged salt and rosemary.
But as I suspected, these positives weren’t enough to detract from the inevitable hallmarks of buffet dining. Languishing on the counters, promising food was left to die: tacos were reminiscent of cardboard; the paneer was dry and devoid of flavour, and spring rolls were greasy and tasteless. I tried several Chinese dishes which all merged into one, sparking a lengthy conversation between myself and my dining partner as we tried to discern even one of the flavours. Not a good sign. And the cakes, whilst visually stirring, tasted overly processed and saccharine.
Cosmo promised to exceed expectations, and to be fair, it did. The food wasn’t all bad, the décor was striking, and I even made a brilliant new discovery – Jasmine Tea. (Yes, it was a dry January…) And that’s the advantage of world-buffet restaurants. Just like my discovery in that Greek hotel’s buffet restaurant 20 years ago, there’s bound to be some element of discovery, whether it’s an amazing pie; the realisation that sushi isn’t scary (ahem, Marie); or that Jasmine Tea isn’t a bad substitute for red wine. Cosmo may not offer the best examples of these dishes; but if it introduces you to something new that you want to try again, then it’s achieved something.
But in spite of that £1million investment, Cosmo still lacks that vital ingredient that makes food exploration so exciting. Soul. Because food is never just food. It’s a family’s heritage; a person’s most cherished memory; a historical artefact wrapped in a tasty package. With Salvo’s, Manjit’s Kitchen and Café Moor; the sense of heritage, authenticity and tradition is almost as important as how their food tastes, leading to wonderful discoveries worth shouting about. That heritage, authenticity and tradition can’t be falsified, and so when a restaurant tries to do everything in an attempt to offer patrons ‘a taste of the world’, what it’s really offering is a taste of homogenised, characterless versions of dishes that vaguely resemble something from their purported country of origin.
And that’s fine. It is what it is, and if you want a massive feed, lots of variety and change from a tenner, Cosmo is a fine choice, and better than others like it. It’s just not for me.
*Heads up – I received a free meal in exchange for a review, but all views are my own.