What's the worst thing about all-you-can-eat buffets? It's steam trays simmering for who knows how long with food that's getting a little long in the tooth. Maybe it's sneeze guards, too (even the words "sneeze guard" skeeve me out a little), or even the incessant hopping up from the table to trawl down the buffet line.
A new kind of all-you-can-eat concept has rolled into Tampa Bay. No sneeze guards, no customers popping up and down, and no food languishing into dangerous decrepitude. The idea is endless sushi, hibachi and traditional Chinese dishes, ordered serially or in an ambitious flurry. You are seated, a waiter takes your order and brings food and beverages, then takes your order again and brings more. It's all fresh and made to order, and if you are blessed with a big appetite, you can keep that server scurrying. In Clearwater there's Saki on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, but it's New Tampa's Koizi that introduced the concept to the area in August.
It opened in the space that previously housed Panda Buffet, a real stinkeroo that ably showcased the shortcomings of all-you-can-eat Asian buffet. The previously utilitarian box was given a fairly glamorous overhaul, with 14-person hibachi tables at the back (reservation required on those), a central exhibition sushi bar, and the rest of the room given over to sleek unclothed tables and black cushioned chairs. Gleaming stainless hoods keep the smoke level to a minimum, and planters of frilly bamboo warm up the space.
At lunch it's $9.95 per person, at dinner $17.95 (kids can forgo the all-you-can-eat for some truly inexpensive options like noodles and butter for 95 cents). Whether this constitutes a deal depends on your appetite. You can begin with very serviceable appetizers like miso or hot and sour soup, little bowls of salted edamame, or a pair of pan-fried gyoza or quartet of fried crab rangoon. The portions are small, so you can try a number of things or double-down on things that particularly appeal.
From there, a dozen classic Chinese dishes (four at lunchtime) include kung pao chicken, Szechuan beef, shrimp and broccoli and the like, in sensible portions with a scoop of white or fried rice. I tried a couple of these — the dry-fried string beans and kung pao chicken — and felt the quality of ingredients and preparation on both were laudable.
Still, look around the always-packed room and you'll see most folks going for hibachi and platters of sushi. Beware, though, because if you over-order sushi they will ding you 50 cents for each piece you don't eat (in two visits, though, they didn't charge me for the lone stragglers on my plate; it seems to be more of a caution to people inclined to go nuts). And you can ratchet up the price of the hibachi by adding in ribeye, filet mignon, salmon or scallops for $5, or lobster for $8, but I felt the regular orders of N.Y. strip and chicken, or chicken and shrimp, were plenty appealing, smoky and soy tinged and accompanied by flat-topped veggies, fried rice and noodles. It's fresh, simple and wholesome-tasting.
I can say the same thing about the classic rolls, from spicy tuna to a lovely sweet potato roll, but plates of specialty rolls can often look like crime scenes with their squiggles and squirts of eel sauce, sriracha and spicy mayo. Still, made-to-order sushi will always beat out buffet sushi because tempura is still crisp, cold fish is still cold and nori hasn't begun to go soft. The biggest disappointment at Koizi is that you often have to ask for wasabi, ginger and the little bowls for soy.
Which brings me to Koizi's only rough spot: service. I had the same waiter on two visits, a whiz of a guy who wrote nothing down and remembered everything. The problem was he had so many tables to oversee that he seemed always at a trot and hard to flag down. The management might think of bringing on a couple more servers or food runners.
Still, when $64 serves three people a gargantuan dinner, including a couple of glasses of wine, it's hard to quibble too much.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.