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EATS | FIRST IMPRESSIONS

There's Ample Seafood at Todai Buffet, but Also a Bit of a Catch

May 15, 1997|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

It sounded too good to be true: All the seafood (and that includes sushi, crab, lobster, scallops . . . ) you can eat for $18.95 at the new Todai Restaurant in the Beverly Center.

With a couple of buffet amateurs in tow, I recently tried the fourth in the Todai mini-chain, which includes locations in Studio City, Woodland Hills and Cerritos. And ended up waiting in line with tourists from all over Asia who have somehow already heard about this new locale, decorated with a wave and lighthouse motif. (Todai means lighthouse in Japanese.)

Inside, the lavish seafood buffet snakes along one wall, beneath stylized cutout waves back-lit in pale blue neon. The sushi section, where half a dozen cooks in see-through plastic gloves turn out dozens of varieties of sushi, takes up fully one half of the space. In front of "I love sushi" signs are trays of the stuff--unagi (eel), salmon skin, imitation crab, maguro (tuna), hamachi (yellowtail), shark's fin and just about everything you can think of. It's definitely production-line sushi, though, made with rice pressed into perfect rectangles and tasting like something you'd get at the train station in Japan.

You can help yourself to platters of snow crab legs (completely overcooked and mushy) and Alaskan king crab legs (singularly flavorless), scallops in the shell (cooked to the consistency of rubber bands) and even conch shells filled with the chewy conch meat and sliced brown mushrooms. Salads run from passable to grim. And everything is identified with a hand-lettered sign on pink paper covered in plastic, with endearing misspellings like "crab luie."

That's not even counting the hot buffet with its sweet, glazed pork ribs, heavily battered tempura and "filet mignon" sizzling on a griddle. One woman who bobs up every few minutes to collect another plate of food patrols the empty area labeled lobster, asking, "When are the lobster tails coming out?" Five minutes, she's told. "You said that 10 minutes ago!" she whines, until a tray finally appears beneath a hand-lettered sign pleading with customers to be considerate--only one lobster at a time. She promptly helps herself to two.

In the heat of the moment, the lobster really looks like a prize. But, in truth, it's hardly worth the fuss for these leathery lobster tails.

And that's the trouble. Despite the helpful, efficient waiters who bring drinks and clear away plates, it's just not possible to serve good quality seafood at these prices. To get anything close to your money's worth, you have to pick and choose. Very carefully.

In the end, Todai doesn't seem like much of a bargain.

BE THERE

Todai Restaurant, Beverly Center, 8512 Beverly Blvd., No. 157, Los Angeles; (310) 659-1375. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Seafood buffet $18.95 weekdays, $19.95 weekends at dinner; $11.95 weekdays, $12.95 weekends at lunch. Also at 11239 Ventura Blvd., No. 218, Studio City, (818) 762-8311; 20401 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 883-8082; 18425 Gridley Road, Cerritos, (310) 467-1668, and opening in Glendale soon.

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