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Food: Stef & The Chef

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In our culture, eating out is usually a social event. Few things can be as awkward and embarrassing as going to a restaurant by yourself, sitting alone while you wait for your order, and wondering who is looking and feeling sorry for you. I (Stef) enjoy doing things by myself, but one ill fated trip alone to the Olive Garden - with the hostess's incredulous "Just one for dinner?" and a table in the center of a bustling dining room - reminded me that you have to be either thick-skinned (which I'm not) or selective about which restaurants are good for a meal by yourself.

Fortunately, there are several good choices in Ann Arbor, especially student-frequented locations near the University of Michigan campus, where eating alone while reading, writing, or just looking pensive is a common sight. Some of Stef and the Chefs favorites (when we' re not together, of course) include The Burro (6 1 9 E. William), Dinersty (241 E. Liberty), The Fleetwood (300 S. Ashley), or any of the local cafes.

But if you're looking for easy parking and a more substantial lunch or dinner, you might want to get away from downtown and head out to 3035 Washtenaw Ave. for The Star Buffet. If you like Chinese cuisine, this is a great stop for the single diner (as well as for parties of any size). At the Star Buffet, you pay a set price for the buffet when you enter, pick your own table, and then help yourself to all you can eat of long rows of Chinese entrees, salads, soups, and more. Self-serve desserts, hot tea, and soda are included in the price. You grab your own plates, silverware, chopsticks, and fortune cookies. Staff only come to your table to bus dirty dishes as you bring newly laden ones back to your seat.

If you're alone, this set-up allows you to avoid the uncomfortable moments waiting to order and waiting to be served, and you don' t have to talk to anyone if you don't feel like it. No one cares why you're there, what you eat, or how long you stay.

Admittedly, these characteristics that make the Star Buffet feel welcoming when you're alone can also make it seem a Hule lonely. In addition, the restaurant is a huge open room with a high ceiling; we've never been there when it was more than half-full, so it always feels kinda empty and cold. And the pumped in muzak love songs don't help the atmosphere any.

But people come here to chow down, not to be wooed. And you get more than what you pay for, in quality as well as quantity. Lunch is $5.55 on weekdays and $6.55 on weekends, and dinner, which starts at 4:30 pm, is $7.99 (and offers additional selections, including Alaskan crab legs). Or you can take out a cartón of the buffet for under $4 a pound.

Most of the items are surprisingly good for a buffet, and some dishes are excellent. A few of the best options are the all-vegetarian Eggplant in Garlic Sauce (breaded sliced eggplant without a hint of bitterness in a sweet and hot brown sauce); a peppery cold salad of cabbage, carrots, and green peppers (like a fresher, crunchier version of kim chi); and the sesame roll (a bitesize dessert of sweet bean paste in a fried dough ball, rolled in sesame seeds).

Buffets allow you to eat food in any order you want, so you might want to start with the sesame rolls. But if you'd prefer to begin with soup, the hot-and-sour is full of mushrooms and tofu in a broth that is just the right thickness. We wouldn't recommend the egg drop, however, which is bland and sticky. The choice of appetizers is overwhelming; you could easily fill up on pork dumplings, breaded chicken strips with do-it-yourself sweet-andsour sauce, spring rolls, salty chicken on a stick, and more. Two that we prefer are the fried scallops - juicy and flavorful - and the fried won-ton with a rich crab and cheese fïlling. Opposite the appetizers is a wall of cold dishes with little relation to Chinese cuisine but including a simple build-your-own salad bar, refreshing orange slices, and shrimp cocktail (at dinner time).

When you go back for the entrees, take a peak at everything before you start loading up your plate, but beware of your eyes being bigger than your stomach. There are classics like Pepper Steak, Moo Goo Gai Pan, and Vegetable Lo Mein which are all adequately prepared. Better options include the Tofu Homestyle with carrots and green peppers and large pieces of chewy, soft tofu; Chicken, Pepper, and Peanuts with zucchini and bamboo shoots chopped small in a tasty brown sauce; Mongolian Pork with onions that bite back; and Chicken with Garlic Sauce. Star Buffet seems to do best with vegetable dishes; don 't miss the sauteed string beans or the bok choy stir-fry. One disappointing dish is the General Tso's Chicken with a heavy sauce and too much dough around the pieces of meat. But the great thing about a quality buffet is you can skip anything you don't like - or can't eat - and still have plenty of pleasing choices.

Of course, a meal at The Star can suffer from the laws of buffet dining. At any moment, some dishes will be fresh from the kitchen and steaming in the chafing dish while others have become stale and sticky or are currently unavailable. For example, the last time we were there, the Singapore rice noodles were down to about 20 strands, glued to the bottom of the pan. Tricks to avoid this downfall are to go right when they open (11:15 am) or to go at peak meal times when the most people are there to keep the kitchen hopping.

Another problem with the buffet approach is that the level of spicing seems geared toward the least adventurous palate; many of the sauces end up tasting similar. The assumption seems to be that "heat" can be added as desired, and hot mustard and pepper sauce are available for this purpose. Another challenge for a Chinese buffet is the rice, a food which doesn't keep well long after cooking. Star Buffet has white and fried rice available in large rice cookers, but the consistency has never been quite right when we've eaten there. Finally, the staff don't always clear away dirty plates as fast as you can pile them up on your table.

But don't sweat the details. Relax and pig out. And after you've conquered the entrees, you might want a bowl of soft-serve chocolate or vanilla ice cream, a piece of coconut pound cake, fried sugar rolls (donut holes that melt in your mouth when warm), or, well, another sesame roll.

So whether you 're eating alone or with a gaggle of friends or family, the Star Buffet welcomes you to be yourself. Enjoy eating without restraint, try dishes you've never ordered off a menu before, and don't worry if you're a little thin-skinned. Nobody here minds a bit.

Stef is a freelance writer who loves to eat and drink. The Chef is a local professional chef who spends his life in restaurants of all kinds.


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