Is there any other word in the culinary dictionary so closely attached to Las Vegas than "buffet"? To some, a visit to Vegas wouldn't be complete without strapping on a feedbag, waiting in a cattle line, then gorging the hours away in a hall of never-ending food product. Fiery discussions are held on who has the best buffet, who has the largest lobsters, who has the most varied cuisines and so on.
Does it really matter? The quality is never there and if you're paying more than $15 a head, it's never worth it. Harrah's has even introduced a *shudder* 24-hour unlimited buffet pass - you get unlimited trips to any of their various properties' buffets for 24 hours. How does that even make fiscal sense? You'd just be living in the buffets all day long! Then you'd be sick the following 24-hours with crap you've shoveled into yourself.
With that said, I had stopped going to Las Vegas buffets a few years ago. I'd tried the big ones: Bellagio, Wynn, Rio, Aladdin (now Planet Hollywood) - and was always met with seasoned mediocrity, especially at $30+ per head! And I want to single out Wynn for the absolute most-disappointing buffet I've been to - when the highlight of a meal was salty, tough-skinned prawn dumplings - you know there's issues.
That being said, I don't question the buffet's place in tradition so I knew I had to bring Ray to at least 1 buffet for his first time. I was planning on going to the Studio B at the M Resort after some friends reported having a good experience, but due to time constraints, we went with the Aria instead.
Located to the back of the CityCenter subdivision/monstrosity, the Aria is one of the newest hotels in the MGM Grand family. Lengthy delays in construction meant it opened over 3 years later than anticipated, and I would know because I almost bought a condo in one of the towers. The Aria signaled a change in Vegas development - gone are the gaudy tourist attractions and flashy billboards - this hotel was a luxury hotel first-and-foremost.
The buffet's location is quite convenient. Usually they're squirreled away requiring a good 10 minute hike with a GPS system and sherpa to find. Aria is just 1 escalator ride from the main entrance. We arrived at 11 AM and there were only 5 people ahead of us in the line. That line grew exponentially 10 minutes later. Once inside, I noticed the pool area was directly beside the dining room, and there were large bay windows that allowed natural light in. Very pleasant. It also allowed us to have a gorgeous view of the pool's inhabitant... which fortunately was quite pleasant this time. I can imagine having a differently attired clientele by the pool could seriously affect a person's appetite.
The Sunday brunch buffet was surprisingly one of the cheapest of the big names, only $25 per person (yes, that's cheap!). No surprise, it's also the smallest in terms of selection. Seriously though - how much variation do you really need? I didn't take pictures of the room - I was hungry and we were on a tight schedule, so check out the pictures that my friend Buddha Girl of Food For Buddha took on her recent trip.
All the requisite sections are there - cold, hot, omelet, carving, Asian, dessert.
This was my first, and essentially, only plate. Prime rib was a nice medium rare, but for some reason, Aria considers a butter knife a "steak knife." No really - I asked and they said that's the only knife they provided. So given the choice between going caveman on the meat, or sawing it for minutes... I just took a pass. The hash was a lovely surprise - I could taste a bit of the corning brine coming through, so definitely some quality put into there. The benedict was competent - hollandaise didn't wow me, but didn't make me stop eating either. The biscuit was disgusting - it was a crumbling rock - like eating a dehydrated cowpie. Pancakes were doughy, but went nicely with the fried peppers and syrup. Kielbasa was bland. The highlight of the plate? Fried plantains. Tougher than I liked, but I hadn't had them in years, and they were definitely passable.
I also tried a slice of pepperoni pizza that came right out of the oven - too greasy, but the crust had a decent Naples-chew to it. Not crispy, and not meant to be. The less I say about the Asian choices, the better. I can't say I expect much from a buffet for Asian food, but the best sweet-and-sour chicken I've ever had comes from the Eagles Buffet at Tulalip Casino in Washington State. They have an old Chinese cook who double-fries the chicken, in the proper Cantonese-way, in a fryer right behind the buffet line, and tosses it together with just enough sauce to keep the shell crispy. The moment he plates it up - I run over and take it ALL. It's that good. I've gone there just to eat that one thing. So GOOD food is certainly possible at a buffet - you just need someone who actually knows what they're doing!
So another mediocre meal? Usually I don't even bother with buffet desserts (nothing worse than stale, leadened sheetcake), but I needed some sugar to get through the rest of the day. I've eaten at the Bellagio buffet which shares the same pastry kitchen as Aria and the Bellagio cakes were as bad as any other buffet, so I had pathetically low hopes. So with that came the absolute surprise of the trip - not only were the cakes edible, THEY WERE GOOD! Second-serving good!
Don't get me wrong - they couldn't hold a candle to any pastry shop (especially JP Patisserie), but they were moist, flavourful, and most importantly, not cloyingly sweet! The NY cheesecake was closer to a gelatin-sweet cake, than an authentic NY-style, but good nonetheless. An apple pie actually tasted of apples and a light touch of cinnamon and caramel. The carrot cake was excellent - just the right amount of cream cheese frosting, good mix of sugar and spice and had NO RAISINS! A pleasant surprise to end the meal, especially when I expected the worst.
We had 1 server covering our section and though he was clearly being run ragged, he always made sure to check on us regularly. He refilled drinks immediately, and changed out silverware and plates the moment we left the table. He also took a minute to chat with us during a lull. Hard enough to get that kind of service in a regular restaurant, but at a buffet? Wow. I tipped him well.
Pleasant experience non-withstanding, do I think the Aria Buffet was worth the price? No. The overall food selection was mediocre, and for the price I paid, I would've been more satisfied going to any of the casino cafes - as well as save $10. The Buffet at Aria is located inside the CityCenter complex on the Strip, on 3730 Las Vegas Blvd South. It's open from 7 AM to 10 PM, with prices ranging depending on the time and the day.