"The real highlight, thought, and worth the per-person price alone, is the desserts – a chocolate fountain forms the centrepiece of a goliath display of fruits, meringues, pavlovas, mousses, cakes and ice creams."
“At midnight every self-respecting casino premières its buffet—the eighth wonder of the world, the one true art form this androgynous harlot of cities has delivered herself of.... We marvel at the Great Pyramids, but they were built over decades; the midnight buffet is built daily. Crushed-ice castles and grottoes chill the shrimp and lobster. Sculptured aspic is scrolled with Paisley arabesques. They are, laid out with reverent artistry: hors d'oeuvres, relish, salads, and sauces; crab, herring oyster, sturgeon, octopus, and salmon; turkey, ham, roast beef, casseroles, fondues, and curries; cheeses, fruits and pastries. How many times you go through the line is a private matter between you and your capacity, and then between your capacity and the chef's evil eye.”
The idea of an all-you-can-eat buffet was established by savvy Las Vegas entertainment wizard Herbert Cobb McDonald, presumably because he realised that if casino customers didn’t have to leave the building to eat, they’d spend more time in front of slot machines and roulette wheels. The above quote, from William Pearson’s 1965 novel The Muses of Ruin, highlights the sheer unfamiliarity of the all-you-can-eat format felt by casino punters five decades ago.
The more general concept of self-served meals from a large display table of food, of course, is far older, most likely from the Swedish brännvinsbord format, where guests would gather around a table for a pre-dinner drink. Smörgåsbords (literally “sandwich tables”) came later.
Fast forward 51 years and the trend for gargantuan buffets encompassing myriad cuisines and styles of cooking has spread to the UK in spectacular fashion. A branch of Cosmo, which first opened its doors in Eastbourne in 2003, has sprung up on Magdalen Street where JD Sports used to be and represents probably the most all-encompassing of these rather surreal restaurants within reasonable distance.
I have certainly had my doubts about the vertigo-inducing level of variety on display at eateries like Cosmo – how can any product possibly be cooked or prepared to a high standard when the staff have to oversee over 150 dishes at the same time? The more meals there are on offer, the more opportunities there are for things to go wrong, and once you get over the novelty of being at what is essentially the 21st century equivalent of a Roman orgy, I just couldn’t imagine that the food would taste any good. This, combined with rushed and inattentive service at a visit to a similar, Bristolian establishment a few years ago (presumably due to the fact that the quicker the staff can get you out the doors, the more entry fees they can ring through the tills) made me file the all-you-can-eat restaurant under “good idea but only on paper” and return to my à la carte status quo.
Here’s the problem – Oxford’s branch of Cosmo is actually rather good. The unassuming entrance gives way to a cavernous dining hall, tables on one side and stations of the encyclopaedic selection of food on the other. I assumed this would be a student-heavy sort of place, but families, businessmen and the older generation were all in attendance. The staff manage to be ever-present but never impatient or pushy, and take your orders for drinks before you dive into the preposterous array of food on display across the room.
In the spirit of true investigative journalism, I decided that the only way to pass an informed value judgement on the place was to try everything I could possibly manage before I burst a blood vessel in my eye. I won’t bore you with an out-of-ten judgement on each of the three-figure list of meal components that I piled through before my blood sugar caught up with me, but in general the quality and freshness of each batch of ingredients was a pleasant surprise. There are cooking stations where chefs fry up objectively fresh produce in front of you, and the Asian side to the menu is particularly good, the curries bursting with flavour and the sushi perfectly serviceable. The meat carvery, which tends to ring alarm bells by name alone, serves up a very good selection – the sheer number of people being served at one time means that dishes are replaced with new batches at a rapid rate.
The real highlight, thought, and worth the per-person price alone, is the desserts – a chocolate fountain forms the centrepiece of a goliath display of fruits, meringues, pavlovas, mousses, cakes and ice creams. Top tip: suspend a piece of Irish cream cheesecake on a wooden skewer and pass it through the chocolate fountain. Need I say any more?
So, whilst describing this insane restaurant as “the eighth wonder of the world” might be erring on the side of sycophantic, there is serious fun and genuinely great food to be had with this buffet format, and the staff at Cosmo definitely do it justice. Give it a try.
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