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The clock strikes 5:30 p.m. Music is turned on. The doors are opened. The long line of people waiting outside quickly gushes into the restaurant and floods the floors surrounding each of the buffet stations. As I watch this current of people streaming by, seeing each person having an intent dare-me-not look, I remember the words, “Some people look at the buffet like a casino; they want to beat the house.”
Vikings Luxury Buffet Restaurant’s Executive Chef Nick Joseph Santiago hit the target perfectly with that simple yet sharp analysis of why people troop to Vikings and line up religiously everyday, as if this restaurant along Manila Bay just right outside SM Mall of Asia is the great big ark that holds their salvation. Of course Chef Nick’s analysis also explains the typical buffet-goer’s tendency to pile up his plate with all the food it can hold – a tendency justified by a typical luxury buffet’s per-head price that can rise as high as Php 2,000. People would naturally want to have their money’s worth. Thing is, Vikings is not like its competitors. For one, it is an independent restaurant not aligned with a five-star hotel that would warrant the unreasonable price tags, yet it serves all the same high-end items competitor buffets offer, but at a reasonable price. They serve more and offer innovations that have not been introduced to any five-star buffet in the metropolis.
Here’s a few to whet your appetite: Vikings is the only buffet restaurant that transports whole tuna directly from General Santos. Half of this tuna is used on their assortment of fresh sushi and maki, served on a giant wooden boat tray; half is used as the vessel that carries their tuna sashimi freshly cut from the very same tuna. Vikings offers live suahe (greasyback shrimps) and crabs everyday. Another Vikings trademark offering is US prime beef, marbleized. They also have Local Grade A Beef Tenderloin handpicked carefully from selected local suppliers.
They have liver pate and the tangiest choices of caviar, the most tender leg of lamb and Angus beef slabs, oyster Rockefellers and New Zealand mussels oozing with baked buttery goodness. As for newly-introduced attractions, they have recently added a cotton candy station and ube (purple yam) fondue. The Vikings team said their fondue offerings are constantly improved, so watch out for flavors even more luscious than ube soon. And all these are for the grabbing of anyone lucky enough to be among Vikings’ daily average of 1,200 accommodated diners.
And within that figure are people from all walks of life. There are the sophisticated buffet-goers, mostly adult males or expats – these are those who go directly to the stations carrying their chosen fare, as if they’ve planned long in advance and have decided, “Today, I eat only this,” as Chef Nick pointed out. There are nuns who frequent the restaurant and have on occasion conducted a pray-over to a group of sous chefs lunching, in appreciation of their cooking. Of course there are celebrities and politicians that cannot be named to protect their privacy. When I dared Chef Nick to name just a few, he quipped, “Maybe we can say who haven’t come here.”
Before I joined the diners in attacking the stations, I and the asianTraveler team sat down with Vikings’ Chef Nick, Corporate Executive Chef Pedro Canlas, F&B (food and beverage) Operations Manager Belinda Ricablanca and Marketing Officer Chico Santos. The team knew how to face aggression in the form of an interview; they laid down before us a smooth and chilled white wine which they made us drink along rich bites of finely sliced cold cuts and cheeses. I had to remind myself that this was simply the typical Vikings appetizers, I better leave room in my belly for the real battle. Besides, I can’t afford to get drunk, I was supposed to corner them with a few tricky questions.
Like the question, “Is eating buffet-style healthy?” and “Is it cost-effective?” We have all surely heard of people who go to buffets and fill up their plates with food they cannot finish (sometimes because the spreads are not that delectable at all), and thereafter leave the buffet hall to bear the painful brunt of their indulgence because the buffet set-up indeed tempts the diner to consume more than his typical one plateful. Chef Nick answered with a laugh, “Healthy buffet may be an oxymoron.”
Vikings, which opened in April 2011, is anchored in a concept that perfectly fits the Filipino psyche, explains Chef Nick, “Filipinos feel that when they are in a buffet, they are in a fiesta.” He pointed out that buffet-going, though it may have its Scandinavian roots in the smorgasbord, is therefore natural in the festivities-loving Filipinos.
On costs, chef Nick stated, “A hotel can charge as much as Php 2,500 per head for a buffet, [but] Vikings offers the same kind of experience and the same kind of food with value-oriented price tags.” A weekday Vikings lunch costs only Php 688 and a dinner is Php 888, while a weekend lunch and dinner is only at 1,088. Even with a minimal service charge of 5 percent, they still shake up the competition, so much so that in only over a year of existence, they are already ranked as the 3rd best luxury buffet in the Philippines.
Chef Pedro further added that their spreads are rich in European and continental high-end fare because these spreads are the same with those served in luxury cruises, prepared in an even better way due to their strict monitoring. “The mark of a really good restaurant is consistency,” said Chef Nick. Just as how a dish ought to be the same in every branch of any restaurant, the Vikings regular can be assured that his leg of lamb will be as tender as it should be every time he comes back for some. The caviar will be as fresh, the fondue will be as smooth, and the salmon will be as soft in any given day.
How about healthiness founded on freshness? Are their spreads filled with sufficient vegetarian and organic fare? “We are in the process of introducing more alternatives,” assured Chef Pedro. In the meantime, they avow to the freshness of their daily supplies of meats and seafood, that their meals complement the South Beach Diet, and that their dishes are all prepared from scratch, with minimal artificial flavoring, and no MSG. Both chefs even dared us to look into their chillers and kitchens to see their sanitation and upkeep of nothing but fresh ingredients.
Did I care to see the kitchen? Surely, but I’d rather take their word because I cared more about filling my plate with caviar and all the rest of Vikings’ gourmet rarities and must-haves.
The main course is pure Filipiniana in origin as kaldereta, a technique of simmering slowly in a tomato sauce-based stew. It seems more like a deconstructed entrée, with the compote of bell peppers, set astride a quarter portion of local young duck or itik as it is called, smothered in the kaldereta sauce reduction. The flesh is soft and flakes away but has a specific texture and flavor concentration that can only be described as a confit that can compare with the best of Perigord in France. We suddenly have that understanding of what Chef Bruce says when he says he marries French technique with traditional Filipino cooking. Unlike most confits which often reek of salt and an excess of herbs, this duck is tender flaky and still allows the near-exotic dark meat flavor of duck to come through just enough to blend well with the tart sauce.
Navigating the buffets, raiding my own plate
Vikings’ buffet stations are divided into five major areas: salads and soups, appetizers and variety light meats; meats and seafood; oriental cuisine; and desserts. These are not official labels by Vikings—just my way of categorizing the sections of vast spreads I set out to explore. And if I were to map out all the food that can be found on each spread, my list may soon be just dated because Vikings constantly introduces changes. Be rest assured though that Vikings never misses out on the staples (pastas, pizzas and barbeques), and the native delicacies commonly sought by their balikbayan (overseas Filipinos) diners, such as karekare (pork tripe and tail in peanut stew) and callos, and crispy pata (crispy whole pork foreleg cooked a la chicharon) and lechon (roasted pig); and Vikings’ version of these classics are authentic. At this point, the fare I sampled on my own platefuls requires a separate mapping.
The New Zealand mussels and oyster Rockefellers are worthy Vikings bestsellers, with their filling saltiness and jelly-like texture perfect for the available free-flowing draft beer. The Thai salad with its bittersweet pomelo strands complement servings of German potato salad in white wine vinegar dressing.
The schweineshaxe, or German roasted pork knuckles, has just the right crunch on the outside and a surprising softness of its meaty fibers. As for the leg of lamb, the five-minute wait for a well-done roast was worth it – drizzled with just enough mint jelly sauce, my leg of lamb’s sweet juicy texture earned an extra spicy kick.
From the Japanese selections, I picked the house special Mohammed Ebi, which is a highly filling maki composed of tempura bits and green sticky rice, topped with sliced crabmeat and mango, and drizzled with Japanese mayo and spring onions. Another must-try is the restaurant’s very own Vikings Special, maki made of tempura, cabbage, crabmeat and sesame seeds. It differs with the Mohammed Ebi with its refreshing crunchiness. I washed down my palate with miso soup, something I would have missed had I not been reminded to try it. The Vikings brand of the soup, served steaming hot in little Japanese pots, is smooth and soothing, unlike the grainy versions of typical Japanese fastfoods and restaurants in the metropolis.
At last we get to the highlight—caviar. Chef Pedro, from the start, was quick to remind me that their offerings are mostly of the roe variety. He said this is Vikings’ own little way of ensuring that its guests’ dining experience would still be luxurious given the very reasonable rates they charge. As a diner, and as far as I am concerned, caviar is caviar, and blessed be the people who’d let me eat as much of it as I can. I had my fill of soft and salty lump fish caviar, and the salty-spicy flying fish and shrimp roe. I took my time in tasting each variety, letting the caviar beads melt in my mouth as I took sips of my wine.
The true Vikings
My raiding of the buffet stations was not yet over. I had a full scoop each of dark chocolate and coffee ice cream. I loved how their coffee ice cream was without the nutty distractions typical of commercial kinds bought in tubs, while dark chocolate ice cream in itself is hard-to-find. I consumed their bittersweet goodness while scanning further the Vikings crowd.
The Vikings team was right, nuns do go to Vikings, and there was a group of them flocking to the sushi and maki spreads. Seated at my far left was an old man heartily eating an assortment of meats drizzled in glistening sauces despite having a tube connected to his nose. I overheard a mom exclaiming to her kids and husband, “Mag-overnight tayo dito!” (Let’s have an overnight here!). In one of the three function rooms opened to accommodate that night’s influx of diners, I saw Caucasians from one table raising their beer mugs to Asians in the next table, and they all cry, “Kampai (Cheers).”
Chef Nick was already busy in the kitchen around this time to dish out another witticism, but what he said earlier may well explain the spirit of every Vikings diner that night: “You tend to eat a lot more when you’re having so much fun.” I knew he was right as I stood up and headed for the fondue fountains, glistening and seductively flowing in the distance.