The semi-buffet at One-Ninety offers a great balance of choice and quality

The good thing about buffets is the large amount and variety of food on offer, ensuring that everyone gets to choose what they want to eat. The bad thing about buffets is that, for the very same reasons, the quality of food tends to be mediocre.

One way that restaurants have found to balance the trade-off is to offer semi-buffets, where appetisers and desserts are served in the traditional all-you-can-eat format, and main courses are restricted to one per diner and cooked-to-order. This provides chefs with a relatively higher budget to use better ingredients for the main course, and to cook it with more care and attention.

One-Ninety in the Four Seasons Hotel is one such restaurant, and it was the last stop on our Restaurant Week excursion, after a couple of satisfying lunches at Beach Road Kitchen and Tanoke. This time, we jio‘ded our regular makan companions and made it a dinner triple-date.

The semi-buffet dinner is available at S$58++ on normal days but during Restaurant Week, One-Ninety throws in a complimentary glass of prosecco for each diner. The choice of main course is quite extensive, covering a good selection of Western and local dishes, with some requiring additional supplements ranging from S$15 to $35.

Despite being complimentary, the restaurant was quite generous when pouring our Proseccos, as you can tell from the traditional group cheers shot below. Besides the bubbly, we also requested for warm water (because old people don’t drink ice water) and were surprised when they served individually-sealed bottles of heated alkaline water. I assumed that they were charge-able, but when we settled the bill at the end of the night, I was surprised that they were not.

The buffet stations were located at one end of the restaurant, with the dishes laid out in a U-shaped long tables fronted with acrylic panels. We were there on a Saturday night but there was only one manager and two waitstaff on duty, and all three were tasked with manning the buffet stations (since self-service is still not allowed), delivering the main courses, serving drinks and clearing plates.

If it was a full-house, there would have been no way that the three of them would have coped, but things being what they are, only a few tables were filled. Even so, the staff were kept on their toes the entire night. They were quick to respond but did it in a way that wasn’t rushed or impatient. Hats off to them, and to all front-line F&B staff soldering on.

The first table you’ll see at the buffet section is the obligatory salad bar, with bowls of the usual suspects. We all took a cursory look and moved on, because who goes to a buffet and starts with a large bowl of grass?

On the left wing, the appetisers were laid out, starting with a small selection of cold cuts, warm vegetables, mixed salads, some cooked dishes, Greek-style dips and marinated cold seafood. Compared to the usual hotel restaurant buffet spread, this selection was tiny. But what it lacked in sheer volume, it made up in quality.

The right wing included the dessert station and a cheese bar that offered quite a decent selection, including Manchego, Gruyère, Fontina, Brie and Neufchâtel from the major European cheese-exporting nations of Spain, Switzerland, Italy and France.

In the olden times, when we were much younger and had elastic stomachs, going to a buffet was always an exciting adventure. We would see who could eat the most, with score being kept by the total number of plates consumed. With higher age and lower metabolic rates, the strategy has switched to selecting only what we really like and having small portions.

The Wife and I only managed to have two rounds of appetisers, but we enjoyed all the items that we picked. The standouts for us were the marinated hamachi, roasted romanesco, baba ghanoush, Ibérico chorizo with melon, Manchego and Fontina. Their selection probably changes regularly, but if you see the hamachi, definitely start with that first.

When we were done with the appetisers, our plates were removed and replaced with really heavy plates sporting a marbled surface. I flipped it around and turns out it was actually made of marble. It must suck to be the kitchen staff who has to rinse off and load a ton of these plates into the dishwasher.

Given the many choices available, it took us a while to decide which main courses we wanted. We started out with different preferences, and spent a few minutes debating the relative merits of each.

“How come Hokkien mee needs a $15 supplement? It’s just Hokkien mee!” a few of us exclaimed, before reading further and noticing that it came with lobster and Hokkaido scallops. So des neh…

“Hmm… I feel like having laksa,” SL mused aloud, and was immediately food-shamed by me.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s totally nothing wrong with choosing laksa in a restaurant. Unless, of course, if you happen to live in Katong, the laksa mecca of Singapore. And therefore SL (being a long-time Katong resident) totally deserved to be publicly embarrassed.

We ended up asking Simon, our waiter, for his recommendations. Without any hesitation, he suggested the snapper bouillabaisse and spent the next few minutes describing the wonderful seafood that came with the dish, including, of course, lobster and scallop. He then went on to advocate for the braised beef cheeks, which are slow-cooked over 72 hours and cooked in a red-wine reduction that takes 48 hours to make.

And that’s how we went from “lets all choose different things and share” to just the two dishes that Simon the Jedi mind-tricked us into selecting.

[One-Ninety management, if you’re reading this, make sure you hang on to Simon — only a small handful of Jedi masters end up working in F&B.]

The bouillabaisse arrived in a large cast iron Staub dutch oven, and had ample seafood to share among two people. The lobster, snapper, prawns, scallops and squid were all very fresh and paired well with the flavourful broth.

I wouldn’t exactly call it a bouillabaisse though, as the broth wasn’t heavy enough (not enough garlic?) didn’t come with the traditional rouille. But for a seafood stew, it was very very good and would be my second choice on a cold, rainy day; only losing out slightly to Teochew porridge and braised duck.

I thought that the seafood stew would have been the highlight of the dinner, but boy was I wrong. The beef cheek was served next, also on Staub crockery, and it was the best braised beef cheek I’ve ever had.

And it wasn’t just my opinion. The Wife agreed, as did everyone else at the table. The beef was meltingly soft with the right proportion of meat and fat. For something that was braised for 72 hours, it was amazing that it managed to remain in one piece.

The sauce was basically a demi-glace and red wine reduction, made extra silky-smooth and rich with what must have been a ridiculous amount of butter. The root vegetables were cooked just past al dente, and the accompanying mashed potatoes came with a hint of mustard.

We were already quite full by then, but The Wife and I managed to finish all the beef and veggies (but not the mashed potatoes). Our other companions surrendered and had to abandon ship before reaching the destination. They were clearly quite distressed at not having enough stomach space for the wonderful dish, but perked up considerably once they found out that the leftovers could be dabao‘ded.

Next stop: Desserts.

Yes, we were all stuffed by then. But isn’t it a scientific fact that dessert goes into a separate stomach? Even so, I only managed a small piece of bread-and-butter pudding, a tiny puteri salat kueh and what was supposed to be half-a-piece of coconut and pandan cake.

I had noticed the half piece at the counter and specifically pointed and asked for it, but was flatly rejected by the server who only wanted to serve me a pretty piece. I’m sure he had good intentions, but it did take me some effort to finish everything.

We spent a good two hours plus on the meal and had a wonderful time chit-chatting and catching up. The semi-buffet format was ideal as we could avoid the fussiness of a fixed course sit-down meal and the constant interruption of a full buffet, while still having sufficient choice to match our individual preferences.

It also helped that the quality of the food, for both the buffet appetiser/dessert and ala carte mains, was consistently high and the service was warm yet efficient. I’m sure that part of the reason for our great experience was that the Four Seasons has a reputation to uphold, and therefore hire their chefs and train their service staff accordingly.

Would I go back again for their semi-buffet? Most definitely yes. And when I do, I really really hope that the braised beef cheek is still on the menu.

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