The all-you-can-eat buffet, in theory, holds the same promise as your first year at college: The rules are few, the possibilities almost boundless. If you want to stuff your face with fried things until you sweat canola oil from every pore, go right ahead. No one’s stopping you. The freedom is as savory as the spread laid before you.
But as I’m sitting at Il Mee Buffet in Annandale — a pan-Asian place that pairs Korean barbecue with Japanese sushi and shabu shabu — I’m thinking how quickly independence can turn to impotence if you’re not an habitue of restaurants specializing in these foods. Each cuisine could practically come with a thick user’s manual, detailing the approaches that provide the ideal experiences. If you happen to be fluent in all three, you’re dining at a PhD level.
There’s no manual at Il Mee (which roughly translates to “best taste” in Korean), but there is a sign on the buffet sneeze-guard explaining the proper procedures for eating Korean barbecue. What’s more, the shabu shabu order form provides a bare-bones description on swish-swishing your way to contentment (if you don’t get the swishing reference, consider yourself a neophyte).
To the uninitiated, this buffet must feel as perplexing as cracking open a chemistry book for the first time. It’s just you, a vast banquet of Asian dishes (and sauces) and a fleet of busy servers who may speak a language other than your native tongue. It’s like the moment you realize the flip side of adult freedom: You’re on your own now, Bubba, in a world much larger than your parents’ little domicile.
Then again, dining isn’t particle physics; it’s more phys ed. You learn by practicing, and few places are better equipped for this than Il Mee, where the food keeps coming as long as you have an appetite. (Warning: Don’t order more than you can devour, or the managers threaten to charge you for “excessive” leftovers.) Just as important, the dining room, as segmented as modular condos, is typically packed with eaters familiar with the cuisines. You can learn by osmosis.
Your first decision is to select a meal pairing: sushi and barbecue? Or sushi and shabu shabu? You can opt for all three, but you’ll shell out an extra dollar per head on top of the standard fee ($18.95 for dinner on weekdays and $20.95 on weekends, which technically breaks my budget, but let’s keep that between us, okay?).
For the price of admission, you also get access to the battleship of a buffet bar, loaded with a head-spinning (and sometimes head-scratching) array of side dishes. The pungent kimchi pancake and Korean fried chicken (more sweet-and-sour than crisp-and-spicy) make sense. But the desiccated black forest ham and cheese in puff pastry? Is there an Alsatian in the house? And I’m not sure what to make of the cilantro-peanut pesto pasta, but I’m too busy shoveling down the nutty noodles (threaded with cabbage for crunch) to care.
I wish you could skip the sushi, both the mass-production nigiri and the glop-tastic rolls, which rarely rise above the level of forgettable. This might be an instance in which ignorance benefits you: Drown that fish in soy and wasabi! Assuming, of course, your little almond of sushi rice is topped with fish at all; one night the kitchen placed a crescent moon of avocado atop the rice, wrapped in nori. Maybe it was an homage to the California roll? Like all sushi buffets, arrive early for fish that hasn’t succumbed to the elements or to the fumblings of the tong-challenged.
My shabu shabu experience was a comedy of errors, beginning with my own. I neglected to indicate that I wanted small servings of beef, squid and “shitake mushrooms,” but instead of clarifying with me, the server simply trotted out a large plate of shaved, slightly frozen beef and button mushrooms to dip into the bubbling cauldron of seafood-and-vegetable broth on the table. By the time I dunked my first ribbon of simmered beef into the spicy cilantro sauce, all wrongs had been righted, as if they had evaporated into the same heady aroma that filled my nostrils.
As with the shabu shabu, you must select your proteins for the barbecue. While the server fetches your beef, pork, squid or chicken (or combination thereof), you need to fetch the necessary ingredients from the buffet in which to wrap and dunk your finished meats: lettuces, pickled veggies, herbs, sauces, kimchi, rice — anything, really, that looks like a worthy partner. Don’t forget to create your own plate of banchan, too, from the selection of fermented and dressed vegetables, because the servers won’t automatically bring the salty snacks to your table, as they do at traditional Korean restaurants.
As the server grills your meats tableside, you can munch on the banchan with a bit of rice to balance the heat and salt. Once the proteins are cooked and scissored into acceptable bites, you start to assemble your lettuce (or pickled radish) wraps. Don’t be afraid of the meats described as “spicy.” Their marinade purrs with a sugary sweetness, which curls up gently next to the more ferocious Korean condiments, like the fermented paste known as gochujang.
Once you get the hang of the process, which takes, oh, seconds, it’s virtually impossible to create a poor wrap at Il Mee, even if you’re an utter novice.
7031-A5 Little River Tpk., Annandale. 703-642-2100. www.ilmeerestaurant.com .
Hours: Daily for lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Monday-Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. for dinner and 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. for Korean barbecue; Saturday and Sunday, 3 to 10 p.m. for dinner and 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. for Korean barbecue.
Nearest Metro: East Falls Church, with a 5.7-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $12.95 weekdays and $14.95 weekends for lunch; $18.95 weekdays and $20.95 weekends for dinner; $13.95 daily for late-night Korean barbecue.