Season Seafood Buffet: Searching for a life raft among the ocean of options


Yu, a food assistant at Season Buffet replenishes trays of foods at the restaurant in Hyattsville. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

No matter what you think of the offerings at Season Seafood Buffet — this patriotically colored cavern in Hyattsville with more steam tables than your average minor league ballpark — you have to give the place credit for never condescending to its customers. Diners are treated as if they all have the taste buds of international travelers.

No one explains what a Salvadoran pupusa is (let alone how to garnish and eat it). No one gives you a five-minute tableside lecture on how to build your customized Vietnamese noodle soup. No one bores you with a primer on French palmiers or how the puff-pastry cookie is shaped like elephant ears or palm leaves or blah, blah, blah. The employees here just let you eat like a donkey.

That’s the beauty of Season: You can graze and graze and graze and never sample the same thing twice. Maybe not even the same cuisine twice. This is trough-style dining with an international bent, the flavors borrowed from all corners of the globe: China, Vietnam, Japan, El Salvador, France, Italy and U.S. foodservice factories.

A manager tells me that Season serves more than 200 items daily, but even if I count the commercial bottled dressings and the noodle bar’s individual ingredients as separate offerings, I still come up several dozen items short of that magic number. No matter: It’s still more than any human not appearing on a competitive-eating program should shovel down in one seating.

As the name indicates, the all-you-can-eat Season focuses on seafood, some of which you will doubt the wisdom of placing in your mouth. I’m thinking specifically about the crawfish (seasonality alert!), looking so juicy and ripe-tomato red in their cooked fetal position. But once I try to pry the creature apart, I’m repelled by an unexpected sensation: The shell feels like wet cardboard, and the meat inside is cold, gray and clammy. I cannot summon the will to eat the tail meat.

Season flips the bird at standard stone crab protocols. Its specimens are not meaty claws, ready to crack open, but full crabs sliced in half like a sandwich, exposing their internal organs and flesh in a neat cross-sectional view. It’s an anatomy class at the table, during which you must continue dissecting the cadaver with the blunt end of your fork since there’s not a mallet in sight. Your labor will not be well-rewarded: The crab flesh is fairly sweet but strangely stringy. It’s like imitation crab meat stuffed inside a stone crab.

The sushi bar at Season has become increasingly stingy with its pleasures since I first visited in mid-February. Back then, the hardened rice for the nigiri sushi could be a choking hazard and the slice of tuna might look like one long carnival fun slide, leading straight to the plate. But I still remember that tuna in particular: It was fresh and fatty enough to ferry detectable, delectable flavor. On my most recent visit in early May, the sushi bar had essentially been reduced to a selection of misbegotten rolls, one of which I dubbed Maki Sushi Surprise, given that it was stuffed with scraps of tuna, salmon and (I think) flounder. It tasted mostly of vinegar.

Other fishy bites I sampled: octopus salad (with enough pepper flake to reduce the cephalopods to a chewy element), peel-and-eat shrimp (revealing meat with the texture of grandpa’s hanky), “fried fish” (its batter so thick the species was irrelevant), pan-seared whiting (which tasted like scrambled eggs), crab sticks wrapped in bacon (damn right I wolfed them down) and a sea shell covered with bay scallops, imitation crab and a creamy, slightly congealed sauce to tie it together (I’m ashamed at how much I liked this mess).

Whether you will find the same items on the buffet, or find the same (small) pleasures as I did, remains a serious question. The sushi bar’s diminishing returns reflects my experience with Season as a whole: With each passing day, the place feels as if it’s doggedly sniffing out corners, which it immediately cuts. Lately, I’ve seen decrepit iceberg lettuce that looks as if it were rescued from the dumpster, not to mention hacked-up pieces of yellow corn that were drained of color as if they had seen a ghost. And here’s a professional tip: If you select anything fried, whether frog legs or General Tso’s chicken, make sure it’s nominally warm and crisp before noshing.

Your best approach is to stick with the stations where you can create your own meal. The broth to your DIY noodle soup may rival the Gulf of Mexico in terms of salinity, but at least the proteins are hot off the griddle and garnished to your satisfaction. (FYI: The Sriracha bottles are typically located at the sauce/dressing station, halfway across the restaurant.) The teppanyaki station provides similar controls: Your lo mein will be freshly tossed with your choice of ingredients, all of which can be doused with soy sauce should you need a flavor boost.

After this conga line of international flavors parades across your palate, there’s a childlike comfort in the fresh fruits, sherbets and commercial cookies for dessert. You have some inkling of what flavors to expect. Save, perhaps, for the vanilla (or is it banana?) pudding, which tastes like Dubble Bubble.

Season Seafood Buffet

1535 University Blvd., Hyattsville.
301-408-0882. www.seasonseafoodbuffet.com.

Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Nearest Metro: Prince George’s Plaza, with a 2.4-mile trip to the restaurant.

Prices: For adults, $11.99 for Sunday brunch, $10.99 for dinner and $7.99 for lunch; for children ages 6 to 9, $6.99 for dinner and brunch and $4.99 for lunch; for children ages
3 to 5, $4.99 for dinner and brunch and $3.99 for lunch; children 2 and younger eat free.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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