WHAT DO you get when you cross a raw bar with a medieval banquet? Something like the Friday night seafood buffet at the Mayflower Hotel's Cafe Promenade. As all-you-can-eats go, it rivals the original Sunday brunch at Gabriel's and puts Ocean City's s'more-gasp-boards to shame. And while it may not set new standards in a town with such clean-seafood savants as Bob Kinkead and Sea Catch's Jeff Shively, it can hold its own with the crowd.
It can certainly feed a crowd. On any given night (the lineup changes somewhat depending on the market), the center table -- ice station one, so to speak -- displays raw oysters and clams, tiny sea scallops ceviche, jumbo shrimp, eggplant salad, rice-stuffed grape leaves, roasted peppers, a couple of green salads, marinated beans and frankly a few more things beyond memory (or capacity). The "hot" station reaches from the Boston-style clam chowder past an array of chafing dishes of mahi-mahi and salmon, crab cakes and pasta marinara, beef tenderloin, a sort of George Foreman grill for tuna-to-order and a yard-wide paella pan. And the dessert station would just fit under a large beach umbrella, with servings that would sink you.
All this for $39. These days, just driving to the beach would cost you that much.
Still, the sheer abondanza can be daunting, and initially dulling. Too many of the salads and antipasto-style dishes taste more of olive oil than anything else; the scant acids shrink in the palate as the dressings accumulate. With so many cold dishes, which by their chilly nature defuse seasonings, more daring in the herbs and spices is a requisite. One order of grilled tuna was lightly seared on both sides and handed over rare, as requested, but completely bare; only later, when the head chef was seen sprinkling salt, pepper and oil on the piece he was preparing did the tuna-on-the-grill concept make any sense. (This may end up on my tombstone, but I say again: The absence of salt is not in itself an antidote to an excess of it. Even a hotel restaurant, which might feel the pressure to tone down the trendier ingredients, does not do itself justice when it turns overcautious.) But the freshness of the seafood, from Foley's of Boston, is obvious; and most of the "main" dishes were more satisfying. On a second visit, you'll know where to stock up.
The chowder was perfectly pleasant, although the individual portions on the regular menu, with bacon cracklings and scallions, have more character. The various fishes, the crab cakes, which are served with a light lobster sauce, and the tenderloin were all proficiently balanced. The paella, though not entirely traditional -- to deal with the problem of having it sit out at length, the kitchen prepared the seafood and sausage separately and set it atop the rice like its own micro-buffet -- is one of Washington's better versions (which ought to be a bigger compliment than it is). And except for the creme brulees, which were over-torched, blackened rather than browned (a common fault in the era of the hand-held blowtorch), the desserts were fine.
The Friday night buffet, a decade-long tradition that took about a year's hiatus, is one reason to revisit the cafe. It's always been a pretty room in an old-fashioned, grand-hotel style, with trompe l'oeil murals of vaguely Fragonard arcadias, pillars and pilasters, a faux-conservatory glass room and a huge chandelier. It even has an extravagantly theatrical balcony on which sits a classical guitarist, who plays through dinner.
(Actually, the best thing is to go early and grab a seat in the hotel's Town & Country lounge, where Dan Ruskin plays the classics from the Cole Porter/Harold Arlen/George Gershwin/Rodgers & Hart songbooks, along with the odd Billy Joel. If you think the day of the great cocktail pianist is over, think again. But watch out for those martinis: Bartender Sam Lek, himself a legend, is a proponent of big is better; you may not make it to the buffet.)
However, the buffet is only a once-a-week indulgence. And despite some fairly standard modernish touches -- shrimp and polenta with white beans and chorizo (i.e., shrimp 'n' grits 'n' sausage), a cutesy surf 'n' turf of carpaccio and crabmeat salad and the ubiquitous wasabi- and sesame-crusted tuna with baby bok choy -- the restaurant's regular menu hints at a not unwelcome old-fashioned continentalism. Chef Agostino "Tino" Buggio has been at the hotel for nearly 20 years and through a number of Washington's then-haute French restaurants before that (and Monte Carlo, Montreal and Paris before that), and traditionalism remains his strong suit.
The Muscovy duck was no spring chicken; he was a big, beefy guy who could have passed for elk, and happily so. Muscovies, which, unlike Peking and Long Island ducks, are not descended from mallards, are much huskier and usually older by some weeks than the other types, and their leaner, darker meat is preferred to the more common Peking breast by many duck fans -- sirloin compared with filet. However, their meatiness does require careful timing, and if overdone, as in this case, they go a little tough. Muscovies can also stand up to bolder treatment than orange-cranberry sauce, but it was an unusual pleasure nevertheless.
Pan-seared scallops were nicely handled, but again, shyly seasoned; they became mere backdrop for the shiitakes that topped them. The unfussy handling of the foie gras, on the other hand, was a plus. Asparagus ravioli were delicate and the stuffing even more so, though the sauce, a smooth but undistinguished cream, blanched the dish (in both senses). Another night's version, wild mushroom ravioli with mushroom sauce, is not unfamiliar but more solid. Crab cakes, which are available in both appetizer and entree sizes, are a B-plus; grilled shrimp unobjectionable but unexciting. Red snapper with fennel-endive "fondue" and clams is almost fine; a little anise assist, Pernod or some such, would finish it in style. Halibut was confidently crusted, as it deserves.
Guinea hen with Savoy cabbage is the sort of straightforward dish that, like the Muscovy, should not be so rare these days. The avocado Napoleon is mouth-toy food for grown-ups, simultaneously squishy (the avocado was blessedly ripe) and crunchy. And Buggio is considerate of smaller appetites: Offering a lamb chop as an appetizer, along with the shrimp and crab risotto (a lighter version of the entree dish) and seared olive-crusted medallion of tuna, opens the way to good grazing.
A few quibbles: In addition to the $39 tab for dinner, a $10 surcharge is supposed to provide you with unlimited wine and sparkling wine; however, we were never offered a menu, which might have listed the option, only the wine list. And considering that the dinner is primarily self-serve, a sniffy response to a modest tip is unattractive.