I've been following the recent thread - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5801... - about the Tokyo Buffet in Monmouth County, where a lot of people seemed to be singing the praises of Makolli in East Brunswick. Someone even used the phrase "gold standard...in the local area" to describe it.
Living in Somerset County and formerly working up in the Parsippany area, my wife and I have become big fans of Minado in Morris Plains, so when I read about Makolli as a closer potential alternative, we decided to check it out today, when they were serving their full dinner for the holiday. Hopes high.
Entering the place, the ambiance was dingy, ill-lit, and redolent of cooking smoke in the air. For a room of it's size, I didn't expect my clothes to be smelling like old frying oil when I left. They need some better ventilation. Shown to our table, service (even just asking us what to drink) was abrupt and curt. No "welcome" from either the hostess - just a "How many? 2?" - or the waiter.
Before loading the plate, took one pass around the serving areas to check out the offerings. Did not impress. Afterwards we decided it came off like a run-of-the-mill Chinese Buffet with stale, pre-prepared sushi added. (Minado also works from the pre-sliced fish as well, but they pull it off with a considerably higher quality end product.)
Highlights: Nothing really grabbed me, but I've got to admit, for a "seafood buffet" they've got a good Chinese-style rib. My fishetarian wife enjoyed the seaweed salad. So much for the highlights.
Some specific disappointments...
(I know this is a buffet and can't be measured against any standalone sushi place, but I think I should be able to use Minado as a benchmark, since it's in the same price range for the dinner offerings.)
The presentation of the sushi was not helped by the less than optimal lighting. Nor was it helped by flecks of unidentifiable dark stuff on many of the plates. One of my favorite sushi fish is mackerel, when it's rich and flavorful. At Makolli, it was dry and stiff. So was the clam. At Minado, I'm addicted to salmon skin sushi; at Makolli, it came off like a dry slab of cardboard. More about presentation: at Minado, they add little extras to some of their nigiri, like a bit of ginger and scallion on the saba mackerel, or other little garnishes like tobikko (fish eggs). At Makolli, with the exception of the yellowtail, the fish was just slapped on the rice and jammed on the plates. The yellowtail did have a touch of scallion.
Salads and veggies were limited. The pile of mushrooms just looked so heavy and unappetizing, didn't even take any. My wife did, and left half on her plate.
On to the cooked food.
Again, whereas Minado puts out some interesting items like white fish with misago (?) sauce, great skewers of salmon and scallion, nice light tempura, and usually a whole bluefish to pick apart, Makolli just felt like - I mentioned before - a run-of-the-mill Chinese buffet. Tempura shrimp - a heavy half-inch thick coating of something that did not resemble good tempura around a skinny shrimp - my wife took two (admittedly dainty) bites of the end of one and still didn't hit shrimp. Seafood pancakes were not drained before being put on the steam table - greasy, very greasy.
They had some "Grilled Chilli Sea Bass". Since there was no evidence of any chilies in the preparation, they must have meant Chilean Sea Bass. Such an expensive (I assume this was part of the lineup that took the price from a 11.99 lunch to a 20.99 dinner) and endangered fish should have been shown more respect than was given here. Again, oil-laden and with some julienned scallions or leeks, the fish ran the gamut from chunks of bone to mushy. No sense of the richness one would expect from sea bass. $21 would not get a good piece of CSB at a real restaurant, so maybe I'm being too picky, but still...it was just bad.
Stuffed jumbo prawn (again, probably part of "dinner") - so mealy I couldn't take a second bite.
Figuring they couldn't hurt the nice looking choi sum, they didn't. Just steamed. Might have liked a little seasoning, maybe some garlic and a touch of oil or soy, but given the preparation of the rest of the food, just steamed was good.
Bottom line - At Minado, I usually can't stop myself and load up 3 - sometimes 4 plates, suffering all the way back down 287 from over-eating. At Makolli, 2 plates were more than enough - one pass at the sushi and one pass at the cooked food. Nothing was calling to me for seconds.
I think the pertinent part of that other poster's "gold standard" comment was the "in the local area" part - like the local 1/4 mile strip of Route 18.
We'll continue to trek up 287 and 10 to Minado. A shame -- we were hoping for a closer alternative.