Food trends come and go, but the all-you-can-eat buffet plods on through the decades. Unfashionable, then cool again, then once more déclassé and, at one point in very recent history, even prohibited. At Aroma Buffet in west London, however – in a shopping centre, up an escalator, next to a Wetherspoons – the vast, lunchtime buffet of noodles, stir-fries and plentiful cakes, puddings and ice-cream is a pleasing £15. The buffet’s timing in returning to modern life is impeccable, delivering joy through dark times and ransacked wallets. The price for dinner is £22, where children under 150cm can eat for £11. Any person with a thrifty parent who has ever been smuggled in a car boot into a safari park will know such rules are made for testing.
Aroma’s head chef swears to me that Marco Pierre White has been in and, at these prices, he’d be a berk not to. For an all-you-can-eat next to a Lidl, I think even a food snob could find two, three or more plates of something they really liked. Of a Thursday lunchtime, there is a department store leaving do, a few new mums, one birthday party, and many couples and solo diners. The open kitchen is hectic, and no wonder with 70 or so dishes on offer; the dinner menu is even more extensive.
Aroma started out serving Cantonese-style crowdpleasers – sticky, black-bean sauces, piles of chow mein and battered pork in sunset-orange sweet-and-sour – but these days it calls itself pan-Asian, shape-shifting in line with the modern British palate. So there are now West Sumatran rendangs and Indonesian nasi goreng, and coconut-based Malaysian stew sits close to a Japanese teppanyaki grill selection. There are freshly made maki, California and dragon rolls. The fried, rolled ice-cream, which you can lace with KitKat, Oreo, fresh banana and so on, is a big deal in Thailand. Look closely among all the trays of vegetable tempura and platters of Peking duck with pancakes, and you’ll also find margarita pizza, chicken nuggets and, of course, chips. So, more pan-world than pan-Asian, but I defy any hungry person to leave without some of their whims catered to.
If I sound oddly jubilant about eating limitless Singapore noodles in a shopping centre, it’s possibly because I’ve spent months watching restaurant prices rocket to grimly comedic levels. Lunch here costs less than a side of boujie patatas bravas I had recently at a much-admired Bloomsbury restaurant. The KitKat rolled ice-cream, a new experience for me, is especially delicious as it glides down the throat in thin sheets, coating the mouth and tastebuds in a way that normal ice-cream does not. See me for theories on why Easter egg chocolate tastes more chocolatey than chunks from a bar. It’s all about surfaces.
Aroma is also unafraid of heat, spice and feisty flavours, which often get lost in mass-catering ventures, and the likes of its salt-and-pepper tofu and spicy chilli beef are memorably punchy. Each tray appears with the earnestness of chefs delivering their very best according to what cost and time allow, and all while working out when to replace steaming vats of lo mein or char siu, so there’s always enough, but never too much. Simultaneously, all new customers shouldn’t feel as if they’re rifling through the leftovers at the end of a party, and the floor staff are constantly wiping, replenishing spoons and rearranging dishes to make the party feel as if it’s always just beginning.
Waste is a major issue with buffets, but Aroma has that covered, too, having signed up for the Too Good To Go food scheme that means, at the end of each service, a set number of diners are allowed to load up boxes of whatever’s left for a fraction of the usual price. Titter you might, because this is not L’Enclume, but one day buffets may be the only restaurants we have left.
There are many ways to approach a buffet. Some diners load their plates as if this were their last chance of eating on Earth, or more likely out of concern that, if they take just two rather than 10 teppanyaki prawns, the supply will run out. Personally, I see plate one as a trial run. I like to gather a small sample of the most alluring, unmissable protein-based items – in this case, beef rendang, some black bean chicken and a few dumplings – in a bid to form a cogent plan for plates two through to seven. After all, it’s a rookie error to go heavy on carbohydrates in plates one to three, even if Aroma’s Singapore noodles are exactly as I love them: fatty, spicy, thin strands laden with egg, pork, chicken, pepper and chilli. By bowl four, however, you can safely commit to unstructured bowls of nasi goreng with a side of spicy prawn maki and a large plate of red velvet cupcakes.
The rule at Aroma is that there are no rules. Well, not many: if you turn up, crouch over and pretend to be a child who is smaller than 150cm high, you will be asked to leave immediately.
Aroma Buffet, First Floor, West 12 Shopping Centre, Shepherd’s Bush Green, London W12, 020-8746 7625. Open Mon-Fri, lunch noon-3pm, dinner 5-10.30pm; Sat & Sun, noon-10.30pm. Lunch £15 a head, dinner & weekends £22 a head, both plus drinks