Though we dined there relatively recently, during the course of an otherwise memorable trip that took us through State College, Pennsylvania, it is with the greatest difficulty that I dredge up any inkling of the Friday evening America's Bounty Buffet at The Gardens Restaurant in The Penn Stater Hotel. Despite the aid of my photographs and a comprehensive list of buffet items (see below), the dinner we shared remains a virtual blank. The reason, perhaps, is that this was one of the most banal meals either of us had consumed in recent memory (or lack thereof). Given the wide variety of offerings—far greater than that of the average buffet—such banality is a remarkable achievement. My conundrum: how to tell you about something I scarcely remember? I'll just have to give it the old [state] college try.
Let's start with what is easy to remember. The setting is lovely: a tastefully decorated dining room divided into intimate spaces with panels of cascading greenery, and full-length windows with views to a well-landscaped courtyard. Gardens, indeed! The seating is comfortable, and the service very competent. Appearances can be deceiving, however. Our first indication thereof arose from the wine card: white zinfandel was listed as a rosé.
The buffet ($22.95 per person) consisted of a long table of hot dishes near the kitchen. Additionally, market carts, scattered in the dining room across from the hot table, overflowed with breads, pâtés, cheeses, fruit, salmon, caviar (and its traditional accompaniments), as well as countless veggie, rice, pasta, and tofu salads.
It all looked quite appealing—if only the food had been as sumptuous as its presentation. This is where memory becomes sketchy. As with all the items on the market carts, the breads came in several varieties. Moist and crusty, none of them disappointed. Although the cheese selections were rather ordinary, they were reasonably flavorful. The pâté and salmon selections were presented either whole, or fresh from the mold, but were curiously dry and gamy (we wondered how long they had been prepared beforehand). Alas, the salmon offerings—usually my favorites—were bland and disappointing. Things devolved from there. I tried small samples of several salads, and recall that I enjoyed a couple in particular, but their identity has been lost to me. The same holds true for the dessert table. While most of the offerings were too sweet, one item had my Comestaccomplice returning for seconds.
Can banality be disastrous? Or is that a contradiction of terms? In any case, between my companion and me, we tasted all but one of the hot dishes and were underwhelmed by nearly every one.
In the case of the steak, we had not only seconds but thirds. This item was indeed memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. For one, it was incredibly tough. Though I abhor wasting food, three failed attempts to find a piece of sirloin I could chew was more than I could swallow. We did, reluctantly, ingest parts of each serving, if only to avoid the embarrassment of leaving everything over.
The rest of the buffet items don't merit much additional comment. Two observations we made at the time are salient, however. First, despite our arrival at the start of dinner service, many of the hot items already looked tired. The Tuna Brochette, for instance, appeared particularly questionable. Second, our overall opinion, as we left, was that the food was completely industrial. Except for the bread, and perhaps one or two other items, everything revealed the bland and tired characteristics of having been overly processed. It's doubtful much of what we ate was local. It was, more probably, trucked in from a bulk processing plant that emphasizes uniformity. How else to explain such ubiquitous banality, given the enormous variety of foods on hand?
The Gardens Restaurant
The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel
215 Innovation Boulevard
(on the campus of Penn State University)
State College, PA 16803-6603 (map)