Norwich: Riverbank Chinese Buffet Restaurant

As with much of Riverside, the building is large and barn-like, and has attracted comparisons to a canteen. Next to the glass back wall is the best spot on a summer evening, where you can watch the daylight fading over the Wensum, although perhaps that is to make the mistake of pretending that you are there for any reason other than to stuff your face.

There is no eating experience quite as strange as a buffet restaurant, nowhere that the normal rules of food are so inverted. Where most of us dine out in search of some kind of sophistication, there is nothing sophisticated about piling food on your plate, taking it back to your table swallowing it and repeating the exercise until you can walk no more. Which is, inevitably, the way of things at a buffet. You pay the same price however much you eat, so in order to get your money's worth you must eat more than you normally would.

All of these things are true at Riverbank, the Chinese buffet restaurant on Norwich's Riverside, as you might guess from the name. Dinner here is £14, for which you could get two courses in a reasonable restaurant, but if you can manage three, plus seconds, it begins to look like a bargain.

Riverbank's clientele also waive all the normal rules: groups of men, a demographic rarely seen in restaurants, are noticeably present, as are children, who can be won over by the chance to choose their own food. Not altogether surprisingly, there seem to be a larger than average number of chunkier diners, although it may be that the workings of a buffet simply give you more chance to notice this.

The set-up is well-oiled rather than sophisticated: you pay for your food as you walk through the door, and return once you know what your table number is to order drinks, which are brought to your table. Although you can have as many seconds, thirds and fourths as you want, taking your used plate back to the buffet is strictly banned, presumably for hygiene reasons, and plates are whisked away by the staff as soon as you have cleared them.

As with much of Riverside, the building is large and barn-like, and has attracted comparisons to a canteen. Next to the glass back wall is the best spot on a summer evening, where you can watch the daylight fading over the Wensum, although perhaps that is to make the mistake of pretending that you are there for any reason other than to stuff your face.

And plenty of food there is to stuff your face with. Not everything scores: among the misses were “crab flavour claws” which the Real Ale Drinker described as “like cheap crabsticks reformed to look like crab claws” while a hot and sour soup was one of the nastiest things I have put in my mouth. The horribly gelatinous texture was alone enough to make it inedible, but nor did the flavour offer any inducement to eat it - it was sour in the same way as vinegar, but not noticeably hot. But there were plenty of other things to make up for it, including some excellent lemon chicken and some not at all bad chicken satay. The satay sauce also went down a treat on the vegetable spring rolls, which in themselves were no better and no worse than any other spring rolls.

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All of these were starters, though there is nothing to stop you starting your meal with ice cream and finishing it with prawn crackers. Also on offer in the way of starters were pork ribs, sesame prawn toasts, and crispy duck with pancakes and plum sauce on hand. Dazzled by this array, most people probably failed to leave enough space for main courses, which were, by and large, of better quality. Beef in black bean sauce was one of the winners from half a dozen main courses on offer. Thai-style mussels were huge, green lip mussels in a mildly spicy sauce which on their own would set you back a fair few quid if ordered in an a la carte restaurant, while the same applied to the king prawns.

For those who sniff that buffet restaurants mean that the food is not freshly cooked, Riverbank has the answer. It's more Chinese than Japanese, but the teppanyaki bar is the bit to head for if you want your food freshly cooked. This time the buffet is of raw ingredients, from beansprouts to baby sweetcorn, mushroom and onion. There are thin, blood-red pieces of steak, chicken fillets and king prawns which are translucent and the colour of pearls. There are noodles too, and on our visit several children were delighting in taking a teaspoonful of noodles to be cooked, which the teppanyaki chef did as solemnly as everything else.

In any other scenario which did not involve already having paid a fixed price for your meal, you would stop eating at this point, but since there is another buffet, mainly of fruit, and small pieces of chocolate cake, plus a whole freezer full of ice-cream, you carry on. Luckily ice-cream is not too filling, and men who had probably never ordered ice-cream in a restaurant in their lives were gleefully digging into mint choc chip, raspberry ripple and a rather good toffee crunch.

Needless to say, we staggered out having eaten at least three times more than we needed, feeling as though we had stretched our stomachs beyond repair. But, with the odd exception, getting ourselves to this point of pain had been a pleasure. Just not one that is recommended too often.

t Riverbank Chinese Buffet Restaurant, Riverside, Norwich; 01603 612323

t Do I need to book? Best just not to go at busy times (Saturday night especially) as it gets a bit cramped and there can be queues for the teppanyaki.

t Parking? Try the Riverside multi-storey.

t What about vegetarians? Some vegetarian options (one starter; one main course plus noodles and rice, plus teppanyaki) but only the hungriest veggies will get their money worth.

t Is it cheaper at lunchtimes? Yes, half the price, though there is less choice and you don't get king prawns and the like.

t Disabled access? Yes.

t Smoking? No.

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