Dining Review

Authentic Chinese is the star at Captain J's International Buffet

CorrespondentOctober 31, 2013 

  • Captain J’s International Buffet

    4420 Capital Blvd., Raleigh


    Cuisine: Chinese

    Rating:* * * 

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: multiculturally eclectic

    Noise level: low to moderate

    Service: spotty

    Recommended: From the Chinese menu - xiaolongbao (XLB), leek fried crescents, flounder filet with garlic sauce, tea-smoked duck, cumin lamb

    Open: Lunch and dinner daily.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: modest beer selection; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking in lot.

    The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: * * * * *  Extraordinary * * * *  Excellent. * * *  Above average. * * Average. *  Fair.

    The dollar signs defined:$ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Spread out before us, in row after tidy row, is a global cornucopia of food – Chinese, mostly, but also a solid sampling of Mexican fare and a smattering of other cuisines. Not just your usual spring rolls, fried rice and egg drop soup, either. At one station, packets of sticky rice in lotus leaf (one of several dim sum classics) sit cheek-by-jowl with corn shuck-wrapped tamales.

There’s the obligatory salad bar, and an entire station dedicated to sweets, from Technicolor trays of Jell-O to whole peeled bananas drizzled with gaudy ribbons of red syrup. And that’s not counting the selection of eight flavors of scoop-your-own ice cream.

No question about it, the buffet at Captain J’s looks like an all-you-can-eater’s dream.

I say “looks like” because I’ve never gotten the buffet at Captain J’s, and probably never will. We’re here for the authentic Chinese menu, which I’m told you have to ask for.

That’s precisely what we do, and we’re given a menu that, with just over a hundred listings, offers a comprehensive survey of the Shanghainese and Taiwanese repertoires. Frog legs alone are available three ways: salty, spicy or basil.

Even if you’re not interested in frog legs, pig ears or tripe, you’ll still have plenty to choose from.

Dim sum standouts

The selection of dumplings, buns and other dim sum dainties (listed under the heading “Shanghainese Tapas”) is considerably larger than that on the buffet – and, since they’re prepared to order, inevitably fresher. You could easily fashion a satisfying dim sum experience (albeit without the carts) from the nearly three dozen options covering the spectrum from turnip cakes to red bean paste buns.

But if you’re thinking of ordering a couple of these “tapas” as appetizers to be followed by entrees in a Western-style sequence, be advised that it doesn’t work that way here. True to Chinese tradition, dishes come out of the kitchen as they’re done, with no distinction between appetizer and entree courses.

Whatever your meal-sequence preference, xiaolongbao (often abbreviated as XLB, as they are here) are a must. Fans of these exquisite soup-filled dumplings, who have gone cold turkey since the closing of Asian Grill (the only other restaurant in the area that has offered them), will be happy to know that Captain J’s dim sum chef turns out an exemplary rendition.

Leek fried crescents are first-rate, too. An order gets you a pair of large empanada-shaped pies – an ample portion for sharing – filled with a savory hash of the mildest member of the onion family.

Entrees to explore

For all the delights of the dim sum, it would be a shame not to explore the entree offering. You certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on tea-smoked duck, with lacquered skin crispy in places, supple in others.

Or flounder filet with garlic sauce, served on a bed of fresh green Asian vegetables (typically baby bok choy), and topped with a shower of scallion ribbons.

Or cumin lamb: tender morsels stir-fried with onions, leeks and garlic in a fragrant brown sauce punctuated with toasted red chiles. Order it “spicy” and you’ll get a lot of those chiles, reinforced by the distinctive tongue-numbing zap of Szechwan peppercorns. Even so, the dish isn’t as incendiary as what you’d be served in a Szechwan restaurant.

Nor should it be. Filtered through the palate of Taiwan’s melting-pot culture, dishes labeled as “Szechwan” are comparatively restrained. Still, you can expect your taste buds to wake up with this one.

Stir-fried loofah?

Szechwan string beans, on the other hand, shouldn’t prove a challenge to any but the most timid of palates. Offered under the “Vegetables” entree heading (along with the likes of eggplant with garlic sauce and stir-fried loofah – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it), the green beans make a fine side dish for the table.

A few dishes fall short of the ideal, but none egregiously so. Scallion pancakes could use more scallions. Fried pork chops served over rice, a classic Taiwanese dish, could be juicier. House special thick noodle soup is bland to my taste, but that could be because I had it alongside the cumin lamb.

Service is spotty – especially on weeknights, when what appears to be the wait staff B Team is on duty. Expect buffet-level service even if you order from the menu.

Captain J’s is named for James “Captain J” Chao, who opened the restaurant in February with his wife, Lisa Huang. Chao didn’t introduce the authentic Chinese menu until several months later. It may be tempting to think of the addition as an afterthought, especially when you factor in the multicultural hodgepodge of a decor that seems tailored to match the buffet offering.

Afterthought or not, for my money the star attraction at Captain J’s International Buffet is not the buffet.

ggcox @bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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