I agreed to it for a laugh, really. “The world’s biggest buffet”? Well that surely had to be a barn-door target for some snarky reviewing.
At first we couldn’t get to the place to even mock it from the outside. Instead we sped with increasing impatience up and down the fast two-lane on the industrial outskirts of Narbonne, trying to find a way in. Massive signs advertised furniture stores, car exhaust fitters and flooring warehouses, but the only way to access it seemed to be to drive the wrong way around a roundabout and then floor it down a one-way street against oncoming Renault Twingos.
So we did that and made our way on foot across an airfield’s worth of tarmac to an enormous building that also seemed to house an ice-rink or a roller-rink. It was hard to tell: it was closed and dark, just like every other “grand surface” in the area.
The front door of Les Grands Buffets is only about two metres off the ground, but – presumably to help you work up an appetite – you approach it via a ramp that rises gradually, zigging and zagging left and right what seems like twenty or more times. It is… tiring.
Once you’ve finally arrived and ponied up your money (€29.90), you’re in and off. First, though, you stand and stare in amazement: there are rooms and rooms of food, all very, very big, with little islands of excess in the centres. Each is surrounded by hundreds of people in a lather of indecision. Every so often someone takes a frantic run at the food, as if it all might disappear any second, which seems possible as it’s all so dreamlike.
I couldn’t wait to join them; I had spotted a whole two metre section dedicated just to foie gras.
But first thing’s first: seats.
We went to the “garden” to escape the heat. It was actually rather pleasant. Large foliage screens hide the fact that you’re in a giant industrial park, while plenty of plants and coloured lights on strings add to the bucolic festival feel.
This being France, booze is important, and there was a very large wine list of local Languedoc-Roussillon wines. You can order a bottle from a passing waiter or go in and buy it by the glass from the biggest Enomatic system I’ve ever seen, with over seventy wines to choose from. The smart part is that the machine prints a little sticky label with all the details of the wine so that you can file away the info on those you liked. Wine is –predictably – not included in the entry price, but is very reasonable (about €1.50 a glass). And if you don’t finish your bottle (as if), they’ll stick a cork in it for you to take away.
Right then. To the starter buffet. You need the skills of the scrum-half I once was (the school thought I was keen, but really I was just running away from the psychos) to swerve the people coming from all directions. I fetched up at the giant charcuterie counter, where I’d seen the sign “Jamon” from a distance, only to discover that the jamon seemed to have been recently attacked by a hungry bear. No one had been carving waffer-thin slices from this baby. It was a wreck.
Disappointed, I consoled myself with a slice of every other charcuterie (twenty or so), a plate of Catalan snails (because they were there), a selection of breads, various examples of foie gras and of course a salad too, because my body is a temple.
Armed with this I set off back to our table, nimbly sidestepping a Frenchman with a stomach that travelled a few seconds in front of the rest of him, and semi-vaulting over a small child who appeared out of nowhere. “Fais gaffe!” I shouted at him, and was given a small French finger in reply. I lost one of the snails overboard, but the army of helpers swiftly moved in to clear it up. They had the resigned look of people well used to it.
“He just popped the question and she said yes!” explained a French wifey with delight. Well, there’s romance for you, eh?
That little lot downed, I moved purposefully back for my main course but was blocked by a couple having their photo taken. Repeatedly. I waited patiently, then less patiently and then after what seemed ages grumpily squeezed past. “He just popped the question and she said yes!” explained a French wifey with delight. Well, there’s romance for you, eh?
The main course options incorporate a seafood buffet that appears to have cleared the ocean out, but I had my eye set on the restaurant’s spit-roasting setup, said to be the biggest in all of France. Massive, in cast iron and brass, it has it all: suckling pig, poultry, shoulder of lamb, kidneys, kebabs, quail, spare ribs of pork, joints of beef, saucisse de Toulouseand chunks of courtellous (pork belly slices).
Off to one side a plancha fries king prawns, salmon, squid and steaks. You tell head chef your cut and a minion gets it and cooks it. This is all on the €29.90 ticket – I repeat, there’s no extra charge – and (I am saying this in the excitable pubescent breaking voice of Chris Griffin from Family Guy), “YOU CAN GO BACK AS MANY TIMES AS YOU WANT!”
It’s all good. The meat is excellent – in fact, everything is excellent, and for once there’s no need to add the caveat “for this kind of place”. It’s a slick, well-run operation that combines American efficiency with French savoir manger. You’d have to be a bit of a snob not to enjoy it.
I won’t tell you in detail how the desserts beggared belief – there were over a hundred to choose from around the Chocolate Fountain – or how enormous and how wonderful the cheese section was. Let’s just say that I think every single cheese in France was represented in perfect condition, and that I still think about it wistfully in the small hours of the night.
Oh, and on leaving I finally found out why they have that ramp out front – it makes it easier to lie down and have your friends roll you back to the car after lunch. C
Les Grand Buffets, Rond Point de la Liberté, 11100 Narbonne, France
+33 4 68 42 20 01; lesgrandbuffets.com