To be honest, my idea of ‘all-you-can-eat’ has always brought up an image of Homer Simpson gorging himself to get his money’s worth. My visit to Cosmo in Reading, however, a place where you can replenish your plate as often as you like, has put paid to that misconception on my part. Heena, the representative I met from the Cosmo Headquarters in Barnet, told me that the company rather describes a visit to Cosmo as ‘casual fine dining’.
When my companion and I first entered Cosmo at a midweek lunchtime, for all the world we could have been in a smart restaurant, rather than an establishment providing ‘fast food’ for busy office workers. I am rather reluctant to describe this as ‘fast food’, again because of the connotations attached to this type of catering. Nevertheless, it is a self-service buffet food outlet in which customers can re-fill plates as often as they like. And why wouldn’t anyone want to with the range of exotic dishes from all parts of the world on offer here? Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Mexican are just some of the international styles of the 150 different dishes on offer at eight food stations in this particular branch. And all available at one set price.
The decor of Cosmo in Reading is bright and slick with a welcoming array of colourful produce on display. There is seating for several hundred diners, although Heena told me that this was by no means the largest of their branches in the UK. Their flagship restaurant is in Nottingham with seating for up to 400 customers.
All the food is kept hot in covered trays from which diners help themselves in the style of an open buffet. I noted that the clientele and subsequent queues were building rapidly while we spoke and Heena suggested that we sample some of the food before it became busier, and we were only too happy to accept the invitation.
I began with a plate of Indian dishes: lamb rogan josh, paneer, pilau rice, nan, samosa and onion bhaji: all of it freshly cooked, fragrant and delicious. My companion headed for the Chinese station and selected sweet and sour chicken, Beijing ribs and spring rolls. Equally authentic and freshly prepared. There was also a display of Japanese sushi dishes with accompanying sauces as well as an Italian area where pizzas could be made to order.
The evening menu also includes a carvery with all the trimmings. And no dining experience would be complete without at least a perusal of the desserts. There are tempting displays of cakes and pastries next to which is a chocolate fountain, just to complete the indulgence.
The concept of Cosmo came about through the vision of its CEO, Tom Chan, who opened the first of their eighteen branches in Eastbourne in 2003, and it is clear he wanted to create a brand that offered a ‘multi-tasting’ experience in a ‘buffet’ style rather than ‘pile-your-plate-high’. Heena said that it was to invite diners to go on a gastronomic journey, which I felt was a much more eloquent and appropriate description of the Cosmo experience than ‘all-you-can-eat’.
We were introduced to Thomas, the head of operations, who told us about the new branch in Oxford which is scheduled to open next month. And, as an indication of the confidence that they have in this style of catering, he said that Cosmo had opened its first international site in Dublin with others planned for the future in mainland Europe.
It was evident from the customers arriving as we took lunch that Cosmo has a very broad appeal. Not only were there students and business people looking for a quick lunch, but also family groups with children and retired couples taking a more leisurely approach to sampling the diversity of world foods on offer. Thomas said that they took very seriously any feedback from customers, and that they regularly reviewed what dishes were popular through regular meetings with managers and chefs in the various branches. He said that it was an equally important factor in limiting food wastage. Given the wide variety of dishes, and the fact that between the lunchtime and evening, all the stations are replaced with freshly cooked food, it was vital to know which dishes worked and which didn’t. I am sure that it is this attention to detail that has gone a long way to Cosmo achieving a prominent place in this market, and finding it regularly voted in the top ten of the CGA Peach Report survey for customer satisfaction and value for money. For anyone who might shy away from the ‘eat-as-much-as-you-like’ dining experience, I would urge you to try Cosmo and see the entirely different take on this for yourself.
Read the Food & Drink Guide review here