Sadly, the rather good Chinese restaurant China Palace at Northgate Shopping Center closed last year. Now in its place comes QQ Asian Buffet.
While Chinese buffets are popping up all over Madison, QQ is the North side's only buffet; it joins just two Chinese takeout options in the area, China Wok on Fordem Avenue and Great China on North Sherman Avenue.
QQ has remodeled the space, which -- despite being home to a succession of Chinese restaurants in recent years -- still looked essentially like the old Poole's Supper Club (except with more red lanterns). QQ has ripped out the old bar area, tiled it, and installed bright lighting. This is the buffet arena. There's also some seating nearby, with more seating in the former main dining room, which retains the old Poole's look, as well as the room's signature stone fireplace.
When it comes to eating at Chinese buffets, which tend to great similarity, I have a few basic standards. Are the appetizers good, not soggy? Are the appetizers the only thing that's good? Can I get some decent vegetables besides from the American salad bar? Are the Chinese main dishes recognizable Chinese entrees, or are they pretty much meat with a sauce? Does this buffet serve something that's unique from other Chinese buffets in the area?
QQ scores some hits but also some misses. Soups include hot and sour, wonton and a vegetable/egg drop. The hot and sour was decently spicy-hot, for once, and also sour, with plenty of mushrooms, tofu, and shoots, but without the scraggly pieces of pork. I didn't miss them.
There are plenty of appetizers. Gyoza (potstickers), something that looked like shumai (not everything is labeled), diminutive crispy Thai-style egg rolls, Chinese egg rolls, fried wontons, crab Rangoon, a steamed flattish bun with spinach and shrimp inside, chicken wings, ribs -- as well as mussels and, for an additional $4, all the king crab legs you can eat.
I liked the steamed flattish bun with spinach and shrimp. The gyoza were mild and the small egg rolls, crispy but a little bland. The barbecued ribs were coated with a sweet barbecue sauce that lent good flavor to some surrounding items on my plate, but I couldn't find much meat on them.
Arranged with the appetizers but more of a dessert was a pretty peach bun, or longevity peach, which is a fluffy steamed bun with lotus paste inside. (It gets its name from looking like a peach, not from including any.) The filling is only slightly sweet (lotus paste tastes a little bit like thick duck sauce) and it's not unpleasant, especially considering that eating one grants you immortality.
Another dessert arranged with some of the appetizers was a custard-filled wonton cup that tasted like a wonton cheesecake. One of my favorites.
The number of entrees is small compared to all the other items in the spread and they tended toward the more common staples of Chinese takeout -- General Tso's chicken, chicken and vegetables, sweet and sour chicken, egg foo young, fried rice. The emphasis was also on meat over veggies. I got a decent helping of good broccoli from a dish labeled chicken and broccoli and it made do as the vegetable for the others. There were also some green beans in garlic sauce, but the beans were looking a little stressed.
Most satisfying were three entrees that don't even appear on the restaurant's regular menu. The first was a simple whitefish filet in a light ginger sauce. Peanut chicken, pieces of chicken coated with a sweet, salty peanut glaze, was loveable but admittedly on the greasy side. Finally, I loved the coconut shrimp, again a sweet-n-salty combo that featured medium shrimp in an almost pudding-like coconut-milk sauce. If shrimp were a dessert, it would taste like this. If I had the buffet to do over again, I think I might simply have eaten this, along with the cheesecake wontons.
Navigating QQ's buffet would be easier if like courses were grouped together. Instead, there seemed to be a little of everything at most of the tables.
The buffet, like most Chinese buffets, is huge, with bowls of fresh fruit, tray after tray of pastry-like desserts, a large spread of veggie sushi, salad bar, ice cream, and the odd assortment of American items like pizza. The menu states that there's no MSG and that the restaurant uses 100% vegetable oil. Lunch is $7.75; dinner, $11. The buffet to-go in a Styrofoam container is the same price, and if you think, "Hey, what's the deal here? That's a box, not all I can eat," I can tell you I managed to stuff a box with enough food for a dinner and lunch the following day.