MOST OF OUR BUFFET memories are of the entire family crowding around the soft ice cream machine at the Royal Fork or moving sheepishly past large bowls of runny mixtures of cabbage and raisins. In the old days, we thought elegance was personified by making repeat runs at the prime-rib dude, who hovered over a huge slab of heat-lamped meat and sliced away. We now know that the modern version of American bounty is better symbolized by the Eating Factory, whose smiling sushi chefs stand by to facilitate your dining pleasure. The Eating Factory
10630 NE Eighth, Bellevue, 425-688-8202 lunch Mon-Sun 11:30am-2:30pm (no crab legs or sashimi); dinner Sun-Wed 5:30-9pm, Thu-Sat 5:30-9:30pm AE, DC, MC, V; beer, wine Sushi and all-you-can-eat are not concepts generally carried out simultaneously, but at Bellevue's Eating Factory they're inextricably bound. Nor are buffet restaurants usually known for their atmosphere, but the Eating Factory's postmodern, warehouse decor casts aside all preconceived notions about smorgasbord eating. And prices are reasonable: For adults, it's $16.95 for dinner and $10.95 for lunch. Kids are charged by height measured with markers on the wall: 3 feet 4 inches to 4 feet 3 inches pay $10.86 for dinner and $6.49 for lunch. Kids under 3 feet 4 inches are free. A buffet's a decadent experience, but while most experienced eaters have tried the majority of sashimi and sushi available (OK, except maybe sea urchin), feasting on it all at once is a sensual pleasure. And it's all here: Bright orange salmon, both fresh and smoked, anchors the Eating Factory firmly in the Northwest tradition; dark-fleshed mackerel, with its tangy flavor and creamy texture, serves double duty on sushi rice or solo as sashimi; white, glistening piles of squid look like polished marble; chewy, pearly octopus, with its dark purple tentacles, has the ultra-firm texture found only in the freshest of seafood. In fact, all of the sushi and sashimi fish here is firm, bright, and clean-looking, with the tuna practically glowing with ruby red translucence. More "tourist-friendly" types such as California rolls, crab rolls, chopped tuna rolls, avocado, and cooked eggs are also on the sushi agenda. As a result, sushi veterans willingly take their place alongside eager first-timers. Fine, you say, but is it fresh? Indeed. Only small batches are made and put out at a time, and when those are gone another variety is prepared. Different offerings appear each time you return to the buffet for the inevitable seconds, thirds, and fourths. Friendly and informative sushi chefs work right behind the sushi table, answering questions and making more when supplies run out. They eagerly field inquiries, explaining patiently that "Yes, that's raw fish!" and "Right, that's egg on top of that rice!" For the uninitiated, it makes the sushi experience very nonthreatening. How silly we customers must look sometimes to these chefs, as we stand on the other side of the sneeze-guard pushing trays stacked high with enough food to feed an entire family. But a buffet, even one as special as this, necessitates getting over the self-consciousness that attends the experience. There should be no pretense in buffet-style eating, with its unstated mission: "We're hungry, and we're going to eat as much of this great food as we can! Now git out of our way!" Once you accept the fact that you are now part of the unwashed, greedy masses, you can dig right in. Tempura trays steam with their fragrant cargo of vegetables and shrimp. Although the "vegetable and shrimp" tempura at the Eating Factory has a reputation for being short on the shrimp, there's a huge pile of lightly battered and fried shrimp within arm's reach, so who cares? Don't waste your time digging through the eggplant and yams, crying gauchely, "Hey, there ain't no shrimp in here!"—the shrimp in the next pan are better anyway. The tempura batter on both the shrimp and the vegetables is appropriately crisp and light, and neatly dresses a plethora of vegetables, including zucchini, eggplant, sweet potatoes, carrots, and cute little broccoli florets. BUT THE SEAFOOD is the main attraction here, and servers come to your table with extra napkins and crab-cracking tools when they see you sit down with a crab leg. If you love crab, then knock yourself out, because the crab's good as gold here, and it just keeps coming. But if you, like us, find all the fuss about crab a little puzzling, then you'll breeze by the crab bin and hasten your arrival at the sushi and sashimi station, which is at the far end of the line. In addition to the buffet anchors of crab, sashimi, and sushi, you'll choose from other serviceable seafood items including steamed, fried, and baked clams, crab croquettes, baked cod, and fried baby scallops. Other hot dishes, such as chicken curry, almond green beans, a delicious tofu, onion and egg soup, and two kinds of miso soup complement the buffet. At the salad table, the dazzling pickled daikon radish salad stands out. Edamame (soybeans) are perfectly steamed, with no discernable salty taste (unlike our recent experience at Safeco Field, where the edamame seemed expected to take the place of beer nuts). Japanese food is known to be occasionally high in sodium, but the Eating Factory brings enough savvy to their kitchen to go easy on the salt. Also on the salad table are creamy crab salad with corn, Caesar salad with homemade croutons, a pickled seaweed noodle salad with carrots, a zucchini and tomato salad, and spicy, aromatic kimchee. A tasteful array of fresh chilled fruit covers the fruit and dessert tray; a small cake, cut into tiny pieces and topped with fresh melon and strawberries, was the only nod to the dessert madness at most buffets. The cake is overwhelmed by the presence of fresh, ripe mango, pineapple, kiwi, and strawberries dipped in chocolate. A mix of ages and races seem so comfortable here that they all appear to be regulars. Hip Japanese teenagers, large American families with babies, couples, and groups of office workers celebrating birthdays all crack their crab legs together in a room that is surprisingly cozy, despite its high ceilings and industrial decor of exposed pipes and gray and silver metallic surfaces. A Japanese rock/pop variety show blares on televisions, with all announcers and entertainers on roller skates. Squiggly neon sculpture and mounted fish along with artist's renditions of fish adorn the walls. Free balloons and the reduced prices for kids make it a good family spot. You'll be full soon, and it will make you sad because your experience at the Eating Factory will have to end—for now. But you can always come back (and bring friends!) to this half-warehouse, half-fishy fantasy land with the most bountiful piles of beautifully prepared food you'll ever see.