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NORMAL - Of all the restaurant formats, I'd think the hardest one is the one that seems, on the surface, the easiest: The buffet.

Sounds easy: Cook a bunch of food and plunk it into the middle of the room. Refill water glasses. Make people get their own soda.

But if that's all you are doing, your buffet probably is rank.

It's challenging to make a truly great buffet, making the correct mix of foods, at the correct time and in the correct quantity. Keeping it all tasty is a trick, indeed.

Jade Garden is making a noble effort at Chinese buffet in the location formerly housing Ming's Wok, at 1101 N. Main St. in Normal.

There used to be a grocery store in this commercial strip, and it seemed like any time I was at Ming's, which was but a couple times, the joint was packed. The shopping center took a big hit when Eagle Country Market fizzled.

When the restaurant went up for sale, Jack Zhang stepped in, did a bit of remodeling and returned Chinese buffet to Main at Orlando.

He already runs First Wok, on Bloomington's side of Main Street. That's a place that thrives on carry-out and delivery with but a few tables for diners.

Now, he has the room to turn his cooking into a buffet. The menus are very similar between the two places and those who inquire about delivery will be referred to First Wok.

Zhang is moving into the spot at an optimal time. The strip is on the rebound as "University Center," headed by Illinois State University's conversion of the Eagle space into its Alumni Center, opening later this summer.

My impression after a visit: Interesting meal. But.

Buffets are notable in that the more jammed the establishment, the fresher the food and, hence, the better the food.

I went on a slow weeknight.

Good as some of the food was - and it was good - I knew I wasn't seeing Zhang and crew at their best. The dumplings at the appetizer table, for instance, would have been tastier had a line of people been extinguishing trays of it in rapid order.

I did catch the roast pork on the appetizer table fresh out of the pan. It was memorably delicious.

At Jade, one buffet line is appetizers; a second buffet line is main dishes and vegetable dishes; the third is salads and desserts.

The general chicken was on the mark. The Jade version was sweet; mild on the spice. I also had a sauce dish mixing mushrooms with chicken. I'd try it again.

From the salad/dessert table, I had a scoop of banana pudding, plus fresh strawberries and watermelon. I felt obliged to taste soft ice cream, which dispenses in chocolate, vanilla or a combo.

The dinner buffet was $8.75, plus $1.25 for hot tea. A moderate tip was deserved for good beverage service.

Even on a slow day, that's a good deal.

Hours

• 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Buffet times:

• Lunch buffet, for $6.50, is 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

• Dinner buffet, for $8.95, is 4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.

More on the menu

Jade Garden has six pages of menu items from which to choose. There are 20 items just for the appetizers and soups. There are about 40 spicy hot items on the menu.

All the luncheon specials fall just below $5. Figure on $7 to $9 for the main dinner items. Nothing on this menu is priced at $10 or above.

While there's no children's section on this menu, most dishes are available in small-sized orders for reduced price.

Phone

(309) 452-3006

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