Several weeks later when finances all over the country tanked, I dug the file out toute de suite; a restaurant where one could get treated like a princess for paupers' prices suddenly seemed lots more exciting. On a Net-posted Loft menu the first thing that caught my eye from a bargain-hunter's perspective was an "executive lunch buffet" for $4.95 -- which seemed too good to be true. It was. Over the course of the summer the buffet's price has veered (from $4.95 to $7.50), as has its size and variety. Currently it's $5.95 except on Friday's $7.50 "seafood day" (the buffets are themed: Tuesday Italian, Wednesday BBQ, etc.), and a lot of food for the money. On the Thursday "international day" I hit there were three meat-based entrées and several cooked veggie sides, plus a soup/salad bar, and dessert. And most fare was tasty, though, as often happens when restaurants tackle multinational cuisines, some fared better than others.
Jambalaya was by far the most skillful preparation, falling-off-bone-tender (but manageably small) pieces of chicken and hefty chunks of andouille sausage (the tamed, only somewhat spicy and uniform-texture American interpretation, not authentic French andouille with detectable intestines running up the links) in a rich brown sauce packed with sweet peppers.
After spending many teenage hours performing in special choruses for many Moose/Elk/Rotary/Ladies Club and political luncheons all over New Jersey, I vowed, on my 21st birthday, to never again eat Hawaiian chicken -- so I'm obviously prejudiced. But frankly I cannot imagine any way a thin, skinless white-meat chicken paillard could ever stand up to a steam table (dark-meat poultry is much more forgiving), and the Loft's cutlets were the usual overcooked sawdust-dry specimens, topped with canned pineapple rings and eye-popping maraschino cherries that didn't improve matters tastewise. (An off-the-books side of fried bananas, though, was a great idea.)
Beyond a somewhat similar-tasting sauce, sweet and sour pork, the third entrée, bore little resemblance to Chinese or Chinese-American restaurant versions; the veggies weren't crunchy, the pork chunks weren't breaded. But once one got over expecting something international, the dish was tasty and satisfying, particularly due to tender and almost miraculously moist meat -- not characteristics often found with today's faux-healthy leaner (read: bone-dry from too little fat) pork.
Sides were a mixed success. Two rices, one spiced but not spicy as claimed, were so-so, and string beans almondine were wildly overcooked -- barely green and so mushy they were barely able to hold a respectable bean shape. But the white bean soup was exceptional, with loads of creamy-soft beans in a smooth base; its starchy richness was tempered by an appealing tang instead of the usual bacon/smoked pork product overkill -- worth a special trip in itself. In fact all the soups I tried at the Loft (the others were a thick flavorful lentil, a dense minestrone, and a comforting chicken veg) were very good.
One's feelings about the salad bar often depend on one's feelings about iceberg lettuce, the bar's base; no modern mixed lettuces here. If you like the unaccountably popular stuff (a recent survey showed that over 80 percent of Americans who reported eating a green veg regularly meant taste-free, health-free water-packed iceberg), things like cukes, tomatoes, shredded carrots, and chopped egg make it a meal. The salad bar also included two prepared jobs not on the dinner bar, varying daily. The ones I tasted were a refreshingly light tuna with little mayo, and a nicely al dente macaroni that, however, needed salt. A relatively large salad dressing selection featured specimens extinct in SoBe (Thousand Island, bright orange faux French) as well as a mild bleu, a honey mustard with no mustard flavor, and a nice ranch.
After all that food for the price I was beginning to believe I'd read wrongly that dessert was included too, but my friendly server, who actually seemed to be one of the owners, pointed out some trays half-hidden in the room's rear: cake! Not any of that nouvelle "liquid layered chocolate death" stuff, but a delightfully gooey old-fashioned white-frosted devil's food layer cake plus two admirably moist 1950s-style sheet cakes, one chocolate and one vanilla, that brought me purring back to the days when these primitive but buttercreamed home-baked hunks would be served up as after-school treats by various friends' moms.
At dinner the salad bar was slightly more spartan (no side salads, for instance), as was service, perhaps because we were seated in the actual loft that waitresses checked only infrequently; we ended up running up- and downstairs ourselves for silverware and condiments more than once, and never got the garlic rolls that were supposed to come with all dinners. But soups again were super, and entrées equally hearty, cooked with a bit more finesse. Best was a Florida lobster tail, at a market price of $21.95 per pound, by far the menu's most expensive item; despite the blown-up behemoth in the front window, lobsters are actually often unavailable when the price is too high, or not fresh (our server assured us fervently that all the Loft's seafood is fresh). It was, however, worth the price, super-sweet and avoiding the all-too-common SoFla lobster shoe-leather taste; the tail was chewy but in no way dry.
Having no idea what "baby lobster" meant, I ordered baby lobster Alfredo. I still have little idea, since the crustacean came shelled, the meat tasted like langostinos -- i.e. a lobster/shrimp cross -- and would have worked well with the lightly creamy al dente pasta had there been more and larger chunks. As it was, the seafood was sparse.
I'd heard that jumbo fried shrimp was a popular Loft item, but they were out of it. And the shrimp scampi we ordered instead was a disappointment, due to an alleged lemon/garlic/oil sauce that tasted like little other than very salty broth; the stuff was too thin to even slightly coat the shrimps' linguine bed. The pasta was almost firm enough, though, and the medium-size shrimps were plentiful.
Chicken française, a big breaded and sautéed breast, was lightly floured and cooked only till moist -- nice. But its accompanying thick cream sauce tasted oddly and overwhelmingly of cheese; only a slight sour note gave any hint that the sauce might contain any lemon, the characteristic française flavor. It wasn't bad sauce. It just wasn't française sauce.
Roast prime rib wasn't close to the rare I'd specified; it was hard to even find hints of pink. Still it was flavorful and tender, good medium-cooked roast beef.
Side veggies were the usual watery, steamed squash chunks. And for starch choice I'd advise pasta (preferably with rich, tangy pink cream sauce -- the marinara's okay but bland). Mashed potatoes were a particular disappointment, with a pronounced unpleasant grainy texture.
Dessert choices were the standard SoFla tiramisu type. But the tiramisu was only very vaguely chocolatey, and with no mousselike component; it was basically liqueur syrup-saturated ladyfingers. Next time I'm asking if there's any cake left over from lunch.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Though even regular dinner prices are reasonable ($10-17), diners wanting real deals should do what I did not and check the Loft's Website, www.loftdining.com, for print-out coupon specials -- like Saturday night 2-4-1 dinners, where two plates of roast beef with potato and vegetable run just $14.95. Fancy fare it ain't, or upscale ambiance, but those seeking a solid home-cooked meal in a cordial casual setting will find the Loft very good value.