SALTY’S ON ALKI The sea, the sea. Annie-Marie Musselman
Salty's on Alki
1936 Harbor Ave SW, 937-1600
Brunch: Saturdays 10 am-2 pm, Sundays 9 am-2 pm.

I have to think there was a place like Salty's on Alki on the now-ravaged beaches of Phuket, Thailand--someplace with a gluttonous view of the water and an equally gluttonous offering of food. Maybe the barge full of mud, or garbage, that floated outside Salty's vast cantilevered windows should have reminded us that the sea can be a nasty piece of work. But when I hauled my in-laws along with me to brunch a few days before tsunamis killed over 150,000 people, I felt no resonance or prescience--it seemed like just another amusing morning of overindulgence.

Brunch at Salty's ($28.95), you see, is one of those all-you-can-eat affairs, a no-limit festival of excess, the great American smorgasbord. Thirty bucks gets you a raw bar! A prime rib carving station! Omelets made to order! Crab legs as high as an elephant's eye! A virtual continent of desserts!

As I wandered up to the buffet lines, I felt like I had stumbled into someone else's dream wedding reception--efficient and a little overwhelming. The seafood bar struck me as the best place to start: It's hard to go wrong with piles of chilled crab legs and shrimp. I did like the smoked salmon spread next to the crab, even if it was piped into silly ruffled folds. While I was scooping some up, a cook came by to replenish the capers and complimented me on my graceful plate. Excess at Salty's, you see, lies not just in the quantity or variety of food offered, but in the universally affable staff, who do their best to convince you that the whole spectacle has been arranged just for you. (Hence the carving, omelet, and crepe stations--where food is put together at your bidding).

But personal attention does not always equal attention to detail. Even amid the decent seafood options, dozens of Hood Canal oysters laid there poorly shucked, and a cauldron of steamed clams and mussels was piled too high to keep its shellfish moist and appetizing. The cocktail sauce was so sugary that I had half a mind to dip my crab legs into my father-in-law Chet's bloody mary instead. Looking at all the food languishing in steam pans--cheesy chicken, frittatas, overcooked eggs Benedict--I felt like something fresher, like an omelet. But even though my omelet is custom crafted by not one, but two, cooks, it was oily outside and squeaky dry inside, with the crabmeat filling tasting more fishy than sweet.

The problem with buffet eating is that you always have some sort of tabulation running in your mind. If it's a $7 Indian lunch buffet, no problem--you might end up going back for a few extra pakoras, and that's that. But at Salty's $30 brunch, you've got considerably more pressure on you to get your money's worth. Our waiter got upset when he noticed that Chet was reluctant to get a plateful of food. In this kind of situation, you end up not just overeating, but putting together ugly, stomach-battering meals. At one point, I had a piece of bacon, some arid corn beef hash, and pineapple-glazed catfish on the same plate as a gloppy cinnamon roll and a chewy slice of spice cake. It's the kind of plate that never should have been.

All-you-can-eat is a peculiarly American poison (although it has certainly been exported to the all-inclusive resorts and cruise ships around the world.) It almost always morphs into more-than-you-ever-wanted-to-eat. The only way to emerge triumphant from a buffet is to specialize. Choose your passion, and stick with it. Across the way from us, there was a table of chubby ladies clad in pink who knew what they were doing. They had constructed a mini-Everest of crab legs, and worked their way through it with discipline. They refused to let the buffet defeat them, and for this, I salute them.

Despite the mediocre food, it is hard not to admire the efficiency of Salty's weekend extravaganza, with so many cooks and servers working together with near-military precision. Since we're already overfed here in Seattle, it got me thinking that maybe their talents could be exported to help with tsunami relief efforts overseas.

All Chow Foods Seattle restaurants--Coastal Kitchen, 5 Spot, Endolyne Joe's, the Hi-Life, Atlas, and Jitterbug--will be donating 25% of all revenue earned on Tuesday, January 11 to tsunami relief efforts. The waitstaff in each restaurant is donating 25% of their tips, too.