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Rustic ambience adds appeal

Timbers Buffet at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs offers a casual sort of elegance.

CLARK VAN ORDEN/THE TIMES LEADER

There’s something somewhat magical about having a meal amid the birch trees. Not, of course, that you feel you’ve gone back to nature, what with the clatter of slot machines and gaming tables right over your shoulder. But the rustic, white tree trunks that ascend to the ceiling inside Timbers Buffet do add an outdoorsy ambience and almost-elegance that make you forget you’re basically eating off a chow line.

And the food, herd-style though it is, holds up. The masses must agree. We’re told the line can snake down the corridors sometimes, especially on weekends. Could be that for $16.99 you can enjoy a little bit of everything for dinner, from soup to nuts (literally), at a quality level that does seem to outdistance your run-of-the-mill buffet.

I’m not generally a fan, for example, of carving stations, often finding the meat dry, fatty or undercooked, but here a slice of roast turkey proved neither. Instead it was tender and quite juicy. A companion sampling the beef said it was equally tasty, though somewhat small. He noted that a woman ahead of him who’d asked to have the fat trimmed before receiving her portion, looked surprised to see how little was left.

But kudos to the carver for providing the trimming service, and, yes, she could have gone back for another slice, hence the term “buffet.” My companion, however, noted his own reluctance to do so and appear greedy.

Fortunately for folks like him, the other offerings are so plentiful – and many quite impressively done – he could fill and refill his plate without judgment.

To my estimation, the pigs in the blanket (here called golabki, but you can say cabbage rolls) were the biggest hit. Strange? What can I say?

The cabbage was especially soft and on the thin side, as opposed to thick and impenetrable, which often is the case, and the meat inside was perfectly flavored and not overly riced.

You could have taken this local favorite and teamed it with several other palatable Eastern European specialties. We found crispy, nicely browned baby potato pancakes, baby pierogies with butter and onions (perky but slightly dry) and haluski, which was the only ethnic offering not quite up to par. (The cabbage was entirely too thick, cut into actual hunks that fought with a fork.)

Rounding out the main-plate offerings were an array of the usual suspects, including meatballs and pastas and a nicely presented, flaky whitefish. Even pizza made an appearance.

Side dishes were endless. Vegetables were plentiful and anything but standard issue. Think roasted, marinated or otherwise elegantly dressed. A roasted-vegetable couscous was particularly luscious, and a vegetable eggroll was perky, crisp and fresh.

And we’d do you no favors by not shouting out the prolific soup and salad bar. A tortilla soup truly hit the spot. Rich, velvety tomato broth was laced with the scent of a lime and given a crunchy kick courtesy of corn.

As if this all was not enough, a companion even came back with a plate of peel-and-eat shrimp, proving you don’t have to pay the extra $6 on Thursdays to have a run at some seafood.

Our other companion found the dessert table and seemed to enjoy his bread pudding.

So, yes, a happy trio we were, even as we discussed tweaks we’d make if we owned the place.

One issue – the trace of cigarette smoke in the air – might be insurmountable, as the restaurant happens to be directly across from the smoking area of the casino floor. (We were escorted to a lovely large table in a nice area of the restaurant but asked for a less-desirable, less-smoky spot.)

Others would be easy fixes. We’d move the local and ethnic favorites together, for example, and indicate so with signage. In general, we’d group the genres better and add some unobtrusive overhead signage all around, which would help direct traffic.

And, curious enough, we’d move the actual serving bowls closer to the ends of the counters. My tall, shrimp-eating companion suggested this. Dude’s a big guy with long arms, and still he had trouble with reach.

On second thought, given the popularity of this place, maybe this troublesome setback is by design. You know, limit the access just a bit. (Just kidding. We don’t really think that.)

If you go Chow Chatter

What: Timbers Buffet at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs

Where: 1280 Highway 315, Plains Township

Call: 570-831-3506

Credit cards? Yes

Handicapped accessible? Yes

Hours: Sunday: 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. (brunch) and 4-8 p.m. (dinner), both $16.99; Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (lunch, $12.99) and 4-8 p.m. (dinner, $16.99); Friday: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (lunch, $12.99) and 4-9 p.m. (dinner, $22.99/seafood night); Saturday: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (lunch, $12.99) and 4-9 p.m. (dinner, $16.99).

The restaurant experience is often all about the ambience, but ambience is tough to define. Brown booths with orange laminate tabletops in front of an old-fashioned, soda-style counter? A box of Zagnuts and a jar of oversize Tootsie Rolls, 20 cents each, at the register? That’s ambience, too. Been to the Half Circle on West End Road in Hanover Township lately? It’s not easy to find a more satisfyingly simply lunch (or dinner). We always get the same thing: pork barbecue with relish and two sides to share: potato nuggets (essentially mini potato pancakes) and broccoli and cheese nuggets, which burst with broccoli. Sometimes we even throw in a cup of chicken noodle soup in a shout of appreciation for a basic place that focuses on the basics. It’s the little place time seems to have forgotten, and as far as we’re concerned it can keep forgetting.

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