The first thing you notice when you approach The Journey, the most high-concept eatery to arrive in Indianapolis in a long while, is the riot of décor features that form a little tableau outside the restaurant’s front door. Ultramodern stylized elephants flank an arched plank bridge while Italian renaissance fountains — one already defunct — rise from a shallow pond into which cartoon frogs spew streams of water. A fence reminiscent of a wharf, complete with oversized life preservers, frames the whole scene. If you have an eye for style, you might wonder if this is postmodernism gone a step too far. But maybe a buffet offering everything from sushi to pizza deserves such an eclectic entryway?
The second thing you notice, especially on weekend nights, is the crowd. Whatever you might think about this place — or buffets in general — it’s popular. Few eateries along 96th Street between I-69 and Allisonville Road don’t draw a fair share, but should you really have to wait 20 minutes to get into a buffet? Waiting among the excited throngs for a space-age buzzer to summon you inside is an almost required ritual at the destination eateries of Fishers. Here, it’s more a prologue bent on building suspense — like the queue before an amusement park thrill ride. Just what sort of a “journey” are you embarking on?
Inside, a spacious foyer opens into a vast dining room that extends the atmospheric pastiche. Soothing stone tile and brick walls, slender contemporary lamps and funky circular booths show how much attention and money went into the setup of what the owners clearly hope will be the first of several similar eateries. But a ceiling glowing a garish blue, more maritime kitsch (mounted fish and yet more life preservers) and all-too-bright lighting definitely disrupt the feng shui. Additional banks of semi-private dining rooms accommodate a surprising number of guests. But the place is so packed on weekends that wait stations have their floors stacked with dirty plates. What aims to be a retreat is all too frenzied, too aimed at getting people fed.
The food takes the same top-heavy approach as the décor, with a dizzying array of comestibles from both East and West. Such bounty may appeal to some, but quality has been traded for quantity here, and the desire to offer so many dishes from so many different culinary traditions means that little of it has much character — or flavor. A massive salad bar shaped like a boat presents a pretty mundane selection of cold items, including crab and chicken salads gluey with mayo and peel-and-eat shrimp that aren’t deveined, giving you a mouthful of grit.
Sushi, while plentiful and varied, is so rapidly rolled it’s a tad ragged and doesn’t have the freshness of the best. A seafood pasta station lets diners customize sautéed dishes, but containers of dried-out pasta and shrimp and scallops swimming in water aren’t exactly appealing. Traditional Chinese appetizers — shrimp rolls, dumplings, crab Rangoon — are fairly bland and frozen tasting, and Chinese stir-fries and noodle dishes seem cooked long before you arrive. The best Asian offerings come from Japan: nicely chewy grilled beef short ribs, sweet “Japanese-style” chicken, tasty Japanese pork barbecue. Grilled salmon and tuna are also much better than the raw offerings.
Good old American food seems an afterthought. Day-Glo mac and cheese has a sticky, powdery sauce to it; pizza is puffy with a chemical twang. Crab cakes are a touch salty, but at least fairly meaty with real crab. Babyback ribs are drizzled with a runny, cloying sauce. Prime rib, one of the buffet’s main features, is passable, if not the most tender; with mashed potatoes and a rich brown gravy, it can actually make for a fairly sophisticated meal.
Desserts have an out-of-the-box quality to them, which isn’t to say they’re all bad. Cinnamon rolls, chocolate chip cookies and mushy macaroons are mere filler, but little multilayered coffee-flavored tortes are actually quite light, dainty confections. Cobblers like cherry and peach are homey, if not exactly homemade tasting. In lieu of soft-serve ice cream, diners must reach into a freezer to scoop their own, not exactly the most sanitary proposition.
As we lingered at our table — proclaimed buffet lovers, all — we enumerated the buffets we love around town, hardly any of which costs more than $10. This one is $16.99 for dinner. Sure, you get plates embossed with The Journey’s logo, as well as an experience not unlike a cruise ship midnight buffet. We left wondering if smaller wouldn’t have allowed for more quality, if a little less food would have meant it could all have been better.
7155 E. 96th St.
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5-9:30 p.m.
Friday: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5-10 p.m.
Saturday: 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; 5-10 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; 5-9 p.m.
Food: One and a half stars
Atmosphere: Three stars
Service: Three stars
Nonsmoking, Handicapped accessible
Recommended dishes: grilled beef short ribs, Japanese-style chicken, prime rib