CHAFING GRACE

I grew up believing brunch was yet another clever innovation of the 1960s. I was mistaken. According to etymologists, "brunch" the word came into existence in 1896 to describe a meal combining breakfast and lunch, taken late in the morning.

Well, I don't know about you, but for me, brunch combines a lot more than that. What was once a relatively simple repast of eggs Benedict, omelet or waffles accompanied by a mimosa or bloody mary has mutated into an all-you-can-eat extravaganza featuring elaborate smorgasbord tables filled with everything from eggs to entrees. It's like eating breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in one seating. With my metabolism, a brunch day is a one-meal day. I'm fortunate to be hungry the next morning. This can be a liability.

But, ever the consummate professional, I push personal concerns aside and embark on an investigation into the current state of brunch in the Valley. Why? Because people love brunch. If local radio talk shows are any indicator, "Where's a good brunch?" is a frequent question asked of restaurant critics.

I thought it was time I had an answer of my own.
And so, you see before you the first installment of a multipart series of brunch reviews to be published over the next few months. (How many I do depends on how well I hold up.) The three brunches reviewed today--the Ritz-Carlton, Scottsdale Hilton's Iron Horse Restaurant, and Shangri-la de Old Cathay--encompass a range of options: from more to less expensive, from traditional to unusual, from elegant to casual. Let's start at the top.

At the Ritz-Carlton, good taste is manifested in every aspect of the champagne brunch experience. As might be expected, no nameless bubbly flows here. At the Ritz, you pick your own poison, depending on your palate and pocketbook. Does Mumm's Cuvee Napa sound appealing? For $26, plus tax and tip, the Ritz will gladly refill your glass again and again with this sparkling substance.

Not special enough? Maybe the Moet & Chandon White Star, at $38 per person, is more your speed. Or, if you're really feeling flush, select the Dom Perignon brunch. It'll only set you back $65, per person. In both cases, tax and tip are extra, bien sur.

Perhaps the most innovative feature of brunch at the Ritz is that it offers nondrinkers the opportunity to choose a champagneless meal at a discount. For just $19, plus tax and tip, enjoy fresh-squeezed orange juice and the same wonderful food--and no late-afternoon headache. Yes, brunch at the Ritz is a highly civilized affair. This is a buffet with decorum. You'll witness no runs on the smoked salmon or stampedes for the last piece of chocolate-mousse cake here. There are reasons this simply won't happen.

First of all, maximizing customers per square foot is not part of the management strategy at the Ritz. Every table is full, but the feeling in the restaurant is one of gracious comfort: simultaneously intimate and spacious. Piano music soothes the ears and ice sculptures cool the eye. As seating is limited, reservations are essential.

Second, the layout of the buffet is designed to minimize bottlenecking. Food tables are arranged in a circle. At its center is a giant arrangement of irises and tiger lilies, on the day I visit. Diners move clockwise around the tables. Carvers and servers stand at the ready on the inside of the circle. Desserts are displayed on a separate table. This simple setup eliminates my least-favorite aspect of the buffet brunch experience: those impatient neck-breathers who want you to hurry up with the seafood salad so they can have some.

Third, the exhibited serving portions at the Ritz are demure, but continually and unobtrusively refilled. That there will be enough for everyone is understood. Panic is not a part of this picture. Neither are those huge, unappetizing platters of picked-over foodstuffs routinely presented elsewhere. Understatement is so tasteful, isn't it?

As for the food, it's a dream come true for jaded brunch-eaters. At most buffets, the small quantity of what you're really there for--smoked salmon, crab salad, artichoke hearts--is often hidden away among a lot of what you don't want to eat--coleslaw, sweet rolls, melon slices.

The Ritz has brought together all of those things you desire most, and eliminated the rest. A section of the circular buffet is devoted solely to smoked fish and seafood, another to meat pates and seafood terrines, another to homemade salami and sausages. These are foodstuffs to linger over.

Even the salads, so often abysmal elsewhere, are outstanding. I love the prosciutto and asparagus bow-tie pasta, the authentic-tasting Oriental shrimp and the pine nut-studded Southwest roast beef salads. A field salad of assorted greens and a marinated salad of hearts of palm and artichoke hearts exemplify what makes this brunch so special: At every opportunity, the food surpasses the ordinary and expected. This is true even of the hot entrees--an easy area for restaurants to fall down in. Not so at the Ritz. Crab-stuffed jumbo pasta shells topped with a sauce of fresh tomatoes are delightful, as is the salmon wrapped in phyllo dough with roasted red-pepper coulis. Chicken stuffed with apricot avoids oversweetness, thanks to a coating of peppercorns. Carved herb-encrusted roast beef and pink pork roast with apple-walnut chutney are both tender and lovely.

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