GORGEOUS GORGE

If I said 'Tis the season," I bet I'd raise an eyebrow or two.
The holidays are over, babe," some of you would say. Long gone. Dead as that bottle of champagne we killed on New Year's Eve. History."

Well, readjust your thinking caps. I'm not talking about the holiday season, I'm talking about the brunch season here in the Valley. As far as I'm concerned, opening day has arrived.

Fortunately for you, I've done my research. I've found two great brunch spots, both reasonably priced. I mention price right at the outset because now, more than ever, it's an important issue.

Brunch, as you know, has become a very expensive proposition. And, for some people, no amount of great food or fancy, all-you-can-drink champagne can justify its big price tag. After all, these people say, it's the ritual of getting together with friends for brunch that's so much fun. Milelong buffets aside, it's only one meal. Why blow your weekly food budget? I couldn't agree more. Happily, some smart restaurants and resorts are making brunch affordable again. We may not be living in the good old days, but perhaps 1992 is the start of a brave new era.

At Etienne's Different Pointe of View at Pointe Hilton at Tapatio Cliffs, for instance, Sunday brunch is a bargain at $17.95 for adults and $15.95 for seniors 55 and older. This includes an unlimited pour of the Pointe's private-label California sparkling wine (champagne" comes only from France, don't you know), a big buffet, made-to-order omelets and more.

Children are welcome. You'll pay $9.95 for kids ages 9 to 14. If your progenies are 8 or younger and there are only two of them, they eat free. If you have more than two younger than 8, the remainder are charged the kid rate. Sorry. (Zero population growth begins to make sense, doesn't it?)

The view from Different Pointe of View is spectacular. We are seated at a corner table with a panorama of the mountains of the north Valley. The light is gorgeous. It enters the dining room through huge, floor-to-ceiling windows and spills across the tables.

Equally illuminating is the service. For brunch waiters, ours are exceptional. They offer to take our photograph (with the camera we've brought to record this holiday occasion). They refill each and every champagne glass before we've even noticed they're empty. They remove plates and replenish used silver promptly. One waiter even scrapes a smashed strawberry from the carpet beneath our table.

When one member of our party asks to take home an extra dessert-a miscalculation of appetite-we are told, No problem." It is whisked away and returned to our table enfolded in aluminum foil shaped like a swan. No guilt trips here, just a willingness to please.

After sitting and sipping champagne for a time, our party rises. The buffet is a good one, laden with a variety of foods. For this first round, I fill my plate with a poppy-seed minibagel, pale pink lox, peppery pate, a chunk each of gooey Brie and nutty Swiss, crisp water crackers, raw veggies and black olives, plus scoops of a lovely potato salad containing green peas and a cold tortellini-and-cheese salad. I have assembled quite a feast. And all of it is so good that I manage to clean my plateÏthough it takes me some time to do so.

The buffet has no shortage of garnishes. Some of them mislead me. When I spot a plate of chopped Bermuda onion, egg yolk, egg white and capers next to a basket of water crackers, I automatically begin searching for the caviar. Unfortunately, there isn't any. Thankfully, the Cornichons on display are not a miscue. There's plenty of pate here for everyone. Meanwhile, the other members of my brunch party have chosen to do it differently. Some have already dipped into the entree selections. Some have returned to the table with omelets. That's what I love best about this meal-no rules.

On my return trip to the buffet, I dig into the hot stuff. Staff members stand behind silver servers, ready to assist. I try some of almost everything: one poached egg Florentine, a crispy duck leg, a medallion of coconut chicken, a morsel of mahimahi, wild rice, julienne vegetables. The only item I miss is the pork loin. It's the last item on the table and I simply don't have room: on my plate now, or in my stomach later.

Frankly, I don't miss it. To my amazement, I again like everything I taste. What I especially like is the size of the entree servings. The portions are small enough to allow me to graze at will, to try a little bit of everything. Bless chef Erasmo Kamnitzer and the staff of Different Pointe of View for this accommodating innovation, one I consider a brunch milestone.

I give them equal applause for my poached egg Florentine-like eggs Benedict, only with spinach instead of Canadian bacon. It is still hot and runny inside-the way I like it-when I cut into it, even though it has been sitting in the tray for a while. This, too, is a brunch achievement.

Dessert is no trifling matter. It is a separate buffet table. I do not catch the names of all the tempting cakes and pastries put forth for our gustatory pleasure, but let me emphasize that layer cake, cream pie, chocolate tart and cheesecake are only the beginning. I forgo these choices for brightly colored, frosted Christmas sugar cookies, a chocolate-covered (fresh) strawberry and an edible chocolate cup filled with swirled, white-and-dark-chocolate mousse. Need I tell you they are fabulous?

Sound like a rave review? It is.
There's only one thing I would change at Different Pointe of View, and it has more to do with the detail of restaurant design than its Sunday brunch. It's the rest rooms. The doors are etched with illustrations indicating which is for men and which is for women. Unfortunately, these etchings don't show up in the daytime, leading to much confusion. If you plan to be a guest in the restaurant, keep in mind that the door on the left is for ladies, the one on the right for gents. (Management, take note!)

After our meal, we adjourn to the patio, where we wander the garden, bending to smell roses and taking each other's pictures. It is a delightful day, the kind that vacationers, winter visitors and the rest of us who reside here year-round live for. We bask in the sun's warmth and in the pleasure of the fine brunch we've just enjoyed.

For months I've been eager to return to Nina L'Italiana Ristorante for brunch. Resort brunches are fun, but the idea of a restaurant brunch, especially an Italian-restaurant brunch, appeals to me. The price is right-$10.95 a person-and brunch provides one more opportunity to savor Nina Vincenti's angelic pastas and creative, Puglia-style cooking. How can I resist?

Sunday brunch at Nina L'Italiana starts at 11:30 a.m. and continues until 3:30 p.m. This generous schedule gives us late risers a chance to get in on the brunch action. Reservations are not required, but it's never a bad idea. The interior of Nina L'Italiana, a former nightclub, has never excited me, but the restaurant's white walls and Mexican-tile floor provide a bright and cheery atmosphere for brunch.

The setup here is interesting. First, there is a buffet of cold salads and antipasto fixings set up in the back of the restaurant, to which you may return as many times as you wish. The next course is a sampler plate of three pastas, followed by a three-meat sampler plate. Desserts are displayed on a separate table in the buffet area. Yes, you have to walk to get them, but you'll need the exercise, believe me.

By resort standards, the cold-salad buffet is small. No matter; size doesn't count when it comes to magnificent salads like these. On the day we visit, I like everything, from an interesting olive, beet and artichoke combination, to carrots with brown sugar, to tossed greens and roasted peppers, to white-meat tuna and Bermuda onion doused with olive oil and lemon juice. From the antipasto plate, I snag a fresh mozzarella ball with Roma tomato and basil, some hard salami and spicy prosciutto. It is with great reluctance that I hold back from seconds. I could quite happily feast from the offerings of this table alone.

But, I'm glad I am able to discipline myself. A good appetite is needed to fully enjoy the pasta sampler plate, featuring a lovely combination of creamy manicotti, spinach-and-ricotta gnocchi and spinach-tinged ravioli in a wonderful tomato sauce. There's not a loser here.

I'm a two-plate-per-brunch kind of girl, so our third-course meat platter is a bit of a trial for me. This time we are tempted with beef braciola, lemon-rosemary chicken, and sausage and peppers in more of Nina's fantastic tomato sauce. Oven-roasted potatoes fill out the plate. My favorite item in this course is the tender, delicately flavored chicken. The rolled beef is too dry and tough for me to finish, but I have no problem putting away the mildly spicy sausage and peppers. Somehow, after all of this, we manage to stumble back to the buffet to pick out a dessert or two. In an attempt to lighten my overworked, but satisfied, stomach, I concentrate on fresh strawberries with zabaglione. Okay, I admit it, I also eat a cream puff. It is memorable for its bittersweet, dark-chocolate topping.

Cappuccino is not included in the price of Nina L'Italiana's brunch, but it's needed at the end of a huge meal like this. I recommend that you splurge and order a cup. Relax and enjoy; at Nina's you're among friends.

THE ULTIMATE TRUE-OR-FALSE TEST YOU WOUL... v1-08-92

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