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As I strolled into the Restaurant, the Ritz-Carlton's tony Sunday brunch spot, I had to fight the desire to make sure that my shoes were tied, my zipper zipped and my wallet secure in my back pocket. The opulent surroundings may arouse some of your latent insecurities, too. There's a somewhat stuffy but elegant feel to the place, and the unmistakable aroma of money.
You'll notice it even before you reach your table: rich floral arrangements, heavy pink curtains, massive breakfronts, brocade chairs and cut-glass chandeliers. Digestion-easing oil paintings from the Sedate School--landscapes and animals--line the walls.
7700 E. McCormick Parkway
Scottsdale, AZ 85258
Region: North Scottsdale
So powerfully subdued yet overwhelming is the room that it completely cowed the few little kids at brunch into utter decorum. It's a room that cries out, more strongly than Mom or Dad ever could, "Don't misbehave!"
At the back, a pianist sits behind a baby grand, tinkling out the sophisticated rhythms of Gershwin, Ellington, Berlin and Kern. Expertly played, it's just loud enough to hear without interfering with conversation.
Mercifully, the serving tables here don't offer the dizzying number of items that can turn brunch into an eating marathon. There's not more here than the eye can see, the mind can grasp or the intelligent diner can consume.
And not only are most dishes on target, they're almost always right in the bull's eye.
For the first time in brunch memory, the salad tables looked good enough for me to use up valuable belly room. A tuna-and-shrimp salad was crammed with shrimp that could be found without the same advanced electronic gear that located the Titanic. Firm cheese tortellini came surrounded by artichokes and hearts of palm, two of my favorite treats. Topnotch sushi didn't stint on the fish, and I saw none of that awful "krab." Two kinds of caviar and an unexpectedly perky combination of roast beef and peppers rounded out my first thrust into the brunch thicket.
Surprisingly, the elaborate half-dozen or so pƒt‚s I sampled on my second tour were not quite as good as I'd anticipated, lacking both texture and flavor. Best were the two simplest varieties: one liver, the other fish.
But I really enjoyed mussels in a pepper-packed tomato salsa, as well as the crab-packed seafood salad scooped into hollowed-out passion fruit. And guided by some unseen hand, I startled myself by sauntering over to the cold-cut platter and downing more of the absolutely first-rate pork medallions and roast beef than I intended.
Good as the first courses were, I still wasn't entirely prepared for the quality of the hot dishes. They're all outstanding, way beyond the usual brunch fare, each tasting individually prepared to order. The blintzes are unbelievable, thick with farmer cheese in a thin, crisp dough, drizzled with a delicate passion-fruit sauce. If my ancestors had eaten these regularly 100 years ago, I couldn't have blamed them for staying in eastern Europe, Cossacks or not.
Even the waffles, a brunch staple, had two lovely extras--passion-fruit butter and real whipped cream, not ruined by too much sugar.
The four inventive hot entrees displayed a quality and complexity you don't often see on Sunday morning at 11:30. And the sauces were particularly impressive.
Hearty Spanish mussels in a velvety, sharp, lemon-tinged hollandaise sauce stoked my appetite. Then I spied the crepes rolled with smoked chicken and sun-dried tomato. These came drenched in a luscious mascarpone cheese sauce--a tasty and expensive touch that points to a kitchen that doesn't cut too many corners. Terrific veal scaloppine, fragrant and tender, nestled in an aromatic sauce of mushroom and leek. It's an outstanding combination, good enough to place on the regular dining menu. Just as intriguing is the mesquite-smoked salmon with jicama in a light cactus-pear barbecue sauce.
The problem with the three hot side dishes is consuming, not choosing. In a clever Southwestern twist on potatoes … la Dauphinoise, the layered potato slices came cooked with jack cheese and spicy Anaheim chiles. An inventive, pear-shaped sweet potato croquette had a cherry stem inserted to make it look like fruit. And the vegetable dish was a bright mix of firm green and yellow wax beans, sugar snap peas and sliced red peppers, embellished with bacon and almonds.
About this time, I started wishing the Ritz brunch could be scheduled like a performance of Wagner's Ring cycle. Only instead of seeing an opera daily, there'd be a different course each day.
Poised at the brink of satiety, I couldn't work up too much enthusiasm about most of the desserts, never my biggest brunchtime weakness in any case. Bread pudding, chocolate hazelnut cheesecake and white-chocolate cheesecake, too rich for my barely flowing blood, didn't bowl me over. But I did enjoy tasting a decadent chocolate-pecan torte and a soothing cräme br–l‚e.
This is civilized brunching, perfectly designed to accommodate that other civilized Sunday pastime: the afternoon siesta.
Palm Court, 7700 East McCormick Parkway (Scottsdale Conference resort), Scottsdale, 991-3400. Hours: Sunday Brunch, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
In keeping with the place's name, Palm Court has a distinctly vegetal look. Palm leaves and fernlike variations are the principal motifs in the carpet, brocade chairs and curtains; potted palms pop up every few feet; and gorgeous flower arrangements in striking vases dominate the tiered dining area.