SPREAD'S THE WORD

Charlie's, Crescent Hotel at Koll Center, 2620 West Dunlap, Phoenix, 943-8200. Hours: Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Parked along I-17 on an unlovely west-side stretch of Dunlap, the Crescent Hotel hardly merits a second look from a passing car. So I was seriously discombobulated when I sat down to brunch at the hotel's main dining room, Charlie's. It's stunning. Elegant marble floors, finely woven burgundy carpeting and eye-catching plants in mammoth pots strike the first visual blows. The chafing dishes ring a lovely tiered cactus garden, with all the species meticulously identified. A wall of windows overlooks a lushly planted courtyard. The whole scene is framed by a huge tile archway that gives another clue to the entrepreneurial hubris behind this place. Meanwhile, in the background, musicians on vibes and steel drum expertly entertain with gentle melodies ranging from "Under the Sea" to "Jamaica Farewell." A peek into a side room revealed a display of artistry that took our breath away: magnificent, museum-quality tapestries. In exquisite detail and sumptuous colors, they depict scenes of rustic life. As I stood before them, a strange mood swept over me: I felt less and less like eating, and more and more like reviewing my college art history notes. The overall effect is mesmerizing. But I couldn't help thinking that Charlie's was furnished with the kind of opulence that in recent years has ended up belonging to the federal Resolution Trust Corporation after a savings and loan went belly up. A few inquiries justified my suspicions. The name of the restaurant should have clued me in right away.

The Crescent Hotel was the brain child of Charles Keating, who built it as a warm-up to the more extravagant Phoenician. While that sprawling property was designed to cater to vacationing tourists, the Crescent aimed to attract the business crowd. The same Kuwaiti-led group now operating the Phoenician runs the Crescent, as well. And it puts out a brunch spread as magnificent as the surroundings. Gastronomically considered, this fare is as good as any in town. When you factor in the price--$19.50--it becomes the best brunch value around. First courses are temptingly laid out, works of art in their own way. A lovely seafood platter features huge, firm shrimp, not the mealy, sodden, rubbery crustaceans that often inhabit these parts. Succulent, meaty crab legs, briny, fresh oysters and clams also grace the plate. Seafood partisans have still more choices. Three kinds of caviar, surrounded by all the fixings, go nicely with the Frexenet bubbly that attentive staffers pour. There's also a glorious, whole baked salmon, so beautifully presented I actually paused for a moment before I dug in. Take full measure of the offerings before you move on to the next course. Pƒt‚s are excellent, especially the novel chorizo version. There's nothing ordinary about the cold Chinese noodle salad, either. And scrumptious tortellini come bathed in a first-rate pesto sauce, heavy with basil, garlic and pine nuts. Even the most mundane salads shout quality. Marinated cucumbers, wild rice and veggies and topnotch artichoke and palm hearts are good enough to use up precious belly room. No mayonnaise-drenched, gloppy salads here. And the breads are wonderful, particularly the fresh, buttery croissants. Once you tear yourself away from these starters, an alluring series of hot brunch dishes awaits. At the omelet-and-waffle station, both staples are made to order. I never bother with omelets--eggs are eggs--and I rarely give waffles a second glance. But I did here, and I'm a better man for it. They're superb, infinitely superior to those that sit around and harden into cardboard at other brunch stops. And they're thoughtfully fashioned in a kind of canoe shape, so the fillings you cram into them don't spill out. Make sure you don't leave without digging into the blintz and crepe trays. The blintzes feature a cheese-and-berry filling, wrapped in light, crispy dough. The outstanding crepes, lusciously stuffed with sweetened apples, are good enough to be on a restaurant menu. By this point, I'd made so many trips to the serving areas that my plates alone could have filled up the dishwasher. And I almost felt sorry for the poor employee who diligently refolded my napkin every time I left the table. But the staff here does a fine job of busing dishes and restocking silverware. Our cheery, Hungarian server kept the meal running smoothly, making sure the table was cleared, the champagne glass full and the coffee hot. If you must prioritize, skimp at the hot-entree section. Most of the choices are perfectly adequate, but few main dishes have ever benefited from sitting around in metal containers. Take the orange roughy. A hazard of steam-table fish is overcooking, and that occurred here. On the other hand, the raspberry chicken suffered little from exposure--it's got a zesty, fruit zing. Mongolian beef could have used a more tender cut of meat. The hot side dishes aren't terribly fancy--green beans, rice and thin-sliced potatoes--but sufficient for the task at hand. I can only think of one word to convey my sentiments about the desserts: Charge! I'm no great fan of sweets, but that may be due to the fact that I haven't had enough like these. If you're in a homey mood, stock up on home-baked cookies or a make-your-own ice cream sundae. Otherwise, head for the incredibly rich chocolate pecan pie. My weight-conscious wife, who suspects that even air has hidden calories, devoured this treat without a second thought. Not far behind are banana cream pie, chocolate raspberry mousse, chocolate-covered cream cookies, a white-and-dark-chocolate, cream-filled tulip, cräme caramel and apple crisp. And this list barely dents the options. Too bad Charlie Keating can't enjoy meals like this in the California big house where he currently resides. Like the rest of us taxpayers, he now knows there's no such thing as a free brunch. Cafe Brioche, Registry resort, 7171 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 991-3800. Hours: Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Unlike Charlie's, Cafe Brioche doesn't try to bowl brunchers over with either opulence or variety. Walking to our window table overlooking the pool and grounds, we didn't see nearly the number of serving tables groaning under brunchtime excess that we expected to greet us. No omelet station, no waffles, no pasta dishes, no chafing dishes with hot entrees. No crepes, no blintzes, not even French toast, either. "It's nice to come to a brunch where you're not overwhelmed," my wife remarked, espousing a philosophy I find difficult to embrace. But if a brunch spread is not going to overwhelm diners with quantity, it better deliver on quality. Cafe Brioche, however, falls a bit short in that category, as well. The low-keyed room matches the sedate fare. A dropped ceiling gives the place an intimate feel, as does the gentle, live harp music. Red-flowered carpeting, comfortable, carved wood chairs and obliging servers plying me with champagne contributed a sense of ease. But the champagne glass struck the first discordant note. It's not the traditional long-stemmed, fluted glass, but a wide cup that looks like it could have held a fruit dessert at a Saturday-night banquet. This outmoded method of serving champagne, which lets the bubbles escape by the third sip, is hardly a major detail, but it does suggest two explanations, neither promising: Management doesn't know, or management doesn't care. The cold offerings lack any hint of novelty and excitement. They'll fill you up without unpleasantness, but only prodigious feats of memory enabled me to recall them just 30 minutes after our encounter. You'll run into pickled-herring fillets, artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, shrimp, beef salad, tuna salad, chicken salad, potato salad, macaroni salad, pasta salad, marinated mushrooms and a tub of greenery. Nothing to get remotely worked up about. The meager pickings compelled me to wander over to the fruit section and cheese board, brunch stops that usually have all the attraction of downtown Beirut. And though I enjoyed fresh mango and sharp blue cheese, mango and cheese should not be one of your brunch highlights. Instead of an array of hot entrees, brunchers select one of half a dozen menu options. Duck in port wine sounded the most interesting, but not even a puddle of sauce could moisten the dry medallions. Much better was the tenderloin-topped eggs Benedict, a tender slice of beef perked up with asparagus. Still, as a brunch centerpiece, it's pretty dim, especially when you consider what other Valley resorts put out. Paying homage to Americans' insatiable sweet tooth, the dessert table confronts brunchers with the most options. Chocolate rum cake, marble cheesecake and chocolate-covered dates satisfied our lust for sweets, but couldn't erase the routine nature of everything we'd consumed before them. Rising out of the dessert table was a huge, inexplicable bust of Beethoven. (Did he write "Cheesecake Sonata"?) It looked edible, so we asked the hostess what it was made from. "They say it's white chocolate," she answered dubiously, "but I say it's lard." There's a metaphor lurking here somewhere, but like Cafe Brioche's brunch, it's not really worth seeking out.

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