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.
What have I neglected to mention? The caviar with buckwheat blinis? The fresh fruit and vegetables? The poached eggs on hash? The breakfast meats? Well, they're all available in abundance at the Ritz's round table.
As might be expected, desserts are lush and rich. It's hard to pick a favorite, but the creamy sour-cream cheesecake and Boston cream pie with dark-chocolate icing are definite contenders. A chocolate pecan pie is unusual for featuring chopped pecans in, as well as on, the pie. The only minor disappointment is a too-runny raspberry torte with an almond crust.
Service is excellent, attentive without being ingratiating. Champagne glasses are regularly refilled. Used plates are swiftly removed. Clean forks are promptly delivered. Special requests are granted. When I ask our waitress for a different type of bread with which to eat the several pates on my plate, she doesn't blink. "We have a nice sourdough back there," she volunteers. "Will that do?" "Yes," I say. And it does, nicely.
The Ritz may be a little pricey to become a weekly ritual, but keep it in mind for those special occasions when you want to dress up and blow some bucks. If you can live without champagne, at $19 a person, this may actually be one of the best brunch bargains in the Valley.
The Iron Horse Restaurant at Scottsdale Hilton offers the kind of mediocre Sunday brunch I would rather avoid. For $15.95 per person, plus tax and tip, you receive one glass of cheap champagne and all the mealy shrimp you can eat. It'll cost you fifty cents a glass for more bubbly, and you'll have to peel those shrimp yourself. A bargain? Not in my book.
Frankly, this is just the type of harried free-for-all I hate.
In an effort to diffuse the crowd, the Iron Horse positions its buffet tables in different parts of the dining room. The salads and smoked salmon are here; the cooked-to-order omelets and carved roast beef and lamb there; the baked goods and fresh seafood in another room entirely. Instead of eliminating lines, this arrangement promotes confusion and creates traffic jams of people bearing dangerously full plates.
Yes, the competition for food is fierce. In two separate instances, my dining accomplice and I are edged away from different buffet tables by the anxious neck-breathers so conspicuously absent at the Ritz-Carlton. Maybe I'm not fit to survive, but this is not my idea of fun.
Or maybe it's just that I don't think the food here is worth fighting for. Salads are abysmal--soggy and drenched with dressing or mayonnaise. Hot entrees, like pistachio-stuffed chicken, are strictly average. Desserts are cloyingly sweet and unspectacular.
What I would recommend about this brunch are the made-to-order items. The carved roast beef and lamb are both excellent, as are the omelets. Baked goods such as rolls and minibagels also seem above average.
Most diners dress quite casually for brunch at Scottsdale Hilton. This makes sense. Despite pretensions to the contrary, this Sunday brunch has more in common with Sizzler or JB's than the Ritz-Carlton. Quantity, not quality, is its main draw.
If you're looking for a different and inexpensive brunch option in the East Valley, check out Shangri-la de Old Cathay. For just $9.95 a person, plus tax and tip, this busy Chandler restaurant offers a Sunday buffet brunch that has some surprises. Shangri-la sports a modern look, featuring brass, mirrors and lights. During brunch, a piano player treats the crowd to standards. Unfortunately, the fancy image is tarnished when one looks closer and observes torn seats and stained booths. Wear and tear are not surprising in a popular restaurant, but unrepaired damage like this raises doubts about what else is being ignored.
Champagne is part of the brunch deal here. Our glasses are diligently and unstingily refilled throughout our stay. A pot of tea and bowls of hot and sour soup are delivered. Then, we're on our own.
Tucked away in another room, Shangri-la's buffet is not for the timid. The neck-breathers are here in force, rooting through the still-in-the-shell shrimp, grabbing the chow mein spoon from your hand, reaching past you for an egg roll. It does take something away from the experience--your appetite, for instance--but press on past the steam trays filled with beef and broccoli and sweet and sour pork. Ahead lies the real reason to attend this buffet: pot-sticker dumplings and cooked-to-order Mongolian barbecue.
Yeah, save the shrimp for someone else. Give me all the pan-fried, crescent-shaped Chinese dumplings I can eat and I'm one happy individual. Happily, Shangri-la's pot stickers are very good. The accompanying sauce of soy, sesame and green onion is exactly correct.
But the real treat here is the Mongolian barbecue. The mechanics are quite simple. Pick up a bowl and place into it a combination of sliced vegetables and raw meats selected from a salad bar affair. Hand your bowl to the hot-pot assistant and tell him how spicy you'd like it. Take a number and return to your table. Your bowl will be delivered to you, its contents cooked to your specifications. My barbecued beef is quite tasty, though not overwhelmingly spicy.
It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Chinese buffets that Shangri-la's selection of meal-end sweets is limited and unexciting. I have no trouble resisting the cutup brownies and Danish pastries that pass for dessert. Fresh fruit might have tempted me, but all that's left on the depleted tray are orange sections and pineapple slices. It's been pretty well picked over.
If Shangri-la's brunch succeeds, it is because its price is right and its food exceeds that of the average Chinese buffet. This is a crowded, not entirely civilized brunch, but if you're not averse to rubbing elbows with humanity, and you crave unlimited Chinese food and cheap champagne, Shangri-la could be your version of paradise.
Ritz-Carlton, 2401 East Camelback, Phoenix, 468-0700. Brunch hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Sunday.
The Iron Horse Restaurant, Scottsdale Hilton Resort and Spa, 6333 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 948-7750. Brunch hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday.
Shangri-la de Old Cathay, 2992 North Alma School, Chandler, 821-5448. Brunch hours: 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday.
Brunch at the Ritz is a highly civilized affair. This is a buffet with decorum.
The competition for food is fierce. My dining accomplice and I are edged away from two different buffet tables by anxious neck-breathers.
Ahead lies the real reason to attend this buffet: pot-sticker dumplings and cooked-to-order Mongolian barbecue.
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