Mother Load

T. Cook's, Royal Palms, 5200 East Camelback, Phoenix, 602-808-0766. Sunday Brunch: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

She carried us for nine months, then brought us into the world. She fed us, clothed us, sheltered us, comforted us, raised us. She packed our school lunches, took care of us when we were sick and taught us right from wrong. She was always there for us. And she always loved us, unconditionally. We owe everything to Mom.

On May 9, a week from Sunday, it's her special day. And just about everyone with a mom will salute her the same way: We'll take her out to a Mother's Day buffet brunch. There, her loved ones will demonstrate the depth of their affection by balancing plates piled high with shrimp in one hand and plates groaning with desserts in the other and eating themselves into a belt-loosening stupor. (Moms love clean plates.) Afterward, everyone will celebrate the rest of her day by lying down for the traditional family nap.

Restaurant owners look forward to Mother's Day the same way tavern owners look forward to St. Patrick's Day, or candy makers look forward to Halloween. It's the single busiest restaurant day of the year. (Valentine's Day is a distant second--there are more moms than sweethearts.)

The government doesn't keep the figures, but I believe that per 100,000 population, the Valley has the most Sunday brunch destinations on the planet. None of them is better than T. Cook's, at the Royal Palms. And none of them is higher than the Compass Restaurant, at the downtown Hyatt Regency.

If Mom appreciates beauty, the Royal Palms will make her woozy. The resort is gorgeous. She'll get the idea immediately, walking through the sunny, flower-filled courtyard, complete with burbling fountain, that leads to the restaurant. Let her linger.

T. Cook's interior is spectacular, a poem of brick, wood, tile and marble. It's hard to choose the best design touch: the shuttered clerestory windows, the exposed wooden beams, the painted Mexican tile, the vaulted ceiling, the immense cast-iron chandeliers, the scrolled cast-iron candleholders on the wall, the live palm trees, the plants and flowers, the rotisserie "fireplace" or the intriguing centerpiece, a metal "solar system" adorned with marble planets. There isn't a prettier room in town.

The view out the windows is just as breathtaking. Ask to sit at table #43 (for four) or table #53 (a deuce), toward the back of the room, near the French doors. From those spots you'll look out at blooming azaleas, an umbrella-shaded patio (where you can brunch, if you don't mind the May heat) and Camelback Mountain looming directly behind.

But you haven't brought Mom here simply to feast her eyes. After all, you could have done that by driving her to the Grand Canyon or digging out your old baby pictures.

You want Mom to enjoy a magnificent meal. And T. Cook's brunch is so good that once she hits the buffet table, she'll have a hard time looking at anything else.

T. Cook's buffet isn't the most opulent in town--it's not even close. Mom won't find mountains of fruit, acres of pátes, miles of sushi, a dozen salad variations, endless rows of chafing trays, an omelet, pasta or waffle station or massive dessert displays. This spread is small and civilized. But whatever it lacks in breadth, it more than makes up in depth. Everything here is high quality, and lip-smackingly delicious.

No matter how concerned she is about nutrition, Mom should skip over the fresh melon, pineapple and berries. That's because she can get her vitamins and minerals in an even more compelling form. The grilled and roasted vegetables are good enough to make even the most unreconstructed carnivore understand the charms of a vegan life. The asparagus, zucchini, portabella mushroom and red peppers on this platter taste as if they were just pulled out of the Tuscan earth. Fresh mozzarella, teamed with vibrant yellow and red tomatoes, will also make Mom think she's been transported to the Mediterranean coast on a warm spring day.

Mom won't have to scratch her head trying to choose among a half-dozen cold pasta salads. At T. Cook's, there's only one. But on our visit, it was good enough to stand alone: corkscrew pasta vigorously embellished with cranberries, pine nuts and basil.

Make sure Mom takes a big plate when she makes her seafood foray. That's because she's going to cover every square inch of it. T. Cook's puts out a shrimp tray filled with almost mutantly large critters, the kind you need a knife and fork for. They're firm and meaty, too. Alongside she'll notice snow crab claws, thoughtfully cracked open and ready to eat. Frankly, I don't know how T. Cook's can make a profit putting out this shellfish duo, unless it has hijacked a fleet of seafood trucks.

Two other temptations await. First is the fabulous prosciutto from Parma, buttery slices of salt-cured, air-dried, seasoned ham. (Get it while you can. The U.S., involved in a trade dispute with Italy, is threatening to double the tariff.) The other is the house-smoked salmon, as silky a salmon as I've ever had. Forget about putting this on a bagel with cream cheese. I'd eat it plain, or maybe topped with a spoonful of capers.

You can order the buffet alone, for $19. But combined with an entree, the cost is only $12. And since entrees range between $7 and $16, even thick-headed English majors like me can figure out that the entree option makes the most financial sense.

For 16 bucks, Mom could get the likes of grilled beef tenderloin with Gorgonzola cheese. For a dollar less, there's pan-seared sea bass with horseradish mashed potatoes. But at this time of day, the breakfast entrees make the most gastronomic sense.

The French toast, fashioned from grilled date nut bread, makes sense any time. It's wonderful--thick wedges impressively studded with big, moist chunks of dates and teamed with an aromatic homemade sausage patty. The kitchen also puts out a nice twist on eggs Benedict, a buffet cliche. Here, poached eggs are set over sauteed hearts of palm and smothered in a creamy tomato beurre blanc. And if Mom is in the mood for pancakes, the ones here are so fluffy that they might float off the plate without the caramelized banana and strawberry relish to hold them down.

For dessert, it's back to the buffet table. No, Mom won't find cheesecake, chocolate mousse, apple pie or ice cream. Instead, she can satisfy her sweet tooth with several outstanding breakfast pastries: perfect chocolate croissants, cinnamon walnut buns, muffins and fresh jelly doughnuts to die for. (If she wants cakes and pies, Mom can order off the à la carte dessert menu.) Whatever she does, though, she'll wash everything down with first-rate coffee.

T. Cook's combination of looks, food and service (you'll never have to signal for more silverware, a water refill or another cup of coffee) will make her proud that you had the smarts to take her here. Just make sure you resist the urge to hand her the check.

Compass Restaurant, Hyatt Regency, 122 North Second Street, Phoenix, 602-252-1234. Sunday Brunch: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Take Mom to breakfast at the Compass Restaurant, and her head will spin. And so will the rest of her.

That's because this place, perched at the very top of the downtown Hyatt, is our city's only revolving restaurant. The view is extraordinary: Over the course of one hour, Mom will get a panoramic, 360-degree tour of the Valley.

Unfortunately, her tour of the buffet tables won't be nearly as exciting. The food here doesn't really get off the ground.

There's no stinting on variety, however. The Compass spread ranges all over the buffet prairie. Just about everything you can imagine is set out on the tables.

Two Asian touches may catch Mom's eye. A bamboo basket sports two kinds of steamed, dim sum-style Chinese dumplings. But they're both way too doughy and dense. And the California roll sushi tastes like it's been sitting around for more time than it ought to have.

The shrimp and snow crab platter isn't in the same league with T. Cook's, but it's serviceable enough. So are some of the salads, especially the "Oriental Shiitake" model, lots of fungi coated with a vaguely Asian-style vinaigrette. The tame vegetarian salad, composed of eggplant, mushroom and peppers, could use a little more spunk. The Cajun chicken salad, however, needs a major overhaul. Mortared with mayo, it has no bayou flair.

Three dishes stand out. The Southwestern potato pancake is skillet-fried fresh to a crispy edge. Flecked with red pepper and corn, it's got an alluring combination of taste and texture. A red pepper a•oli adds a helpful kicky bite.

Pancakes are also made up fresh, and no one will blame Mom for putting together a stack of them. And the overstuffed cheese blintzes, drizzled with a bit of fruit sauce, are thick and heavy, just the way they ought to be.

The hot entrees, though, are an uninspired lot. These are the kind of lifeless dishes that give all-you-can-eat buffets a bad name. Chicken medallions are leathery enough to make into a purse. Halibut, tossed with linguini and baby bok choy, may once have been moist and flaky. But by the time I got to it, the fish had lost whatever energy it had possessed. Beef tri-tip, thin slices of meat, had been sitting around so long the edges had curled up. The chicken cordon bleu--a split breast with a piece of ham inserted--might have been left over from a Saturday-night banquet.

Desserts are by far the weakest part of the operation. So many sweets, so little distinction. Everything is sweet, rich, heavy--and tasteless. Turtle cheesecake, cinnamon cheesecake, chocolate mousse cake, Tia Maria cake, apple strudel, chocolate cake, chocolate puff balls--Mom won't be happy putting on so many calories for so few thrills.

Right now, the Compass Restaurant seems to be spinning without direction. Until the food matches the view, you can start the revolution without me.

T. Cook's:
Sunday brunch
Buffet with entree
Date nut bread French toast
Caramelized banana pancakes
Poached eggs and hearts of palm

Compass Restaurant:
Sunday brunch



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