Marquesa, Scottsdale Princess resort, 7575 East Princess Drive, Scottsdale, 585-4848. Sunday brunch: 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Lots of folks will be spending big bucks this Sunday on a brunch worthy of Mom. Not my pal Bob. He hates those opulent brunches. "There are so many choices, so many strategies," he says. "I'm never sure how to operate. Do I heap my plate full of crab legs so I can get my money's worth? I like omelets, but I know that's not cost-effective eating. Can I in good conscience pick the shrimp out of the shrimp salad? Do I aim at every hot dish, even the vegetables? And what about dessert? Do I peck away at several sweets, or bomb away at a single target?" Then he gets really steamed. "But no matter what I do," he complains, "by the time I'm ready to head home, the results are always the same. I always end up overeating, and I feel bloated and sleepy. With most of Sunday still ahead of me, all I have energy for is a nap." I say: What's the problem? "Sated and inert" sounds like the perfect Sunday to me. Especially if I got that way brunching at Marquesa at the Scottsdale Princess or the Latilla Room at the Boulders.
Marquesa is housed in a gorgeous room that pays homage to the regional Spanish cuisine of Catalonia. On a beautiful Valley Sunday, the back doors are swung open, so brunchers can gaze at the orange trees and palms on the hotel grounds, and the McDowell Mountains in the distance. Inside, huge chandeliers with crystal teardrops, life-size portraits of Spanish nobility, fresh flowers on the table and the Iberian rhythms of a guitarist give brunchers the feeling that they're being entertained at the home of a Spanish grandee. So does the solicitous attention of servers brightly garbed in kepis and red sashes. The meal starts with Spanish champagne and mineral water. It's good manners to linger a moment and toast Mom's health. But after clinking glasses, cagey brunchers should sprint directly over to the seafood section. The shrimp, caviar and smoked trout might be the main piscatorial attractions under other circumstances. But not as long as three other ocean-based treats are also in the competition. The crab legs here are fabulous, succulent, meaty critters that don't have that soggy, water-logged taste that often brings them up short.
I paused to admire the beautiful, whole poached salmon before I decided it would look even more beautiful on my plate. If you've forgotten what salmon is supposed to taste like, Marquesa's version will be your benchmark. And only my critical duties kept me from ignoring the rest of the brunch and loading up on the glorious smoked sable. This fish combines a silky, mouth-pleasing texture with subtle, smoky flavor. Amateurs may find it hard to walk past the platters of bread, fruit and cheeses, but brunch veterans know these are not how you want to fill up precious belly room. Even pros have their weaknesses, though. I confess that I couldn't resist nibbling on the outstanding Brie torta, seasoned with pine nuts and thyme. I usually pass up salads for the same reasons of space, but some of the offerings are definitely worth a stop. You'll immediately notice that nothing here is glopped with mayonnaise, a dreaded Midwestern brunch touch that happily hasn't made its way to Catalonia. In fact, most of the cold platters have a distinctive Mediterranean accent.
I admired the couscous studded with grilled eggplant and squash. The chicken salad with almonds and red peppers is worth a corner of your plate. So is the pork tenderloin stuffed with dried fruit. And what a pleasure to see endive, a European staple rarely encountered in the Valley, here ladled with shrimp. Don't overlook the tapas, which set Marquesa off from all other extravagant Valley resort brunches. Make your way through mushrooms marinated in sherry and garlic, serrano ham, flaky duck empanadas or a thick potato omelet. And how many brunches has Mom been to that have a paella station? Here you can scoop up two different kinds: a seafood paella, with crab, mussels and shrimp; and one featuring Spanish sausage and chicken. Try to time your paella visit right, though, just after the earthenware bowls have been restocked. People have a habit of wandering by and plucking out all the goodies, leaving only the rice. Of course, traditionalists can order up omelets or go for the pasta. The ravioli, stuffed with shrimp and coated in zippy, roasted garlic cream sauce, will reward a detour.
Marquesa's hot entrees don't sit in Sterno-fired chafing trays, decaying in quality by the minute. Instead, they're grilled to order. The meats are scrumptious. The New York steak, pork tenderloin, lamb chops and duck breast are good enough to be served at dinner. And you can slather them with two wonderful sauces: charred tomato or a pungent, red-pepper cream. A routine, mixed-vegetable medley and smoked almond potatoes provide relatively lackluster accompaniment. The only problem with desserts is that management won't let you pack up a box of them so you can indulge the next time hunger strikes--probably Tuesday. The chocolate marsala bombe with white-chocolate lacing will put a heavy exclamation mark on the meal. So will the white-chocolate cheesecake and crumbly nectarine pie. Marginally lighter, but no less intense, are the roasted banana hazelnut tiramisu and fragrant orange flan. Or you might try the same sneaky maneuver I did with the chocolate and white-chocolate truffles. One bite induced such a chocoholic swoon that I was driven to the margins of brunch ethics. I surreptitiously wrapped two in a napkin and stuffed them in my wife's purse.
I wonder if Bonnie and Clyde got their start at brunch. Latilla Room, Boulders resort, 34631 North Tom Darlington Drive, Carefree, 488-9009. Sunday brunch: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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You may have a hard time dragging Mom away from brunch at the Boulders. The resort is breathtaking, and so is most of the food. The Latilla Room is round, encircling a huge tree trunk in the center. Overhead, thick, wooden beams radiate out spider-web style, filled in with thinner branches called latillas. A wall of windows overlooks massive boulders and the manmade waterfall coursing over them. Southwestern weavings, original art and fresh flowers give the cream-colored interior a soothing look.
If Mom wants to enjoy the view with a glass of champagne, she'll have to order it off the wine list--the prices range from $18 for a bottle of Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut to $138 for Krug's Grande Cuv‚e. But the brunch here is good enough to produce a natural, nonalcoholic high. Unlike many Valley-resort Sunday brunches, Latilla's won't overwhelm patrons with the sheer number of pickings. Take the seafood section, my first stop. Drop your line in here, and you'll hook only a few items--smoked salmon, shrimp, oysters. But who cares about quantity in the midst of this kind of quality? These big, firm, meaty shrimp are worth loading up on. And the first-rate Puget Sound oysters taste like they've just been pulled up from the sea. The cold salad area also makes up in depth what it lacks in sweep. The bean-and-beef platter shouldn't detain you long. But the Portobello mushrooms dotted with blackened sesame seeds are an uncomplicated delight. So is the refreshing mix of barley and tomato.
But don't fill up. Latilla's best work is yet to come. Brunch offers two sites to attack the hot entrees. The first is the outdoor mesquite grill, under a canopy of boulders just outside a side door. The fare dished out here is good enough to keep brunchers perpetually in line. On this Sunday, the hardworking cook offered three superb choices. Homemade Polish sausages came packed with flavor, accompanied by a medley of white and black beans. Juicy, marinated chicken breast got smothered by caramelized onions and a thick fruit chutney. Best of all was the heavenly, moist Chilean sea bass, sparingly rubbed with achiote, an earthy Mexican spice. Why don't more Valley brunches grill their fish, instead of drying them out in metal chafing dishes? Latilla's hot-main-dish area is also a crowd-pleaser. The steaming, right-out-of-the-oven pizza, brushed with pesto and topped with sun-dried tomatoes, eggplant and sausage, is irresistible. So is the kitchen's take on eggs Benedict. Here, a poached egg is served on cheese biscuits, with thin strips of vegetables instead of Canadian bacon under the hollandaise. Roast breast of turkey isn't exactly a gourmet treat, but it might seem so after you pile on some wonderful, sausage-studded corn-bread dressing. Other side dishes are equally compelling: sweet-potato hash, anointed with tart, Granny Smith apple slices and maple syrup, and a stir-fry of green beans, carrots and pearl onions. The only entree mediocrity was the smoked strip loin of beef. Too bad. I loved the deep, smoky aroma, and enjoyed the two-fisted cabernet sauce and polenta topping. But the meat itself was chewy, a cut below prime quality. I've heard the Boulders has a new pastry chef. If I were management, I'd sign him or her to a long-term contract. These desserts are topnotch. Brunch ethics or not, only my wife's too-small purse prevented me from sneaking out with an extra piece of the exquisitely rich chocolate hazelnut cake. The light tiramisu packs a real coffee punch. The cream-cheese-frosted carrot cake takes this brunch staple to a new level. And the small blackberry mascarpone bars are quite a nifty idea. And if you'd like to end the meal with a touch of elegance, stop by the crepe station and get a flaming, fruit-filled, Grand Marnier-soaked treat. The Latilla brunch closes down for the season after Mother's Day, so you'll need to move swiftly if you want to impress Mom. After all, flowers fade, but the memory of brunch will linger on.