Sunday, Bloody Mary, Sunday

Wrigley Mansion Club, 2501 East Telawa Trail, Phoenix, 955-4079. Sunday brunch: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

A deluxe European vacation? Private schools for the kids? Fancy digs in a pricey community?

Unless you're a bankrupt governor, you probably can't afford these things.
But working stiffs who pay their debts can still get at least an occasional taste of the good life in this town, without filing for Chapter 7 protection. How? By feasting on an opulent brunch.

The Valley's numerous upscale resorts and restaurants have made our small corner of the Southwest the high-end Sunday-brunch capital of the universe. There are plenty of places that offer a mix of gorgeous views, luxurious surroundings, endless champagne and a dizzying variety of quality fare.

Among the best brunches in town are those at Wrigley Mansion and Wigwam Resort. For about $25, you can spend two hours pretending that you, too, have a trust fund beyond the reach of creditors, and an heiress for a spouse.

Wrigley Mansion is absolutely dazzling, dripping with the scents of money and good taste. (It's a private club, but the Sunday brunch is open to the public.) Look for the usual robber-baron touches: painted ceilings, Chinese urns filled with fresh flowers, elegant carpets, gilt-framed paintings and marble fireplaces.

These days, the place is owned by Geordie Hormel, the hirsute scion of the meat-packing family. On the day we visited, Hormel himself entertained at the grand piano, tickling the ivories with sophisticated enthusiasm. He must be the only pianist in town who dispenses with the tip jar.

Brunch is served on crisp, white linen in either the walnut-wood-lined library (where a dictionary sits on a stand, in case you feel a sudden need to look up the word "hirsute") or the enclosed veranda, with its sweeping view of Camelback Mountain to the east, downtown to the south and the Sierra Estrella to the west.

Sit down, gaze out the window and set your stopwatch. That's because Wrigley Mansion puts a tacky note on your table, advising you to depart within two hours in order to make room for the next guests. That annoyed me so much that I resolved to deprive the place of profit by eating my $24.95 worth.

It wasn't hard. The brunch spread is just as dazzling as the setting--absolutely first-rate.

Fortify yourself with a glass of Cook's champagne and make your way into the buffet room. Unlike at some brunches, you're not likely to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of dishes. A two-minute stroll around the tables is all you'll need to take in everything. (Good thing, too--remember, the clock is ticking.) The kitchen here seems intent on delivering quality, not quantity.

It didn't take long for me to draw up a battle plan. The platter bearing oysters and mussels was the first stronghold I attacked. It was a strategically sound decision. The critters on the half-shell turned out to be briny-fresh, gilded with a mouth-watering, creamy caper sauce. And the obligatory mounds of peeled shrimp (so often a soggy, flabby mess) are superb--firm, meaty, delicately flavored. For a brief moment, I wondered exactly how much seafood I'd have to eat to reach the $24.95 mark.

But my professional duty required an invasion all along the buffet line. The next target: salads.

There's nothing very exotic about the Wrigley Mansion's salads. They are, however, uncommonly tasty. Check out the Oriental chicken salad, thick with snow peas and water chestnuts, or the peppery mix of tomatoes, artichokes and fresh mozzarella. You can fix your own salad nieoise--the individual ingredients are artfully arranged--or put together an assortment of warm grilled vegetables. Even the ham-and-cheese salad, which looks like it escaped a Midwestern church potluck, has a surprising amount of zip. Terrific veal pate and silky smoked salmon are other appealing starter options.

Having broken through the buffet's first lines of defense, I forged ahead. I made a flanking maneuver around the omelet line--a waste of precious belly room--and instead plucked up some eggs Florentine. Sometimes, you hit the jackpot in the most unlikely spots. This blend of poached egg and spinach on a muffin proved absolutely scrumptious. (My wife was so impressed, she came back to it for dessert.) Waffles also turned out reasonably well, although, to my mind, spicy molasses is no substitute for maple syrup, which was inexplicably missing in action. And, if your name is Zeke, you may also want to fill up on heavy biscuits and gravy or a bland bowl of red beans and rice.

I cut through the main dishes like Caesar storming through Gaul: Veni, vidi, vici. Sometimes, buffet roasts can be as leathery as a cowboy boot. Not here, though. In particular, the pepper-crusted steak is about as juicy and beefy as you could want. Cabbage and apple perk up moist slices of roast pork loin. A chafing dish, however, is not the best habitat for fish--even if it is mahi mahi in a yellow tomato coulis. The fish inevitably gets dried out. Baby roasted russet potatoes, simple steamed veggies and deliciously sauced penne pasta were tempting accompaniments.  

Desserts end the brunch campaign on a victorious note. Don't miss the exceptional chocolate torte, made with high-quality chocolate. The creamy pistachio mousseline is rich and worth the calories. Delicate apple strudel with currants, dense chocolate-chip cheesecake, or an offbeat pine-nut dark-cherry torte also will send you home in triumph.

Sure, you could buy 25 lottery tickets and eat at home. But on a glorious Valley autumn Sunday, the Wrigley Mansion brunch can make you feel like a million dollars.

Terrace Dining Room (Wigwam Resort), 300 East Indian School, Litchfield Park, 935-3811. Sunday brunch: 11:30a.m. to 2 p.m.

If you feel like combining a Sunday brunch with a short Sunday drive, take Horace Greeley's advice: Go west, young man. More specifically, swoop down I-10 to Litchfield Park, home of the gorgeous Wigwam Resort.

There, the Terrace Dining Room serves brunch in an appealingly old-fashioned Western-resort setting. Our section of the room sported a wood-lined ceiling, a trio of cactus paintings and an incredible chandelier fashioned out of antlers. Colorful flower arrangements and a white-tuxedoed pianist who knows every note from The Sound of Music add to the charm.

But the most charming element here is the food. It's rousingly good.
You may not want to spring up immediately from your chair and dash to the buffet tables. Nonstop pours of Domaine Ste. Michelle champagne and a basket of irresistible muffins and miniature cheese Danish set on the table have a way of keeping you rooted.

But once you overcome inertia, you'll be rewarded. It's easy to overlook soup at a brunch, but that would be a mistake here. The cold peach-melon soup is fabulous, sweet, creamy and refreshing. The hot gumbo, thick with vegetables, is no slouch, either.

It's also easy to overlook waffles. Don't. These fresh-made beauties are dynamite.

Though we're several hundred miles from the nearest pier, Wigwam Resort has managed to track down some wonderful seafood. Filling up on shrimp makes sound brunch sense. But I enjoyed the juicy, meaty crab claws even more. Don't hesitate to carve up the pretty-as-a-picture whole poached salmon. It's meltingly tender and subtly flavored. And the heavenly smoked trout is as good as any I've had in the Valley.

Salads hit all the right brunch buttons. Wildrice with shrimp is one winner; so is a perky Mexican chicken salad. The three-bean and corn relish is outstanding, as is the tomato cilantro linguini deftly tossed with sliced duck. For sheer elegant simplicity, however, nothing could match the lovely autumn vegetable salad, gilded with yellow tomatoes.

Main dishes here aren't lined up over Sterno-heated chafing dishes. Instead, you get to select one from a menu offering five choices, which change week to week. (The entree determines the cost of the brunch.)

We didn't time our visit to coincide with the chicken pot pie, but you may want to. It's the real thing, stocked with chunks of chicken, veggies and potatoes, under a latticework of flaky crust. Roasted breast of duck, served with crisp potato cakes and honeyed cranberries, is another tempting option. Intriguingly paired with tabbouleh, the pan-seared halibut in a tart vinaigrette is flavorfully moist. In comparison, however, the veal paillard seemed pretty tame.

On the day of our visit, the Terrace Dining Room also served up some unplanned Sunday entertainment: a fire.

Trying to flame up some bananas Foster, a dessert-table worker nearly managed to torch the room instead. Quick-thinking employees grabbed extinguishers and doused the fire before anything catastrophic could happen. But the area housing all the sweets (fortunately, a section where no customers were seated) was so thick with smoke that it looked like a scene from Backdraft.

How did management handle the near-disaster? With aplomb. They wheeled all the desserts--totally ruined--away. An army of staff began sweeping, vacuuming and rearranging. In about 20 minutes, a makeshift dessert section appeared--not as impressive as the original spread, but amazingly well-done under the circumstances.

If you get thrown from a horse, the best thing to do is get right back on. Similarly, I guess if you ignite the dessert section putting a match to bananas Foster, the best thing to do is to waste no time repeating the maneuver. That, apparently, was the manager's logic, because the new dessert table continued to offer the fiery, liqueur-soaked treat. It was good, too, fashioned with Haagen-Dazs butter-pecan ice cream. Pina colada cheesecake, hazelnut cherry torte, rich double-chocolate cake and tiramisu should also satisfy most sweet tooths.  

I can't promise the same level of excitement we got at the Wigwam brunch. But, considering the level of the fare, it's unlikely you'll get burned.

Mansion Club:

Dining Room:
pot pie
of duck
Veal paillard

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