Remember Mork and Mindy? On that TV series, writers used Robin Williams' alien to make trenchant observations about American culture. Because the lines came from Mork, they seemed amusing and thoughtful, not threatening.
Several years ago, my wife and I hosted our own Mork.
Only his name was Moulaye and he didn't come down the ramp of a green saucer but off a Pan American jet, ending a journey that began in the African backcountry. We'd met Moulaye years earlier, when he was an excellent ninth-grade student at the school we taught in. One day, in passing, we promised that if he finished high school, we'd bring him on a visit to America. At the time, our bankroll was in the low five figures, if you included the two numbers to the right of the decimal point. But by the time he managed to get his diploma, we'd just finished some contract work that left us temporarily flush in two now-rare commodities: time and money. We brought him over and took off to see America in a borrowed 1974 Plymouth Fury.
On his first day at my in-laws' house, Moulaye came racing in from the backyard to warn us about a deadly green mamba snake lurking in the grass. The reptilian threat turned out to be a neatly coiled garden hose.
I expected skyscrapers and computers to dazzle Moulaye. But he took those in stride and wondered instead at the small things. Revolving doors and change machines fascinated him. He loved the way drinking straws kept your lips dry.
But what most astonished Moulaye was the concept of an all-you-can-eat brunch. He simply would not believe that any restaurant could let its patrons chow down indefinitely and still stay in business. Needless to say, Moulaye showed little interest in ambiance, setting or service at our brunch spots. And quality definitely took a back seat to quantity.
Here in the Valley, though, most of us are fussier. We want to consume our Sunday brunches in dramatic surroundings. We want an infinite variety of dishes artfully arranged. And, of course, we want more than to merely fill up: We require our palates to awaken to exquisite sensations of taste.
Golden Swan, at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale, puts you in a desert oasis. Outside you can sit under white-canvas umbrellas or in a pavilion that juts into a meandering koi pond. Along the banks grow hibiscus bushes and thickets of palms. The foliage looked so thick I thought I spotted a platoon of Viet Cong lurking in it. Even if you pick a table inside, a wall of windows and giant, potted cacti bring the outdoors up to you. Golden Swan has its special brunch shtick: Everything but dessert is laid out in the small kitchen, the stainless-steel domain of the chefs. Jostling brunchers give the place a pleasant, informal air.
Toque-clad helpers stand ready to help you navigate the offerings-nothing is labeled. They'll also get your omelets under way, shouting out orders to cooks behind the kitchen counters. While our waiter poured fresh orange juice and Domaine Chandon Brut, we plotted strategy and made an initial reconnaissance of the target area.
On our first tour, we buzzed over to a huge, carved ice swan that peered down on black, yellow and orange caviar. The roe came from North American sturgeon, whitefish and salmon, with all the right fixings: toast points, onion, minced egg yolk and capers. We continued fishing, sampling wonderful mesquite-grilled trout, large, unadorned shrimp and meaty crab claws.
By the second trip, we'd agreed to make strategic strikes only at things we never have at home. So we skipped the lovely melons, mangoes, raspberries and kiwi, and didn't look twice at the salads, veggies or cheese.
Instead, we headed toward the pates. The pork-and-garlic-sausage pates en croute were superb, particularly with the three types of mustard set out in crocks alongside. The broccoli-and-chicken pates, though, were a bit rubbery, with the texture of Spam.
There were no minefields among the pasta dishes. Ziti with clam sauce and wide noodles marinara were first-rate. But the ravioli in Alfredo sauce should bear the brunt of any pasta attack: The velvety sauce worked perfectly with the smooth veal stuffing. Round three took us to traditional breakfast fare. The pancakes were okay, but hardly worth more than an incursion. Ditto for the eggs Benedict, a dish that weighs as heavily on a stomach as a bad conscience on a sensitive soul. The waffles, though, should have been circled with a diagonal line drawn through them. Chewy and tasteless, they couldn't be rescued with any amount of syrup, berries or whipped cream.
With the confidence of veterans, we stormed the kitchen to forage among the hot main dishes. The prime rib was rare and juicy, accompanied by a luscious jalapeno gravy. Equally appealing was the roast lamb, moist and fragrant. But chicken teriyaki stalled at cafeteria quality, and mahimahi in lobster sauce took up abdominal space we should have reserved for dessert. However, sauteed potato wedges, and some buttery, crunchy green beans and carrots, made excellent side dishes.
With a few exceptions, desserts here weren't worth the agonies of delayed gratification. They were beautiful to look at, but most seemed too sweet.
The pumpkin and chocolate cheesecakes, for instance, had little pumpkin or chocolate flavor, only massive doses of sugar. So did the carrot cake.
On the other hand, the kitchen found just the right balance in a tulip of white and dark chocolate that held custard and berries and sat in an artistic drizzle of apricot and berry coulis.
And for those who shy from fancy desserts, you won't do better than to grab a hot, sticky, cinnamon breakfast roll to munch with your coffee.
The coffee comes hot and strong, a good Sunday-morning wake-up call. But it's served in ridiculously small cups that we emptied faster than our waiter could refill. For an entirely different view of brunch, we headed south to Top of the Rock, at Westcourt in the Buttes. Perched at the top of a butte, the circular room offers wood-beam ceilings, fireplaces and a nearly 360-degree Valley perspective. This is where you'll want to take visiting Midwesterners, who could normally brunch this high only if they climbed a silo.
There seem to be twice as many dishes here as at Golden Swan. After you're seated, the server takes you on a tour, but since nothing is labeled, even she needs a cheat sheet. It's like being introduced to 60 people at a party: The harder you try to remember a name, the fewer you can recall.
With so many dishes, it's also hard to maintain consistent quality, but the hits here outnumber the misses.
On our Sunday, Top of the Rock was a shrimp lover's paradise, laying shrimp out three ways: with goat cheese, wrapped in bacon and marinated in tequila. Seafood lovers could also grab clams and oysters on the half-shell, as well as crab claws.
At another station, slices of beef Wellington and stuffed pheasant made it easy for us to stick with items we'd never have at home. There was also a wonderful chicken filet in coconut batter-sort of McNuggets by way of Tahiti. Despite my best intentions to try just one, I recklessly gobbled down three.
The miniature sushi bar seems like a clever concept, but, except for some crab-stuffed artichoke hearts, everything on it looked prettier than it tasted. The pasta dishes didn't even have looks going for them.
But the hot dishes made up for those lapses. Tender rack of New Zealand lamb overpowered our senses of smell and taste. Grilled mahimahi came moist under a flavorful pineapple-papaya salsa. And it's a good thing I didn't stumble on the scrumptious egg torte, stuffed with cheese, chorizo and spinach leaves, too early in the meal. But the carved prime rib tasted like it was left over from Saturday night's wedding.
Unlike Golden Swan, Top of the Rock's desserts ended the meal on a consistent high note. Those who lack a sweet tooth or possess superhuman will power might be able to limit themselves to raspberry-topped brie en croute.
But most of us mortals are going to dig into the outstanding sacher torte or grab a piece of pear tart, whose buttery crust tasted like it just left the oven of a French patisserie. And my usual skepticism of lightweight, airy desserts gave way before Bing-cherry mousse and a velvety custard fruit pie.
There were also some killer chocolate truffles, so intense and so dense that they should be dispensed by prescription, with the dosage held to one every four hours.
After you've downed your last cup of coffee, Westcourt in the Buttes provides an ideal setting to walk off a few dozen of the thousands of calories you've consumed. A short trail across from the restaurant leads to the top of a butte. On a glorious spring morning, our panoramic view of downtown, Papago Park, South Mountain and Squaw Peak needed a CinemaScope camera to do it justice.
For a moment, pleasantly fed and companionably sharing the Valley view, I thought I'd stumbled onto the meaning of life. But it was only the meaning of brunch: Bring a friend, eat slowly, take small portions and finish with a leisurely stroll.
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