Cafe Reviews

Mother Load

Bistro 24, Ritz-Carlton Hotel, 2401 East Camelback, Phoenix, 468-0700. Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

There are three places from which you can get a profound insight into human nature: a foxhole, Wrigley Field and an all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch.

In a foxhole, you can observe soldiers waging an elemental struggle against fear and death. At a Chicago Cubs baseball game, you can watch fans coming to grips with existential despair. But these days, Sunday brunch is the most revealing setting.

That's because there you can view the full range of mankind's follies and idiosyncracies. Why, for instance, do so many presumably rational folks feel the immediate need to storm the buffet spread and pile up two plates with such heavy loads that they need a 20-mule team to haul their booty back to the table? Are they afraid the kitchen will run out of food?

Why do some patrons waste precious belly room on everyday items like bread, fruit, cold cereal or salad? Why do others insist on an infinite number of goodies, and then eat nothing but a Shamu-size portion of shrimp? Why do dessert fiends put together a massively caloric sampler of sweets--cakes, pies, chocolates, ice cream--and then demand Sweet 'N Low with their coffee?

And why do cheapskates think it's okay to stiff the hard-working employees who clear their dirty plates, refill their champagne glasses, replace their used cutlery and bring their coffee, because it's a "serve yourself" meal?

Next week, a lot of us will have a chance to form our own firsthand impressions at the Sunday-brunch front lines. That's because May 10 is Mother's Day, the single busiest restaurant day of the year. If you're from the nothing-is-too-good-for-Mom brunch school--and who isn't?--show her your gratitude by bringing her to Bistro 24 at the Ritz-Carlton, or the Navajo Restaurant at Marriott's Camelback Inn. Afterward, she's certain to think even more highly of you.

These two outstanding brunches have different operating philosophies. At Bistro 24, the kitchen believes "less is more." The Navajo Restaurant's management, on the other hand, subscribes to the principle that "more is more." In either case, Mom should be delighted with your culinary judgment.

Last year, the Ritz-Carlton got rid of its stuffy The Restaurant (what an awkward, pretentious name) and installed Bistro 24, a casually stylish spot with Gallic-themed fare. On Sundays, though, the brunch has a sophisticated American tilt.

Mom will be impressed by the setting: a snazzy, mirror-backed bar; bistro murals; vintage photos; parquet floor; and a table set with crisp white linen and good-looking china and silverware.

She's going to be impressed by the food, too. She won't find the sheer, staggering variety of choices displayed at other high-end Sunday buffets. But at those spots, you have to send out a reconnaissance team just to get the lay of brunchland. At Bistro 24, the spread is much more manageable. But the quality runs very deep.

If Mom is into seafood, she's in for one of the best aquatic shows this side of Sea World. Naturally, there are the obligatory mounds of shrimp and crab. They're tempting, too: big, firm crustaceans and irresistible meaty claws. No one could blame Mom for dropping anchor by these creatures and not stirring until she reduced them to a pile of shells.

But then she'd miss several exceptional delicacies. Someone here knows something about smoked fish. Smoked mussels and smoked salmon are wonderful, and the ravishing smoked halibut is so good Mom may have to be hosed down. The excellent herring roll-ups could be confidently sold on the streets of Amsterdam. And though the salmon encased in puff pastry isn't quite as hard-hitting, there's merit in its subtlety.

It's usually easy to walk by brunch salads without a second glance, but a couple of Bistro 24's models are likely to give Mom pause. Endive and palm hearts make a powerful team. And it's a treat to run across a compelling salad Nicoise, beautifully embellished with yellow beans, potatoes, French green beans, olives and hard-boiled egg.

The display of breakfast pastries is also easy to overlook. But you skip this station at your own risk. Whoever makes the inspired pains au chocolat--chocolate-filled croissants--should leave out a tip jar. These beauties are hands-down the best in town. The buttery croissants are also superb. I was so impressed with these pastries that I came back a few days later and made a midweek continental breakfast out of them.

Unlike most fancy brunch buffets, Bistro 24 doesn't offer an omelet station, a pasta station or endless rows of chafing dishes. Instead, you order a hot main course from one of about 10 menu options. The two I sampled were dynamite.

Crabcake Benedict is a clever take on a brunch staple. This tasty version features sauteed polenta topped with spinach and crab cakes. Coq au vin is also deftly done, especially the winy, bacon-accented sauce, touched up with potatoes, carrots and mushrooms. Other promising options include a chorizo, white bean and mushroom risotto; a shrimp and lobster omelet; and roasted lamb saddle with rosemary potatoes.