For flower shops, it's Valentine's Day. For airlines, it's the day before Thanksgiving. For department stores, it's the day after Christmas. And for restaurants, it's Mother's Day--the single busiest day of the year. So make your Mother's Day brunch reservations pronto. Wait until the last minute, and the McFood drive-through lane may be the only place able to feed Mom before Monday. They say a mother's love is unconditional, but you wouldn't want to test that theory by picking up a bag of Egg McMuffins on her special day. Assuming you have the smarts to plan ahead, Mom's probably going to be in a pretty good mood wherever you take her. But I'm certain that the brunch buffet at Etienne's Different Pointe of View will have her positively beaming. Setting, food, service--she's in for the total brunch experience. First, she'll have her breath taken away by the magnificent view through Etienne's huge picture windows. Perched on a hilltop, the restaurant offers a sweeping Valley vista. Follow Seventh Street snaking its way past downtown skyscrapers right up to South Mountain. Focus a bit closer, and you can take in the cascades of colorful flowers on the patio and the surrounding Phoenix Mountains Preserve. Throw in a bright spring day, and brunchers will involuntarily quiver with one of those all-too-rare "Ain't life grand" feelings. The swanky room, with a vaguely art-deco look, is just as elegant as the view. A three-tiered dining area means there are no bad seats. And the accommodating pianist will be happy to play Mom's favorite melodies, as long as they're not by Nirvana or Snoop Doggy Dogg. The food is just as fetching as the setting. Some buffets try to overwhelm you with sheer quantity. But really, how many different kinds of pasta salads do you need? Etienne's keeps the offerings manageable, while generally keeping the standards high. Veterans of brunch warfare know to skip the first wave of dishes when they make their initial assault. That's because management puts the less expensive belly fillers there, hoping to waylay hungry novices. Etienne's is no exception. You can confidently march past the breads, bagels and muffins, the unexceptional cheese tray, and the raw vegetables. Don't waste time trying to locate the giant bowls filled with shrimp and crab legs, either. Unlike most other upper-end brunch parlors, Etienne's doesn't have them. But it does have an eye-catching Mediterranean seafood salad, a mix of clams, mussels, shrimp and marinated fish with a briny, fresh taste that's definitely worth a stop. A couple of other tempting plate fillers hang out in the same neighborhood. It goes against my every brunch instinct to nibble on fresh fruit, but the Grand Marnier sauce by the fruit platter changed my mind. Sesame cucumber salad also had a bit of originality. But I can't begin to fathom why Etienne's bothers to put out an ambrosia salad, a church-picnic monument to deficient taste. As you might expect, brunch offers the usual omelet station (but, surprisingly, no pancakes or waffles) and a first-rate carnivore stop featuring juicy prime rib and lean ham. But make sure you steer Mom over to the hot entrees while she still has an appetite. These are clearly the most captivating dishes here. Eggs florentine are like eggs Benedict, except spinach substitutes for ham. A respectable hollandaise does its part to turn this hackneyed brunch item into a credible temptation. There's nothing hackneyed, though, about the rest of the hot plate lineup. The most compelling treat? Duck cakes in a mildly sweet cherry Cabernet sauce are the hands-down winners. If I ever came here under no obligation to taste everything, I'd make these my appetizer, main dish and dessert. Close behind is a poultry dish cleverly marketed as "Indonesian chicken." Actually, it's more like McNuggets for grown-ups: moist pieces of breaded, deep-fried white-meat chicken perked up with an irresistibly zippy mango curry sauce. Etienne's shows some imagination in its beef dish, combining tender strips of gristle-free meat with spaetzle, doughy German dumplings in a rich sauce. Lean roast pork is another tasty source of animal protein, fashioned with caramelized onions. The one item that inevitably suffers from prolonged stay in a hot chafing tray is fish. At even the fanciest bruncheries, Sterno-warmed seafood quickly turns a bit rubbery. Etienne's grilled ono tuna is no exception. A zesty red pepper sauce provides some mitigation, but can't completely solve the problem. Desserts are just about as accomplished as the entrees. Make sure Mom gets a piece of the flan cheesecake, an outstanding treat. Etienne's also breathes life into familiar sweets like pecan pie and banana cream pie. Somewhat lighter, but no less caloric, is the excellent trifle, a high-butterfat blend of pound cake, fruit and pastry cream. Plan on lingering. Etienne's well-trained staff furnishes such deft service that Mom may refuse to go home even after she's filled up. I saw European-suited managers who didn't act like they were above keeping the buffet platters neat and tidy. A relentlessly charming employee standing behind the entrees patiently explained to curious brunchers just how each dish was prepared. Silverware is replaced and napkins are folded after each visit to the buffet line. And even the busboy who kept me awash in champagne, juice and coffee had been reliably informed about exactly what ingredients make up a trifle. Will Mom still love you even if you don't spoil her with a trip to Etienne's? Probably. But why take that chance? Garden Terrace, Red Lion's La Posada resort, 4949 East Lincoln, Paradise Valley, 952-0420. Brunch hours: Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Will Mom still love you if you don't take her to brunch at the Garden Terrace, the dining room at the La Posada resort? Love isn't the only emotion she'll feel. She'll also be profoundly grateful. That's because this first-class Valley resort puts out a surprisingly schlocky third-rate spread. The room itself is gorgeous. Tiered seating gives everyone an unimpeded look out the windows at Camelback Mountain looming just beyond the resort's red-tiled roofs and swaying palms. Mirrored columns and massive flower arrangements furnish elements of sophistication. So did the grand piano, until I noticed it was strewn with dollar bills flung by brunchers who appreciated the tunes of Rachmaninoff and Ellington. Maybe management nixed a tip jar because they thought it would look cheap. Maybe it would. But this looked ten times worse. But a 90-minute visit convinced me that management didn't seem to devote much thought at all to making good impressions. The whole buffet operation is unbelievably ragged. And right from the git-go, too. Nobody asked us if we wanted seats in the smoking or nonsmoking section. We found ourselves plunked down next to a table of ten from Marlboro country, smoking their brains out. I'm not a restaurant whiner, but I feared we might spontaneously combust if we didn't get moved. A preliminary swing around the buffet tables didn't make my disposition any sunnier. Food trays were in disarray, distressingly untidy. Nothing looked fresh and sharp. Almost-empty platters weren't whisked away and restocked. Soiled, wadded-up tablecloths shared these same counters, and no one had the sense to remove the unsightly linen. Nor was there any indication of what any of the dishes were--no signs, no staff gave any explanation. You could hear a persistent murmur run through the buffet-line throng--"What's that?" The fare itself would have to improve several notches just to reach lackluster. From the cheap champagne to the unpleasant congealed sausages that looked like they came here by mule train from a $1.99 Vegas buffet, this place just seems to be going through the motions. I know the Garden Terrace puts out a sushi plate, because I saw one piece of sushi left on a platter when I arrived at 12:15 p.m. But guests who arrived after that time wouldn't have known about it, because after I snatched it, no others made an appearance. No loss, though--it tasted old and dry. A seafood section featured rubbery shrimp in a shell, along with undistinguished clams, mussels, smoked fish and baked salmon. It must have featured crab legs earlier in the day, too, because some critters showed up just as I was leaving at 1:45 p.m. Given the glacially slow restocking of other dishes, I suspect they may have decided to walk themselves over to their buffet spot from the kitchen. The skimpy selection of hot dishes won't whip Mom into a culinary frenzy, either. As far as I could tell, not one bruncher dipped into the eggs Benedict chafing tray during my time here. I guess, like me, they were scared off by the dried-out look. That same look afflicted the waffles and blintzes, as well. Pork drained of juices and cafeteria-quality breaded fish and rice rounded out the forgettable entrees. The few desserts offered didn't suggest the presence of a master pastry chef. Snoozy, unimaginative sweets like Oreo cream pie and chocolate mousse furnished nothing but calories. I did notice a good-looking tiramisu when I first made my rounds, but it had disappeared, never to return, by the time I was ready for it. If Mom has an urge to brunch at the Garden Terrace, I suggest you tell her to lie down until the feeling passes.