As I strolled into the Restaurant, the Ritz-Carlton's tony Sunday brunch spot, I had to fight the desire to make sure that my shoes were tied, my zipper zipped and my wallet secure in my back pocket. The opulent surroundings may arouse some of your latent insecurities, too. There's a somewhat stuffy but elegant feel to the place, and the unmistakable aroma of money.
You'll notice it even before you reach your table: rich floral arrangements, heavy pink curtains, massive breakfronts, brocade chairs and cut-glass chandeliers. Digestion-easing oil paintings from the Sedate School--landscapes and animals--line the walls.
So powerfully subdued yet overwhelming is the room that it completely cowed the few little kids at brunch into utter decorum. It's a room that cries out, more strongly than Mom or Dad ever could, "Don't misbehave!"
At the back, a pianist sits behind a baby grand, tinkling out the sophisticated rhythms of Gershwin, Ellington, Berlin and Kern. Expertly played, it's just loud enough to hear without interfering with conversation.
Mercifully, the serving tables here don't offer the dizzying number of items that can turn brunch into an eating marathon. There's not more here than the eye can see, the mind can grasp or the intelligent diner can consume.
And not only are most dishes on target, they're almost always right in the bull's eye.
For the first time in brunch memory, the salad tables looked good enough for me to use up valuable belly room. A tuna-and-shrimp salad was crammed with shrimp that could be found without the same advanced electronic gear that located the Titanic. Firm cheese tortellini came surrounded by artichokes and hearts of palm, two of my favorite treats. Topnotch sushi didn't stint on the fish, and I saw none of that awful "krab." Two kinds of caviar and an unexpectedly perky combination of roast beef and peppers rounded out my first thrust into the brunch thicket.
Surprisingly, the elaborate half-dozen or so pƒt‚s I sampled on my second tour were not quite as good as I'd anticipated, lacking both texture and flavor. Best were the two simplest varieties: one liver, the other fish.
But I really enjoyed mussels in a pepper-packed tomato salsa, as well as the crab-packed seafood salad scooped into hollowed-out passion fruit. And guided by some unseen hand, I startled myself by sauntering over to the cold-cut platter and downing more of the absolutely first-rate pork medallions and roast beef than I intended.
Good as the first courses were, I still wasn't entirely prepared for the quality of the hot dishes. They're all outstanding, way beyond the usual brunch fare, each tasting individually prepared to order. The blintzes are unbelievable, thick with farmer cheese in a thin, crisp dough, drizzled with a delicate passion-fruit sauce. If my ancestors had eaten these regularly 100 years ago, I couldn't have blamed them for staying in eastern Europe, Cossacks or not.
Even the waffles, a brunch staple, had two lovely extras--passion-fruit butter and real whipped cream, not ruined by too much sugar.
The four inventive hot entrees displayed a quality and complexity you don't often see on Sunday morning at 11:30. And the sauces were particularly impressive.
Hearty Spanish mussels in a velvety, sharp, lemon-tinged hollandaise sauce stoked my appetite. Then I spied the crepes rolled with smoked chicken and sun-dried tomato. These came drenched in a luscious mascarpone cheese sauce--a tasty and expensive touch that points to a kitchen that doesn't cut too many corners. Terrific veal scaloppine, fragrant and tender, nestled in an aromatic sauce of mushroom and leek. It's an outstanding combination, good enough to place on the regular dining menu. Just as intriguing is the mesquite-smoked salmon with jicama in a light cactus-pear barbecue sauce.
The problem with the three hot side dishes is consuming, not choosing. In a clever Southwestern twist on potatoes … la Dauphinoise, the layered potato slices came cooked with jack cheese and spicy Anaheim chiles. An inventive, pear-shaped sweet potato croquette had a cherry stem inserted to make it look like fruit. And the vegetable dish was a bright mix of firm green and yellow wax beans, sugar snap peas and sliced red peppers, embellished with bacon and almonds.
About this time, I started wishing the Ritz brunch could be scheduled like a performance of Wagner's Ring cycle. Only instead of seeing an opera daily, there'd be a different course each day.
Poised at the brink of satiety, I couldn't work up too much enthusiasm about most of the desserts, never my biggest brunchtime weakness in any case. Bread pudding, chocolate hazelnut cheesecake and white-chocolate cheesecake, too rich for my barely flowing blood, didn't bowl me over. But I did enjoy tasting a decadent chocolate-pecan torte and a soothing cräme br–l‚e.
This is civilized brunching, perfectly designed to accommodate that other civilized Sunday pastime: the afternoon siesta.
Palm Court, 7700 East McCormick Parkway (Scottsdale Conference resort), Scottsdale, 991-3400. Hours: Sunday Brunch, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
In keeping with the place's name, Palm Court has a distinctly vegetal look. Palm leaves and fernlike variations are the principal motifs in the carpet, brocade chairs and curtains; potted palms pop up every few feet; and gorgeous flower arrangements in striking vases dominate the tiered dining area.
Brunchers look out over the golf course, a pastoral and subliminally upscale view. But there is a discordant note: A look up reveals a roughly whitewashed, wood-beamed ceiling and wrought-iron chandeliers that have a distinctly National Park Service lodge look about them.
Like the Restaurant, the Palm Court also presents a pianist. Here, though, she's stationed outside the dining area, so entertainment is limited to the time between giving your name to the hostess and the moment the hostess leads you to your table. We do know the pianist can play "Clair de lune" and "Memory," because that's what two groups seated near us were humming as they arrived.
The buffet here hasn't the elegance of the decor or the view. "High Midwest," I'd call it. Nothing's exotic or even really intriguing--just fancy versions of familiar fare.
The first way station houses a variety of salads. Many of them are mayo-drenched and possibly hijacked from a church potluck: chicken salad with water chestnuts, seafood salad and dreaded ambrosia salad--a gelatin, fruit and marshmallow monstrosity that sends discerning Midwesterners out of the region faster than a GM plant closing.
The fare may be undistinguished, but there's lots of it. Marinated mushrooms, tortilla roll-ups, a veggie tray with dip, turkey cold cuts and, good Lord, cheese cubes, probably won't have you panting for seconds. And the lone pƒt‚, forlorn-looking slices dotted with pistachios, won't improve anyone's opinion of the French.
A few items from this area, though, got my attention. There's a tasty, marinated tortellini salad and good-size artichoke hearts filled with a flavorful seafood salad. The bread is outstanding, particularly the fresh, buttery croissants and chewy miniature bagels. And an ice sculpture supporting unpeeled shrimp and cocktail sauce will cheer up customers trying to eat their $18 worth before the chef can even fire up the omelet station.
For the best single dish here, head toward the crepes. A rigorous dissection of the seafood crepe uncovered lots of marvelous-tasting scallops and crab, moistened with a soft, creamy white sauce.
The hot-entree area offered slim pickings. Polynesian chicken--you guessed it, lots of pineapple and green pepper--had the zesty attraction of a cafeteria chafing dish, although the accompanying wild-rice combo was well-prepared. The baked salmon was dry and overcooked, not nearly as moist or flaky as it should have been. Carnivores at the roast-beef station should pass up the Bordelaise sauce--it's way too salty. Only shrimp scampi, with its heavy garlic kick, had us contemplating a return visit.
The hot side dishes featured potatoes … la Dauphinoise, beautifully done with real Swiss cheese. But the vegetable platter of firmly cooked carrots, broccoli, yellow squash and zucchini was virtually unseasoned, except by air conditioning.
The desserts reminded me of another spectacle that appeals to Midwestern sensibilities, the Miss America pageant. Like the contestants, they were long on looks but short on substance. Nondescript cheesecake had a commercial taste, the pecan pie had too much crust and too little Karo syrup, and the blueberry torte should be eaten only on a dare.
If you want a knockout dessert, though, follow your tracks back to the crepe station and have one filled with thick, steaming chunks of apple and raisins. Then drizzle on some rum-soaked honey-nut sauce. Great.
Palm Court serves up a good cup of coffee, hastily refilled by eager servers after the merest nod of your head. The service here, from refolded napkins to plate-clearing, is first-rate: No one seems to be around, except when you need them. Nothing wrong with Midwestern hospitality.