A few minutes before the Phoenician's Terrace Dining Room opened its doors for Sunday brunch, I spied a large meeting taking place inside.
Managers, chefs, busboys and hostesses, like athletes before the big game, crowded around the executive in charge, attentively listening to instructions.
Later, I asked the waiter about the gist of the message. "That's easy," he answered with a laugh. "The boss doesn't want to hear a single complaint." He won't hear any from me.
On a glorious spring morning in the Valley, the Terrace patio was enchanting. That sense of enchantment persisted throughout the meal, fueled in part by diligent refills of Mumm's Cuvee Napa champagne. Like its former proprietor Charlie Keating, the Phoenician is heavily into denial--in this case, desert denial. Palm trees by the hundreds line the grounds. Tables overlook an immaculately groomed croquet surface. Dazzling blooms form a soothing hedge between the dining patio and pool area. Chirping birds, perched on shade-throwing trellises, warble as if trained to do so. Beyond the open French doors, in the main dining room, a trio played lively arrangements of old standards, the strains wafting out into the desert air. Several couples headed in to take a twirl on the dance floor. I'd much rather twirl around the buffet tables.
In an extremely nice touch, our waiter spared us the usual opening brunch fandango. Every Sunday bruncher knows the routine. First you take your seat and place the napkin across your lap. Then you immediately pop up in search of sustenance.
"Before you get up to try the buffet, let me bring you a shrimp cocktail," he crooned, as we settled into our chairs. It was an offer we couldn't refuse. A few seconds later, he was back with two bowls of big, meaty shrimp, carefully deveined.
That bit of nourishment allowed us to take a more leisurely stroll through eye-catching food displays.
Brunch is always a struggle between two competing strategies. Some people find the object of their heart's desire and eat nothing else. You can spot these folks holding massive platefuls of shrimp or artichoke hearts.
Others, afraid of missing something, put teaspoonfuls of every dish on their plates. By the time they've finished loading up, it looks like they're hauling takeout for 100 Lilliputians.
Devotees of the massive strike should go directly to the pasta station and find the lobster-and-crab-stuffed ravioli. In a brunch filled with highlights, it was the single best dish. Management seems to know it, too--the ravioli get doled out one at a time.
But most of the offerings are much too good to skip over. The cold, marinated scallop and shrimp salad was scrumptious. So were the cold Chinese noodles, dotted with bamboo shoots and capers.
Like a modern Ulysses before a new breed of Sirens, I sailed past the groaning tables laden with breads, cheese, smoked fish and berries as big as a thumb, resisting their call. But I couldn't pass up the compelling salad of wild mushrooms and hearts of palm. At almost any other meal, this dish would have been the center of attention. I was also snagged by the California rolls and a rich pƒt‚ en cro–te studded with pine nuts.
A tempting array of dishes interrupted our voyage to the hot entrees. Blintzes didn't come fashioned in down-home, Eastern European style: heavy, crispy and doughy. Instead, this appealing version presented soft tubes of dough genteelly packed with a light cheese filling, on which we drizzled a sweet raspberry sauce.
Similarly outstanding were apple-stuffed crepes, bathed in a caramel sauce that could cause unsuspecting diners to swoon.
I can usually walk past the waffle station without even a backward glance. But when I saw the waffle man making them up before my eyes, my resolve weakened. These were the freshest, eggiest waffles I've had in a while, zipped up even further by the dynamic fruit compote I slathered over them. Even the eggs Benedict, a tiresome brunch staple, showed some life, with a fragrant hollandaise and just-cooked-up taste.
Pork roll was clearly the pick of the three main-dish offerings. The superbly tender meat came stuffed with dates, apricots and macadamia nuts, wonderful foils for its mild taste. The accompanying demi-glace showed that someone in the kitchen knows how to whip up a basic brown sauce.
A bit less exotic, but also satisfying, were the wine-soaked, grilled-to-order veal medallions.
But the fish dish, dry fillets of dover sole coated with an olive paste and rolled up, had "hotel food" written all over it. Aquatic life simply can't prosper in heated chafing dishes. Usually the weakest brunch link, the desserts here showed no drop in quality. Homemade ice cream, our waiter confided, has a street value of $11 a quart. It was good, all right, especially topped with potent cherries jubilee that tasted as if they'd been soaking in brandy since last Mother's Day.
The chocolate challenged can take comfort in a divine, flourless chocolate cake that can be hoisted to the lips only with the aid of a fork lift. Those not up to the task should opt for the intense chocolate truffles.
"Lighter" confections include a pleasing, colorful, chocolate praline shell supporting custard, blueberries, raspberries, boysenberries and star fruit.
When combined with a Sunday-afternoon nap, the soothing Phoenician brunch provides the perfect antidote to the ills of urban life. Take two, and call me in the morning. Orangerie, Arizona Biltmore, 24th Street and Missouri, Phoenix, 468-9160. Hours: Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
The greatest benefit I derived from my post-Biltmore brunch siesta was the sweet descent into forgetfulness. Perhaps it had all been a dream, I told myself as I regained consciousness.
No such luck.
The Biltmore's newly renovated Orangerie is an airy, comfortable room with a touch of elegance. A vase with a sprig of orchids rests on the table. Long strings of Plexiglas beads and tubes hang like stalactites from the lighting fixtures. A wonderful pianist provided bluesy entertainment.
The ambiance, though, won't look any better as you make your way through the meal. That's because there's no bottomless well of champagne here, unless you have a bottomless wallet. The cheapest glass of bubbly runs $6.50.
What else don't you get for the $24.95 brunch tag?
You won't find an omelet station. Egg fanciers have to make do with hard-boiled quail eggs that garnish some of the salads, or forlorn eggs Benedict resting on muffins that require a chain saw to cut through.
And you won't find a pasta station. The only pasta to be found here is in the tortellini salad. With memories of the Phoenician's lobster-stuffed beauties still fresh in my mind, it provided only cold comfort.
What is served will make more of an impression on brunchers' eyes than on their taste buds.
Fresh mussels, oysters and clams on the half-shell don't appear on too many Valley buffet tables. They're labor-intensive, costly and have a short shelf life. Quality is difficult to maintain. So why did the Orangerie go to all the trouble of serving up bivalve mollusks and then neglect to get out the grit? What a waste.
The obligatory bowlful of shrimp fared no better. These watery critters sported the mealy texture that permits the processed-fish-product industry to flourish. Too many of the cold dishes lacked any touch of luxury, or even imagination. Three-bean salad? Marinated squash, cauliflower and broccoli? Jicama, cashews and soggy, tiny shrimp? Who cares?
A few worthy items surfaced through the bog of indifference. Two pƒt‚s, one vegetable, the other a rich pork-and-pistachio version, were superb. So were the breads and pastries--French and German varieties with a fresh-baked taste. The cheese blintz--actually, a cheese crepe--had strong appeal. Caviar with all the fixings also provided a nice touch.
But the aging waffles sitting untouched in the metal serving tray could have come from the kitchen of a sleep-away camp. And the potato canap‚s underneath a caviar topping tasted suspiciously like leftovers from a Saturday-night bar mitzvah.
Unlike most other major resorts, the Biltmore does not put out all-you-can-eat hot entrees. Instead, brunchers choose from a list offering four dishes. In theory, it's not a bad idea. Instead of poking around chafing dishes, you get a fresh, made-to-order platter.
In reality, though, the hot plates tasted as if they had been mass-cooked in the kitchen, then transferred to individual plates. A small beef fillet crusted with boursin cheese seemed strictly routine. Free range chicken breast was ho-hum. Only the mesquite-grilled salmon fillet with caviar chive butter showed any sign of life.
Desserts, too, were mired in mediocrity. Flan, key lime pie, nut pie, whiskey-soaked chocolate mousse cake, carrot cake--nothing seductive enough to make me put in an extra hour on the exercise bicycle.
The Biltmore itself has recently been gorgeously renovated. The striking building, interiors and grounds are a tourist attraction in themselves. But brunch still needs some serious work.