Cafe Reviews

Mother Load

T. Cook's, Royal Palms, 5200 East Camelback, Phoenix, 602-808-0766. Sunday Brunch: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

She carried us for nine months, then brought us into the world. She fed us, clothed us, sheltered us, comforted us, raised us. She packed our school lunches, took care of us when we were sick and taught us right from wrong. She was always there for us. And she always loved us, unconditionally. We owe everything to Mom.

On May 9, a week from Sunday, it's her special day. And just about everyone with a mom will salute her the same way: We'll take her out to a Mother's Day buffet brunch. There, her loved ones will demonstrate the depth of their affection by balancing plates piled high with shrimp in one hand and plates groaning with desserts in the other and eating themselves into a belt-loosening stupor. (Moms love clean plates.) Afterward, everyone will celebrate the rest of her day by lying down for the traditional family nap.

Restaurant owners look forward to Mother's Day the same way tavern owners look forward to St. Patrick's Day, or candy makers look forward to Halloween. It's the single busiest restaurant day of the year. (Valentine's Day is a distant second--there are more moms than sweethearts.)

The government doesn't keep the figures, but I believe that per 100,000 population, the Valley has the most Sunday brunch destinations on the planet. None of them is better than T. Cook's, at the Royal Palms. And none of them is higher than the Compass Restaurant, at the downtown Hyatt Regency.

If Mom appreciates beauty, the Royal Palms will make her woozy. The resort is gorgeous. She'll get the idea immediately, walking through the sunny, flower-filled courtyard, complete with burbling fountain, that leads to the restaurant. Let her linger.

T. Cook's interior is spectacular, a poem of brick, wood, tile and marble. It's hard to choose the best design touch: the shuttered clerestory windows, the exposed wooden beams, the painted Mexican tile, the vaulted ceiling, the immense cast-iron chandeliers, the scrolled cast-iron candleholders on the wall, the live palm trees, the plants and flowers, the rotisserie "fireplace" or the intriguing centerpiece, a metal "solar system" adorned with marble planets. There isn't a prettier room in town.

The view out the windows is just as breathtaking. Ask to sit at table #43 (for four) or table #53 (a deuce), toward the back of the room, near the French doors. From those spots you'll look out at blooming azaleas, an umbrella-shaded patio (where you can brunch, if you don't mind the May heat) and Camelback Mountain looming directly behind.

But you haven't brought Mom here simply to feast her eyes. After all, you could have done that by driving her to the Grand Canyon or digging out your old baby pictures.

You want Mom to enjoy a magnificent meal. And T. Cook's brunch is so good that once she hits the buffet table, she'll have a hard time looking at anything else.

T. Cook's buffet isn't the most opulent in town--it's not even close. Mom won't find mountains of fruit, acres of pátes, miles of sushi, a dozen salad variations, endless rows of chafing trays, an omelet, pasta or waffle station or massive dessert displays. This spread is small and civilized. But whatever it lacks in breadth, it more than makes up in depth. Everything here is high quality, and lip-smackingly delicious.

No matter how concerned she is about nutrition, Mom should skip over the fresh melon, pineapple and berries. That's because she can get her vitamins and minerals in an even more compelling form. The grilled and roasted vegetables are good enough to make even the most unreconstructed carnivore understand the charms of a vegan life. The asparagus, zucchini, portabella mushroom and red peppers on this platter taste as if they were just pulled out of the Tuscan earth. Fresh mozzarella, teamed with vibrant yellow and red tomatoes, will also make Mom think she's been transported to the Mediterranean coast on a warm spring day.

Mom won't have to scratch her head trying to choose among a half-dozen cold pasta salads. At T. Cook's, there's only one. But on our visit, it was good enough to stand alone: corkscrew pasta vigorously embellished with cranberries, pine nuts and basil.

Make sure Mom takes a big plate when she makes her seafood foray. That's because she's going to cover every square inch of it. T. Cook's puts out a shrimp tray filled with almost mutantly large critters, the kind you need a knife and fork for. They're firm and meaty, too. Alongside she'll notice snow crab claws, thoughtfully cracked open and ready to eat. Frankly, I don't know how T. Cook's can make a profit putting out this shellfish duo, unless it has hijacked a fleet of seafood trucks.

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Howard Seftel