Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

Sunday Services: There aren't too many activities that can get me out of my pajamas and out of the house before noon on Sunday. One of them is Sunday brunch at the Terrace Dining Room, at the Phoenician.

I hadn't been there for a while. Some things have changed: Prices are up to $36 a person. Some things haven't: This brunch is as close to perfection as you're likely to find this side of the Pearly Gates.

What impresses me most is how the Phoenician simply refuses to take culinary shortcuts or stint on quality. In some restaurants, for example, the wheel of Reggiano Parmigiano cheese would be the center of attention. And why not? This magnificent cheese can run seven dollars or more a pound wholesale. Here the cheese is modestly tucked away in a corner of the room. (Perhaps, however, management is cleverly trying to hide it.)

Or check out the artichoke hearts in the salads. My goodness, they're fresh. Instead of opening up a jar, somebody here actually steamed, cleaned and cut up artichokes. Believe me, you can tell the difference.

This kind of attention to detail infuses every part of the operation. There's plenty of staff, so plates are cleared promptly, silverware is replaced, and the food displays are neat, tidy and constantly replenished. The restaurant pours fresh-squeezed orange juice and good quality Mumm's Cuvee Napa champagne.

The brunch fare is as lavish as it is tasty. How many brunches offer a sushi section? You can get seasoned squid, octopus and California rolls made with real crab, not the ersatz "krab" used in corner-cutting operations. In fact, I could just stick to the seafood here and walk away happy. Check out the jumbo shrimp. Elsewhere they can be water-logged and mealy, but here they're beautifully firm and meaty. Smoked trout is also superb. And I could barely pull myself away from succulent cold salad fashioned from shrimp, moist sea scallops and portabella mushrooms.

Other diversions include a pasta section featuring homemade ravioli stuffed with lentils; waffles with real maple syrup, fresh-whipped cream and blackberries the size of your thumb; a magnificent chicken-and-truffle pate that made me want to stand up and sing the Marseillaise; a pancetta-and-spinach casserole; a fresh caesar salad; cheese blintzes; and apple crepes.

At this point, we still hadn't reached the main dishes. Out on the patio, the cooks are grilling moist salmon fillets and baby lamb chops. Instead of a snoozy side like mixed vegetables, you can team them with a nifty fennel-and-walnut salad. Inside, on a chafing tray, there's butter-soft beef tenderloin coated with wild mushrooms. At the carving station, brunchers were justifiably lining up for the pork with port sauce.

Desserts? Loosen your belt. It's the best way to enjoy first-rate homemade ice cream (macadamia brittle, Heath bar crunch), a rich chocolate pudding, chocolate truffles, flan and a tantalizing pear-rhubarb tart.

Plan to spend at least a couple of hours here. Eat slowly. Take small portions. And try to resist the urge to load goodies into your purse or pockets for Sunday-night dinner.

For reservations and info, call the Phoenician at 423-2530.--Howard Seftel

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Howard Seftel

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