Cafe Reviews


Marquesa, Scottsdale Princess resort, 7575 East Princess Drive, Scottsdale, 585-4848. Sunday brunch: 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Lots of folks will be spending big bucks this Sunday on a brunch worthy of Mom. Not my pal Bob. He hates those opulent brunches. "There are so many choices, so many strategies," he says. "I'm never sure how to operate. Do I heap my plate full of crab legs so I can get my money's worth? I like omelets, but I know that's not cost-effective eating. Can I in good conscience pick the shrimp out of the shrimp salad? Do I aim at every hot dish, even the vegetables? And what about dessert? Do I peck away at several sweets, or bomb away at a single target?" Then he gets really steamed. "But no matter what I do," he complains, "by the time I'm ready to head home, the results are always the same. I always end up overeating, and I feel bloated and sleepy. With most of Sunday still ahead of me, all I have energy for is a nap." I say: What's the problem? "Sated and inert" sounds like the perfect Sunday to me. Especially if I got that way brunching at Marquesa at the Scottsdale Princess or the Latilla Room at the Boulders.

Marquesa is housed in a gorgeous room that pays homage to the regional Spanish cuisine of Catalonia. On a beautiful Valley Sunday, the back doors are swung open, so brunchers can gaze at the orange trees and palms on the hotel grounds, and the McDowell Mountains in the distance. Inside, huge chandeliers with crystal teardrops, life-size portraits of Spanish nobility, fresh flowers on the table and the Iberian rhythms of a guitarist give brunchers the feeling that they're being entertained at the home of a Spanish grandee. So does the solicitous attention of servers brightly garbed in kepis and red sashes. The meal starts with Spanish champagne and mineral water. It's good manners to linger a moment and toast Mom's health. But after clinking glasses, cagey brunchers should sprint directly over to the seafood section. The shrimp, caviar and smoked trout might be the main piscatorial attractions under other circumstances. But not as long as three other ocean-based treats are also in the competition. The crab legs here are fabulous, succulent, meaty critters that don't have that soggy, water-logged taste that often brings them up short.

I paused to admire the beautiful, whole poached salmon before I decided it would look even more beautiful on my plate. If you've forgotten what salmon is supposed to taste like, Marquesa's version will be your benchmark. And only my critical duties kept me from ignoring the rest of the brunch and loading up on the glorious smoked sable. This fish combines a silky, mouth-pleasing texture with subtle, smoky flavor. Amateurs may find it hard to walk past the platters of bread, fruit and cheeses, but brunch veterans know these are not how you want to fill up precious belly room. Even pros have their weaknesses, though. I confess that I couldn't resist nibbling on the outstanding Brie torta, seasoned with pine nuts and thyme. I usually pass up salads for the same reasons of space, but some of the offerings are definitely worth a stop. You'll immediately notice that nothing here is glopped with mayonnaise, a dreaded Midwestern brunch touch that happily hasn't made its way to Catalonia. In fact, most of the cold platters have a distinctive Mediterranean accent.

I admired the couscous studded with grilled eggplant and squash. The chicken salad with almonds and red peppers is worth a corner of your plate. So is the pork tenderloin stuffed with dried fruit. And what a pleasure to see endive, a European staple rarely encountered in the Valley, here ladled with shrimp. Don't overlook the tapas, which set Marquesa off from all other extravagant Valley resort brunches. Make your way through mushrooms marinated in sherry and garlic, serrano ham, flaky duck empanadas or a thick potato omelet. And how many brunches has Mom been to that have a paella station? Here you can scoop up two different kinds: a seafood paella, with crab, mussels and shrimp; and one featuring Spanish sausage and chicken. Try to time your paella visit right, though, just after the earthenware bowls have been restocked. People have a habit of wandering by and plucking out all the goodies, leaving only the rice. Of course, traditionalists can order up omelets or go for the pasta. The ravioli, stuffed with shrimp and coated in zippy, roasted garlic cream sauce, will reward a detour.

Marquesa's hot entrees don't sit in Sterno-fired chafing trays, decaying in quality by the minute. Instead, they're grilled to order. The meats are scrumptious. The New York steak, pork tenderloin, lamb chops and duck breast are good enough to be served at dinner. And you can slather them with two wonderful sauces: charred tomato or a pungent, red-pepper cream. A routine, mixed-vegetable medley and smoked almond potatoes provide relatively lackluster accompaniment. The only problem with desserts is that management won't let you pack up a box of them so you can indulge the next time hunger strikes--probably Tuesday. The chocolate marsala bombe with white-chocolate lacing will put a heavy exclamation mark on the meal. So will the white-chocolate cheesecake and crumbly nectarine pie. Marginally lighter, but no less intense, are the roasted banana hazelnut tiramisu and fragrant orange flan. Or you might try the same sneaky maneuver I did with the chocolate and white-chocolate truffles. One bite induced such a chocoholic swoon that I was driven to the margins of brunch ethics. I surreptitiously wrapped two in a napkin and stuffed them in my wife's purse.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Howard Seftel