Spread Alert

As you get older, your ability to consume enormous quantities of food at one sitting noticeably decreases. I can remember college all-you-can-eat spreads that saved me from starvation, because I'd pack enough food into my stomach to sustain me for at least two days and a couple of all-nighters.

But since I hit thirty, it's been a toss-up as to which is tougher: staying up all night or eating a huge meal. The vote's not in yet; although I've been awake through the wee hours with sick kids, all-you-can-eat deals have become fewer and farther between, and my belly hasn't been challenged much lately.

Until I sauntered into the Garden Terrace for brunch, that is. A casual eatery in the Inverness Hotel (the Swan is the swanky one), the Garden Terrace serves low-key lunches and dinners. On Friday nights and Sunday mornings, though, the elegantly understated dining room is transformed into pig-out central. The feast is so astounding that it distracts all attention from the lovely view of the golf course just outside the windows.

But then, no stretch of grass ever looked as good as this spread. Rather than relying on the usual roster of brunch-buffet foods--bacon and sausage, create-your-own omelettes, made-to-order Belgian waffles, fruit-stuffed French toast--chef Daniel Block comes up with elaborate entree dishes, house-made terrines, innovative cold salads and beautiful smoked fish. Not that the usual stuff doesn't make an appearance; in fact, the Garden Terrace features every item I've ever encountered at a buffet--and then some.

Although the Friday-night and Sunday-morning lineups are almost the same, on Friday the offerings include an ocean of seafood (oysters on the half shell, crab legs, and shrimp in an endless number of incarnations), as well as carved-to-order prime rib and several soups. For brunch the Garden Terrace adds breakfast items and eliminates some of the seafood, at the same time shaving a few bucks off the price. While Friday's feed runs $24.95 for adults and $11.95 for kids, Sunday brunch costs $21.95 for adults and $10.95 for kids between the ages of four and ten--which means if you've got little ones, you can turn them on to creamy bowtie Alfredo for free.

But price and quantity aren't all that bump this buffet to the head of the class. This is a quality production, and the kitchen is clearly committed to keeping food hot, fresh and delicious--no matter how many hours those chafing dishes sit out.

My first pass through the brunch line began at the seafood station. It was so stunning that I could hardly look at anything else: a whole smoked salmon, a whole smoked mahi-mahi, thin slivers of top-quality gravlox, chilled mussels in a caper vinaigrette, the requisite mound of peel-and-eat shrimp and four seafood-based pates or terrines, including an intense, dense smoked-trout version. Right by the seafood was a antipasto board covered with cold cuts and sliced cheeses, including great salami and an excellent smoked Jack.

One plate down, many more to go. For round two I concentrated on more typical breakfast dishes. This section started with a pan of eggs Benedict--miraculously, the hollandaise on each little stack was still intact--as well as a pan of sausage and bacon and a pan of crusty-edged potato chunks. Next door was the carving station, where a cheerful, knife-wielding chef sliced off thick pieces of maple-roasted ham topped with blobs of cranberry relish, as well as slips of buffalo tenderloin served with a Cumberland sauce. Next to that was a selection of fresh fruit and real whipped cream.

By now I was starting to feel comfortably full, but I still had a lot of food to go. Next up: the hot line. Here, in addition to the aforementioned bowtie Alfredo, I found beef medallions in a thick port gravy sided by chile-studded mashed potatoes. And capon breasts topped with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and green mustard demi-glace. And seared beef filets with green peppercorn sauce, Dijon-honey-rubbed salmon with lemon-basil sauce, steamed mixed vegetables, cheese blintzes and quiche.

While most people go for salads earlier in the game, I'd rather start with the hearty stuff than load up on lettuce and dressing. But when I made my fourth trip, I realized I'd made a mistake not saving more room. In addition to the standard salad-bar setup, this station featured some pretty interesting combinations: cold curried shrimp, a fantastic ceviche, bowtie pasta salad with winter-vegetable vinaigrette, another salad of firm-fleshed fish with red onions and asparagus, and--my personal favorite--a mix of Tasso ham with andouille sausage, bell peppers and potatoes. Since they were there, I also grabbed a few pieces of aged cheddar from another cheese board and nabbed a gooey-centered rhubarb muffin from an enormous pile of baked goods that also offered croissants, peach and cherry danishes, bagels and rolls.

That plate polished off, I sat at the table for a while, taking small sips of my mimosa ($4.50), digesting and planning my next attack.

Fifteen minutes later it was time to tackle the dessert tables. The chocolate-fondue station was an unusual find, but I also loved the large, round creme brulee with wild berries. And the white-chocolate carrot cake with cream-cheese icing, the pecan pie, the double-chocolate torte, the thick, rich cheesecake, the icing-coated cookies, the mint chocolate cake, the strawberry shortcake and the cherry pie.

It was like college all over again--but no cafeteria could ever match the quality of this fare. I didn't have to eat again for a week.

But the following Sunday, I was ready. This time I took the elevator up to the Fourth Story at the Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek. Although the brunch here is a la carte, we still got plenty of food. Even more amazing than the size of the portions was the excellent service: Exactly ten minutes from the time we ordered, our food arrived at the table.

Fourth Story sets the tone for serious but lighthearted eating with live jazz each Sunday. During this visit, a gorgeous woman with an equally gorgeous voice played the keyboard while a laid-back drummer accompanied her; both musicians completely transfixed my children, which made the whole meal a lot more pleasant.

But nothing could top the smashing food. The Fourth story's chef is David Steinmann, who left Barolo Grill to do some non-restaurant-related thing. But the lure of the kitchen was obviously too much for him to resist, and he answered the call to replace Jess Roybal, the talented chef tragically killed last summer in a lightning strike.

Steinmann is a good fit with the Fourth Story. The bright, book-filled eatery feels like someone's living room, and Steinmann's food has a similar homey feel. We started off munching from a basket of soft, chewy rolls--but I regretted almost every bite once I saw my huge plate of Eggs Fourth Story ($11), a variation on Benedict. Two grilled English muffins had been topped with smoked salmon and poached eggs, then covered with a champagne-tangy hollandaise. The rest of the plate was weighted down with herb-covered, well-seasoned potatoes. I managed to get through the eggs but was no match for the spuds.

More potatoes came with the aged-cheddar creamed eggs on toast with smoked turkey ($8), another jumbo helping of food. The cheese was heavenly, evocative of musty British libraries, and the smokiness of the turkey matched it perfectly. And instead of potatoes, mixed greens accompanied the Asiago cheese tart ($7), which got most of its flavor from leeks and a splash of toasted-pine-nut vinaigrette.

For the French toast ($8), thick slices of cinnamon bread had been stuffed with bananas and walnuts until they stood four inches high; although the order came with maple syrup, it was moist enough to stand on its own. The blueberry buckle ($5), which we'd ordered to share, was another sweet treat. Beneath the crumbly cake batter, the blueberries had been cooked into a solid mass; sticking a fork into the buckle released a steamy-hot dreamy scent. A few mimosas ($4 each) and a couple of lattes ($4), and we were set for another week.

I'd barely made it through the Fourth Story's huge portions--and still, what I'd eaten this round probably wasn't a quarter of what I'd consumed at the Garden Terrace. There must be something about the sight of an unlimited spread that primes the body for peak performance.

Maybe my stomach still has a few good years left.

The Fourth Story, 2955 East First Avenue, 322-1824. Hours: Brunch served Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Garden Terrace at the Inverness Hotel, 200 Inverness Drive West, 799-5800. Hours: Buffet offered Fridays from 5:30-9 p.m.; brunch served Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.


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