THE HIGH-PRICED SPREAD
Spread the word: Sundays are open again.
The holidays are over. The Super Bowl is over. The nice weather is over, and I don't care what that goofy groundhog says--it's going to stay cold for a while.
Is there a better way to fill these now-free, if still frigid, Sundays than with long, lingering brunches?
A Sunday brunch always carries the slight sensation of stolen pleasure. It's still the weekend, you might have gone out to dinner the night before, too, and here you are stuffing your face again. And after that, there's nothing left to do but digest the meal and the rest of the Sunday papers. Maybe you're at brunch with the family, happy you didn't have to choose between the half who wanted pancakes and the half who wanted omelettes; perhaps you're there with someone you just met the night before, and you're discovering that you both love eggs Benedict. Whatever the situation, there's just something special about Sunday brunch that lets people kick back.
Sometimes way back, as we found one recent Sunday at the Brown Palace Hotel. The hotel has been offering a blow-out Sunday brunch for eight years now; when we stopped in last month, it was being served in the Brown Palace Club, a temporary, second-floor home while Ellyngton's downstairs recovered from a facelift. Ellyngton's reopened this past weekend, its early-Eighties pallor replaced with a more sumptuous look that is the ideal setting for the Brown's high-priced spread.
Which is good, because the Brown Palace Club certainly wasn't. The private "executive dining club" is looking decidedly drab these days, almost like an upscale Denny's except for the coats of arms on the windows. Deborah Dix, who handles publicity for the Brown, thinks the decor is plain because the facility was once for men only. That changed in the Seventies, when Dorothy Davidson, who ran the local American Civil Liberties Union office for many years, raised a stink (and smelled a lawsuit). But even if the club was looking shabby, our meal wasn't.
The Brown's brunch is one of those all-you-can-eat deals, and it's a good value even at $24.95 per person ($31.95 if you want champagne; $99.95 if only Dom Perignon will do). We descended on buffet tables "groaning with food," as they say in the Little House on the Prairie books, and, along with the rest of the vultures, put entirely too much of it on our own plates. The breakfast buffet area featured chafing pans filled with real-hollandaise eggs Benny, decadent cherry blintzes, bacon, sausage and made-to-order Belgian waffles and pancakes; plates heaped with every type of muffin, bagel and bread known to man; and our own personal omelette slave. Unfortunately, the world's most indecisive diner beat us to him. No fewer than thirty bowls of possible ingredients stared this big, beefy guy in the face, and this was his big moment. "No, wait, I want cheddar. No, no. How about white American? Put green peppers in it. No! That's too much. Do you have Italian sausage?"
The choices were easier at the carving station, a true vegetarian nightmare. But it was a dream come true for the contented carnivores in our group, who went with chorizo-stuffed veal breast (bland, gringo chorizo) with onion soubise (read: white sauce with onions) and medium-rare roasted beef strip loin with caramelized onion demi-glace (read: gravy with onions). The carver, bathed in the glow of the heat lamp and a little too happy to be playing with his large knife, slooooowly sliced off each piece of meat and then wouldn't let us leave until he had ceremoniously folded each one into a tidy triangle.
We made our way to our seats, our plates piled high from this first round. The tables were crammed a bit close together, which made maneuvering difficult--and eavesdropping all too easy. We ate to the accompaniment of the woman next to us talking to a girlfriend who probably wasn't going to be that for very much longer. "I told him," she said, stabbing the air with her fork, "I said, `If you don't stop this right now, I'm going to emotionally shut down. I'm just going to shut down emotionally.'" This dialogue continued for an hour, with commercial breaks only when the pair got up for a return trip to the buffets.
For visuals, we had an entirely different set of folks. To our left was a couple wearing matching black jeans, he a baggy set with the zipper down (always fun when the person jumps up every five minutes for more food) and she in a pair so tight that she made an audible "Ooooffff" each time she sat down, causing every diner in the immediate vicinity to crack up. But that wasn't the best part of the show. Since she didn't have much room in the waist area for food, every few minutes she did one of those moves where you tuck your chin in and blow your cheeks out in an attempt to burp while pretending that you're really just making an expression of exasperation.
"When I emotionally shut down, I didn't feel a thing," the woman next to us continued. "And when we broke up, I didn't feel a thing."
We were starting to feel something: full. But that didn't stop us from moving on to the "cold selections," a buffet with little tablecloth visible between the multitude of trays. One held about twenty kinds of cheese (a tad wasteful, since only about half the offerings had been taken and the rest were starting to get that hardened, dried-out look); others bore smoked salmon, smoked shad, smoked shrimp, smoked mussels, cold poached salmon, fish pate, steamed mussels, peel-and-eat shrimp, all the deli meats every nitrite lover could ask for, fresh fruit, and more cold salads than at a church picnic. But there was no spiral pasta with pimientos and Italian dressing here. The beauty of these salads was their ingenuity: grilled tuna with haricots vert and hard-boiled eggs; beets with oranges and blue cheese; artichokes with roasted potatoes and prosciutto; daikon with mandarin oranges and pork; linguine with snow peas and red onions.
"See, I know his patterns," the soap-opera diva droned as we returned to our table. Meanwhile, two women with matching Courteney Cox hairdos discussed--what else?--hairdressers, and four female executives argued loudly over what kind of tip to leave. They each had a calculator out, and after a lot of discussion, one woman whipped out her cell phone and called someone (her mother? the National Tip Hotline?), which finally put an end to the discussion.
"I don't know what to do now," came the word from the next table. "I mean, I can't have children after I'm thirty. Do you know how hard it is to have children after you're thirty?"
It had to be easier than listening to this drivel. Time for more food.
The next station was an extension of the hot-foods line, but with even more exotic offerings: blackened steelhead trout in a mango-almond cream over fettuccine; marinated beef tips in a Szechuan sauce; pan-seared quail in hunter sauce; garlic-roasted potatoes; and some kind of "winter vegetable medley" with a lot of broccoli. Everything--broccoli included--was top-notch and tasted like it had just been prepared to order.
Back by our table, the drama continued. "I don't want to eat too much dessert," she said. "I'm out on the market again, you know." So she and her poor companion, who should have won some kind of humanitarian award for putting up with this hell, picked at the Brown's trademark chocolate-covered, baseball-sized strawberries.
We, however, were ready to go a full round at the Like-You-Need-This-Dessert Extravaganza. On this buffet, we found an incredible nut pie--a half-inch-high wedge of unbelievable sweetness that put those four-inch-tall, gooey cornstarch things to shame--as well as wonderful, creamy rice pudding with golden raisins and peach-filled cheesecake with a toothsome cobbler crust.
After all that, I had no choice but to physically shut down, just shut down.
But then, isn't Sunday also the day of rest?
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