Second Helpings

Brunch Bunch

The early bird gets the Sunday brunch at The Tuscany.

The all-you-can-eat gourmet smorgasbord at the Loews-Giorgio Hotel is so popular that you sometimes must book a late meal in order to get in. That means 1 p.m. or so, and by that time, hungry diners have been at the thing for several hours. But you can't blame them for their gluttony: They're doing what comes naturally when presented with more food than is consumed by an average Third World village over the course of a week, and all for the low, low price of $28.95 per person, including champagne (best in the form of mimosas -- to keep the 4 p.m. headache to a minimum).

During the week, the Tuscany cooks up some lovely Northern Italian food under the direction of chef Tim Fields ("La Dolce Vittles," May 24, 1995), who's been with the establishment since 1991 -- except for a year he took off beginning in mid-1999. Fields has just come back from Italy, and he is experimenting with some of the things he picked up there. But he's focusing on the basics, too: The Tuscany recently lost its Mobil Four-Star rating, and Fields says it's in the process of upgrading some finery -- the flatware will be silver, the stemware will be improved and the dining room, already one of the town's finest, will be updated, too, with new upholstery and furniture. But the creamy colors and comfortable elegance will remain.

So will the crowds. Although we arrived right on time for our 1:30 reservation, we had to wait about ten minutes for our seats. As we headed toward our table, the first thing we noticed was the dessert station, which sits just inside the doorway between the dining room and the bar area: It looked like the triage unit of a war hospital. The chocolate layer cake had been hacked at until big pieces had fallen off the side of the serving tray; the chocolate-covered strawberries had been picked through until all that remained were the weak, pathetic berries. And then, as we looked at each other to silently suggest that we start with dessert, a family of four, including two teenaged boys, arrived on the scene and began their own dessert dissection. Incoming!

Therefore, we changed tactics and headed straight for the caviar bar. By then it had been reduced to about four teaspoons of American sturgeon, less than a tablespoon of osetra, and a heaping bowl full of plain tobiko -- the crunchy, orange flying fish roe -- as well as another heaping bowl full of wasabe-enhanced tobiko. Folks must know what the good stuff is these days. Encircling the remaining caviar were the traditional accompaniments of chopped egg white and yolk, red onion, sour cream...and crackers. Maybe Tuscany had offered blintzes early on, but now they were gone. This table also looked as though we'd arrived twenty minutes after the earthquake ended, with bits of food scattered all over the tablecloth.

Other stations were tidier but no less picked over. We got one of the last two fruit-drenched, cheese-filled blintzes, a brunch mainstay. Other brunch basics included chicken-liver crostinis and smoked-salmon canapés; a three-meat carving station; an enormous mound of peel-your-own shrimp; a wonderful selection of breads; made-to-order omelettes and Belgian waffles; a lame but serviceable cheese platter; a mini salad bar; and a lox-and-bagel setup. The house-smoked lox was a noteworthy treat, thinly sliced and oily, with a satiny texture and a sweet flavor. We had no complaints about the meats, either; they included a nicely done prime rib, a rosemary-scented leg of lamb, and tender, juicy turkey. The omelettes and waffles were made to our specs, and house-made baked items, including such goodies as poppyseed muffins and light-as-air croissants, were heavenly. But anyone who's left chicken liver pâté out after a party knows that it doesn't hold up well for long, so by early afternoon the crostinis had turned dark brown and crusty, and the smoked-salmon canapés also sported edges made dry by time and oxygen. Somebody wasn't paying attention.

Whether it was simple neglect or a specific management decision to stop replenishing the chafing dishes wasn't clear, but it was obvious that the hot items had been sitting around for a while -- and the most popular were never replenished. (Later, Fields said he was upset to hear about our disappointing experience, adding that it was not corporate policy to stop putting out fresh food at any set time.) Fortunately, we'd managed to scrape up a few bites of the delectable chicken that was smothered with mushrooms and a buttery-rich sauce enhanced with Parmigiano-Reggiano. That dish nicely showed off Fields's skill and his knowledge of Italian cuisine.

Another surprise winner was the tortellini with wild boar sauce. "It's one of the most popular," Fields says. "I think people just don't know what to expect." Wild boar is used extensively in European cooking, and it has been for centuries. Today there are few wild boars, also known as "feral hogs," left in the United States -- most reside in Florida, where they periodically run amok in traffic -- and even fewer people who know how to cook the meat. A relative of the hog, the animal has a deep-red meat that's leaner than pig and almost tastes nutty; it's sweeter than pork, too, and stronger, like wild bird meat compared to chicken. Because it's leaner than domestic pork, boar doesn't have much fat to add to the final flavor, so braising or stewing is a good way to enhance its unique flavor. The sauce on the tortellini was stew-like in its consistency, and Fields used wine to coax more richness out of the meat and amplify its sweetness.

I'd like to tell you more about other offerings on the hot-buffet line, but I was only able to taste the leftovers: a few tomato pieces dotted the tops of velvety-soft sea bass filets; the little bit of broth left beneath some mussels had the scent of rosemary; a whole crust of rosemary graced the bite of pork tenderloin that two of us shared.

Although we didn't leave the Tuscany hungry -- the tables that hadn't been picked clean provided more than enough food, if not much variety -- we found ourselves hungering for a little more elegance. At the very least, they could have cleaned the place every hour or so. Still, the Tuscany does lay out a blowout brunch -- as long as you arrive on the "br" side of the meal.