Ever on Sunday

"It's all about balance," my dinner companion, a fellow writer, said to me over cocktails a few evenings ago. She paused to sip her Cuda Red Ale thoughtfully. "Yes," she said, swallowing appreciatively, holding up her pint glass as if to catch and drink the setting sun. "Balance."
My friend was referring to writing, about juggling her corporate and creative lives. But it struck me as she was speaking that the notion of balance is apropos to cooking: Flavors must complement, not overwhelm, each other. And to restaurants: Quality must justify price. An occasional tipping of the scale -- a flawed meal, a dearth (or sudden rush, for that matter) of customers -- might make a successful eatery teeter for a moment or two. But if the restaurant has balance, it will always recover.

South Pointe Seafood House attempts to perform its own brand of balancing act. Located at island's end in South Pointe Park, the nine-year-old restaurant overlooking the rocky, frothy channel of Government Cut used to be Crawdaddy's, a Louisiana-style fish house that was part of the California chain that owns Rusty Pelican. In 1991, Arthur Forgette took over the spot, and he's been making it over ever since: renaming the place after its park setting; selecting executive chef Dana Alan Brizee, who debuted his new pub menu a few months ago; and remodeling the lotsa-wood-and-carpeting lobby to include a microbrewery, installing glistening copper and stainless steel brewing and aging tanks and importing brewmaster Jeff Nelson from California.

Yet despite all the improvements, the 250-seat restaurant still suffers from an identity crisis: part tourist trap, part banquet hall, part brewpub. And it fails to keep its halls filled with merrymakers. When I drink Government Cut Light Ale or Hog Snapper Stout at South Pointe's bar, I usually drink alone, and when I follow that up with a meal in the dining room, I find myself in the sparse company of out-of-towners. I've often wondered how the place stays in business.

I got part of my answer while gazing at the herb garden that nearby elementary school children planted and tend at the side of the two-story building. "Does the chef use the herbs in his dishes?" I asked our server. "No," he said. "But McDonald's just rented it out for a shoot."

McDonald's and others looking for a pretty backdrop may pay the rent. But the real reason South Pointe stays in business as a restaurant is apparent only one day of the week. Because though dinnertime can seem dark and dreary -- the lighting too subdued, the vague scent of mildew in the air intrusive, the service oversolicitous, supplied by waiters who don't have enough to do -- Sunday at noon is the exact opposite: bright with Florida sunshine, elegant but cozy. Intriguing, intertwining aromas of yeasty beer and omelets. Speedboats and water bikes churning through the Cut. And unlimited champagne or mimosas, topped off periodically by pleasant staffers who also replace cutlery and plates as needed. It's the difference between, well, night and day.

For $22 per person, brunch is an excellent Sunday activity (and believe me, it could take all day). Brizee sets up rows of chafing dishes filled with brunch-type entrees; trays of salads and baskets of breads; an omelet, waffle, and carving station; and a dessert table. Go with a good appetite and sample everything -- there are no losers here. Even the stuff in the warming pans is beautifully presented and replenished frequently.

Cheese-stuffed artichoke ravioli in cream sauce was al dente but supple, cheese blintzes with peach sauce hot and creamy in the middle and crunchy outside. Bacon and sausage were meaty, cottage fries crisp. A fragrant seafood paella was rich in mussels, calamari, chicken, and chorizo, and accented with a liberal dose of roasted red peppers. The crowning glory, clusters of Dungeness crab legs with garlic butter, were indeed so glorious that they hardly needed the garlicky kick of the condiment.

A bowl of chilled peel-and-eat jumbo shrimp complemented by a zesty cocktail sauce was also a big draw, as were displays of peppered mackerel and smoked salmon. Antipasto platters of rolled Italian meats and cheeses, artichokes, hearts of palm, pepperoncini, and Homestead tomatoes and mozzarella scattered with basil were vivid. And several salads were delicious -- most notably a saffron linguine with mussels and shredded carrots; a salmon-and-new-potato blend with capers and onions; a green Greek salad featuring red onions, pepperoncini, cucumber, plum tomatoes, feta cheese, and an olive vinaigrette; and a Chinese chicken salad with cabbage and a crackling trim of fried wontons.

Bread baskets contained an assortment of wonderful Parker House rolls, croissants, bagels, Danish pastries, and miniature muffins. The carving station featured a roast beef with creamed horseradish sauce and a turkey breast with cranberry-orange relish, both deliciously prepared. A cook flipped four omelets at a time, an entertaining feat. But it was the French toast -- triangles slathered with an amaretto cream, then battered with cornflakes and almonds and fried -- and the palm-size Belgian waffles that held our attention, abetted by a trio of syrups.

The dessert table was a treasure too, from the bowl of strawberries and sidekick of creamy Brie to the finger-length custard eclairs, napoleons, and chocolate cups filled with chocolate or vanilla mousse to the luscious blueberry cheesecake and tart key lime pie. Though I must admit that by the end of the meal downing even one slice of chocolate layer cake was something of a challenge. I couldn't imagine topping all this off with a beer, as I saw some brunchers doing. The mimosas were quite filling enough.

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