Duval Street Jag

I have a recurring nightmare about an all-you-can-eat buffet.
I enter a dark, two-story building, whereupon a grim hostess shoves a hotel-white china plate into my hands. Then I trudge after a line of people up a flight of musty stairs, through an endless series of dining rooms, and finally down another flight of stairs, all the while passing tables laden with dish after gourmet dish. But the crowds prevent me from getting close enough to taste anything -- it's a case of water, water everywhere. I exit the building hungry and frustrated, my empty plate still balanced on my outstretched palms.

Call it job stress. Anxiety. Trauma over lapsed Judaism (an issue my mother raises more and more as we both age). A Freudian friend even went so far as to interpret this dream as evidence of an unresolved Electra complex.

Clearly my id feels deprived of something, but I doubt it's sex with my father. Because this dream often strikes during the summer, I've identified it as a crisis between my physical self and my mental self. When it's so hot out, I physiologically require less fuel (i.e., food) to keep my body running. Hence my appetite decreases. The problem lies with my palate, which doesn't understand the sudden lack of stimulation. Since when, it demands, does hunger have anything to do with tasting?

The only way to banish this nightmare, then, was to make plans for something I used to do with my sister: Ultimate Eating Sunday (UES).

UES was a ritual binge we engaged in after a week of starvation dieting. Simply put, it was a day on which anything went -- as in, into our mouths. It was a day to reaffirm our faith in food before another week of abject denial. It was a day that, as I left adolescence and bulimic behaviors behind, I refined into a way to strengthen my responsibility toward consuming as much fine fare as possible.

To properly engage in a UES, I've decided, one must commit one's culinary sins outside one's hometown (which is to say, where no one knows you) and in the company of relatives (the ones that don't criticize) or good friends (the ones who have more faults than you do). You must eat at least three full meals, include snacks and sweets, and drink lots of caloric beverages (preferably alcoholic). You must sleep late. You must not engage in exercise (that includes golf).

And you must feel no guilt whatsoever.
Key West seemed an obvious destination. As one of my guests put it: "Key West is great. You get up, you sit down. There's just enough up, and plenty of down." You can imagine the up -- it involved pushing back the chair, standing, and stretching. Here's what we did when we were down:

Martin's Cafe
1015 Fleming St., Key West; 305-296-1183. Breakfast, lunch, and Sunday brunch Tuesday -- Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Dinner Tuesday -- Sunday from 6:00 to 11:00 p.m. Prices: Breakfast and brunch from $4.50 to $8.00; lunch from $4.00 to $7.00; and dinner from $4.00 to $8.50 for soups, salads, and appetizers and $14.50 to $19.50 for entrees.

UES must begin properly, with brunch. And this fine-dining German biergarten, hidden away from busy Duval Street in a stunning garden setting, was ideal for it. The menu presents a rich a la carte selection of crepes, variations on eggs Benedict, and omelets, accented by some of the sweetest fresh-squeezed orange juice I've had since the Century on South Beach closed for the summer. It was a bit early in the day to pick a Riesling from the reasonably priced wine list, but a splash of the German sparkler Deinhard squeezed a more memorable mimosa out of the juice.

We couldn't resist a special Benedict of the day. Instead of the traditional Canadian bacon, slices of tender filet mignon topped a toasted English muffin along with blanched spinach leaves, perfectly poached eggs, and a superb hollandaise. Similar in design and captivation, "Strammer Max" featured slices of smoked ham, melted Gouda, and two sunny-side-up eggs dripping over thick, slightly sweet, toasted wheat bread.

Though three-egg omelets stuffed with bacon, ham, and cheese or mushroom, tomato, and onion come with grilled potatoes, the tasty farmer's omelet was a more utilitarian way of enjoying eggs and spuds. As in a frittata, the potatoes were mixed into the egg along with bacon and onions. Then the whole mess was cooked "open-faced" in a skillet.

If the fare sounds heavy for the first meal of the morning, that's because it is. But those with lighter appetites can choose yogurt with fresh fruit, a crepe with fresh fruit, or a thin, crusty waffle dusted with confectioner's sugar and partnered by a mound of melon, pineapple, kiwi, and red and green grapes.

Stand up. Time to sit down to lunch.

Yellowtails Cafe
218 Whitehead St., Key West; 305-294-2229. Breakfast and lunch daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (closed Wednesday). Prices: Soup and appetizers from $2.50 to $6.95; salads, sandwiches, and lunch specials from $6.25 to $11.95; and dessert from $3.75 to $5.50.

After the strenuous walk from Martin's, we revived ourselves with fresh-squeezed key limeade in this tiny sponge-painted boutique of a restaurant. The cafe fits only four green wrought-iron tables inside, but there's a full complement of seats in the front courtyard. Interesting variations of typical Keys seafood plumped up with homemade sauces and dressings dominate the menu, which is executed with few frills in the one-chef kitchen.

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