Brunch Two Ways: Right and Wrong

So I suppose I'll see you at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival's "Tribute Brunch" this Sunday at the Loews Hotel. It'll be great -- Francis Ford Coppola in the flesh to accept recognition for his esteemed Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery, and we, sampling those luscious wines while enjoying Tuscan delicacies divined by chef Carey Savona -- what's that?

Oh, gee, I'm sorry. I mean, I never would have brought it up had I known, it being sold out and all. And of course you're right -- not everyone receives complimentary tickets. Well, these gala affairs are overrated anyway. It's not like Coppola will be sharing salacious tales of his barhops with Brando or anything, and the wines poured will probably be the same as those you can buy in the market -- just better vintages. Hold on a second, I have a call on the other line....

As I was saying, if you've been to one of these extravaganzas, you've been to them all. You have been to one, haven't you? Really? Anyway, the main point I meant to make is that even one can be too many if you're not in the champagne, caviar, and laughter sort of mood. Besides, there are lots of other great Sunday brunches around town to try. The Biltmore Hotel and Ritz-Carlton properties put out breathtakingly comprehensive spreads. Blue Door at the Delano serves sushi and other distinctive items and has that chi chi outdoor terrace. The Rusty Pelican is decidedly less chic but boasts omelet, pasta, and carving stations, along with a beautiful Biscayne Bay setting. And Emeril's bams out an à la carte Sunday soiree right next door to the Coppola affair, so as we rattle the walls with merriment you'll be able to feel the vibrations and possibly, in some small way, indirectly share in our unbridled joy.

Come again? No, quite frankly I wasn't aware that you're not big on indirectly sharing joy. Surely I didn't suggest this as a means of rubbing it in, and I'm sorry you took it that way. Heck, just to show you that my heart is in the right place, I'm going to check out two of Miami's most renowned Sunday brunches, Baleen and Nemo, and report back to you in some detail -- just on the outside chance you'd be interested. These places may not have Francis Ford Coppola, but have a coppola mimosas and you won't care! Heh heh. Hello?

Nemo's brunch has long been regarded as one of the very best, and our visit reaffirmed that reputation. As soon as you enter the restaurant the sweet, caramel aroma of Belgian waffles, cooked on a table set up by the front door, caresses the olfactory senses in a most hospitable manner. Accompaniments include butter, homemade marmalades, maple syrup, whipped cream, strawberries, and blueberries; people of moderation might consider skipping the butter.

Just beyond the waffles is a carving station with butcher blocks of Indian-spiced pork loin and turkey, while across the room to the right of the door is an area wellstocked with traditional morning pastries: Danish, croissants, muffins, sticky buns, assorted bagels with smoked salmon and accompaniments. Homemade granola can be found here too, yet it's easy to miss this bountiful buffet upon entering Nemo -- after the brief waffle and carving diversion, the natural inclination is to stop in your tracks at the hammered-copper bar covered end to end, layer upon layer, with Hedy Goldsmith's bodacious baked goods: key lime squares, chocolate tarts, mini cheesecakes, pecan sandies, peanut butter and banana fritters -- few bakeries exhibit this wide a selection, and it's no exaggeration to say that if you have a sweet tooth, these sugary delights alone are well worth the $27 price of admission (kids $13.50).

The counter running between Nemo's open kitchen and front dining room is likewise bedecked with comestibles: breakfast meats, duck confit, hash browns, sushi, and a plethora of ingredients in salad form: white fish, beets, sweet potatoes, couscous, white beans, fruits -- all in all about 30 choices, including a platter of eggs Benedict, which is markedly superior when served fresh. Nemo might consider putting these on the à la carte menu of five omelets that are part of the brunch. The pair we sampled were prepared with aplomb -- one stuffed with goat cheese, oven-dried tomato, and basil; another with wild mushroom, spinach, and fontina.

Nemo's lush, tree-shaded patio provides a serene setting for alfresco dining, while the interior, with French doors swung open, is breezy and still stylishly bohemian after all these years. Service was sharp, emptied plates swiped from our table immediately and almost invisibly, fresh-squeezed juice and coffee poured with style. Champagne, mimosas, and bloody marys cost extra, as do Nemo's excellent raw bar selections, so I guess it's not a perfect brunch.

With its billowy white curtains and supple views of Biscayne Bay, Baleen, too, has long been a favorite brunch destination. Unfortunately during a recent visit the vivacious vistas stood in stark contrast with shockingly shabby fare. Things began in surprising fashion when I discovered my opening salvo of coffee came with a $3.50 surcharge, which means this becomes a $41.50 brunch for most diners. A gentleman seated at a nearby table experienced an even shakier start when he politely asked for a glass of white wine in place of complimentary champagne; he claimed to be allergic to the bubbly. The waiter initially told him that no substitutions were allowed, but at the diner's behest checked with management and returned a short time later to say the switch was approved -- "but only because you have an allergy!"

Why display a grudging attitude over so simple a request? Because Baleen does everything wrong at brunch. The buffet table in the main dining area was so sparse I was sure we were missing a second room, one where, as I assured my wife, "they display the good stuff." There was no second room. The parsimonious picks included caesar or regular salad; tomatoes and mozzarella; chicken, potato, tuna, and egg salads; artichoke salad that appeared to be canned; mussel and shrimp salad; insipid grilled vegetable platter; similarly insipid fruit plate (grapes, watermelon, ghostly pale cantaloupe and honeydew); smoked salmon (same color as the cantaloupe); supermarket quality bagels (plain only); supermarket quality croissants (or shall we say "crescent rolls").

A few scrawny little muffins rounded out the baked goods. If you want granola or yogurt, sorry. Bacon, ham, sausage? No dice. Hot foods are only available from an à la carte menu that, as at Nemo, comes with the brunch. Main course choices are Belgian waffles, eggs Benedict (topped with what tasted like powdered Hollandaise, only worse), French toast (soppy white-bread version), salmon-asparagus omelet; pasta with vodka cream sauce; and a succulent square of herb-crusted sea bass, which is your best bet -- at least you get a tangible meal with intrinsic value for your otherwise misspent money. The "Viennese Table," a meager three-dessert selection of napoleon, chocolate bread pudding, and chocolate cup with piped-in mousse, is a slap in the face to the good people of Austria.

How can there be such a disparity between Nemo and Baleen? Apparently only one of the two places has pride.

Nemo,100 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-532-4550. Sunday brunch from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Baleen,4 Grove Isle, Coconut Grove;305-860-4305. Sunday brunch from 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

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