The lovely, ivy-covered Hotel Place St. Michel has graced the Coral Gables intersection of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and Alcazar Avenue since 1926. Back then it was the Sevilla Hotel. Inside this European-style inn is the Restaurant St. Michel, which likewise exudes a simple elegance by way of wooden floors, lace-curtained windows, and crisp white table settings. When last supping here, it occurred to me that the dining room's relaxed ambiance, further soothed by the tinkling of piano keys, would be well suited for Sunday brunch, an intimate alternative to the sprawling buffets found at corporate hotel chains. Two years later my wife and I finally made it to St. Michel on a Sunday morning (or, more accurately, noon).
Suitability of environment was only half of my preconception. I visualized the food as well, a modest spread of upscale gastronomic tidbits that would match the Old World charm of the room. Perhaps a rustic French look, with baskets of warm, freshly baked goods -- croissants, brioche, some whole-grain or corn breads, and if it wouldn't be too much to ask, pain au chocolat. I imagined the baked goods to be supplemented by a limited but luscious lineup of breakfast and lunch dishes prepared with finesse, maybe in the style of cuisine served at dinner, which the restaurant describes as "New American with a light French influence." Unfortunately the people at Restaurant St. Michel had their own ideas, which can't be characterized as new, light, or French. Come to think of it, any brunch that neglects to include bacon, ham, sausage, or potatoes isn't particularly American either. It is, in fact, a stupefyingly dull assembly of foods that might pass muster as a $14.95 brunch at Holiday Inn but sure doesn't impress at $26.95 per person.
We began with a choice of orange juice, champagne, or the two blended into mimosas. It's an all-you-can-drink arrangement, so I imagine if one were to get drunk the price might seem more justified. The orange juice wasn't fresh-squeezed, an omen of the generally less-than-stellar quality of the comestibles to follow. Of course I don't blame St. Michel for not serving fresh orange juice; it's not like Florida is a major orange-producing state or anything.
The first thing I noticed about the buffet table was a lack of breakfast foods. The manager told me we could order waffles, omelets, or eggs Benedict from our waiter, which was good enough, though it would have been nice if the waiter had informed us of that. Service here was not especially sharp. I had to get up from the table to ask for coffee, and again to secure the check. No complaints about the waffles and eggs Benedict, though neither was particularly noteworthy.
There were no croissants or brioche, and needless to say, no pain au chocolat. Really no baked goods at all other than anemic little French rolls, middle-age oat-bran and raisin muffins (not fresh enough to be moist, not old enough to be thoroughly dry), and silver-dollar-size bagels of cardboard texture. Putting smoked salmon, cream cheese, red onion, and capers on a table without real bagels is like having a bobsled team show up at the Olympics with a kid's sled.
The other thing about the buffet table was its resemblance to a parking lot for silver chafing dishes -- not a particularly attractive spread. Some contained meats: slices of chicken breast, veal, and beef covered in their respective brown gravies. Others featured the seafood selections: grilled salmon and a mussel-shrimp-calamari combo. Yellow rice, mashed potatoes, cafeteria-quality penne alfredo, and ratatouille coated with melted cheese rounded out the hot foods.
The salad section offered half a dozen choices: tuna salad, potato salad, hearts of palm, surimi (imitation crabmeat) in mayonnaise, garbanzos and red peppers in vinaigrette, and barley-vegetable salad. There was also a bowl of mesclun leaves, a bowl of romaine, and two dressings that ran the gamut from creamy garlic to creamy-garlicky Caesar. And finally two "gourmet" specialties: peel-and-eat shrimp with cocktail sauce, and a wooden boat of surimi and avocado sushi rolls. I am not saying there isn't enough to eat.
If mediocrity itself had a sweet tooth, it would find comfort in the dessert table, an uninspired collection of tiramisu, pecan pie, key lime pie that looked as though it were made by Sara Lee, glasses of chocolate mousse, warm apple compote, pedestrian fruit salad, and St. Michel's idea of a brunchtime cheese tray: cheddar and Jarlsberg cubes.
There used to be a chain of "automat" cafeterias in New York City called Horn & Hardart, wherein you'd view foods through a wall of small windows and plunk tokens into a slot to take whatever looked appealing. Their television commercials, which were very popular, would start off by conceding that cafeterias weren't the most picturesque places to dine, and then proceed to show opulent restaurants serving obviously disappointing food. The ads would conclude with the Horn & Hardart slogan: "You can't eat atmosphere." How true.
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