Brunch is the ultimate expression of excess, and die-hard brunchers are a fiercely loyal group. They protect their turf like Sarah Palin guards her cubs. Sunday morning is the one time during the week when even the most cultured folks can attend an all-you-can-eat buffet, stuff their faces, and not feel guilty.
There are dozens of brunches around town, as well as some notable — and affordable — newcomers such as Mondrian Sundays at Asia de Cuba (noon to 4 p.m., $42, 1100 West Ave., Miami Beach) and Sunday Brunch at Neomi's Grill (noon to 3 p.m., $39, 18001 Collins Ave., Miami Beach). But we're not tempting fate by tackling a cross section of the brunch universe, lest we end up at Jackson Memorial with health care the way it is these days.
The Biltmore Hotel has been a local legend in the art since 1992. "Nothing compares to this brunch," says Bob Berman, a regular. At the center of the feast is an open-air courtyard with shaded tables seating 45 and the buffet bordering the perimeter. There's also seating inside Fontana (11) and Palme d'Or (16, plus two private rooms).
Biltmore Hotel|Four Seasons Hotel
The Biltmore Hotel: 1200 Anastasia Avenue, Coral Gables; 305-445-1926. Sunday 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. seatings; $75 adults, $35 children ages 6 and over, free under 6. Four Seasons Hotel: 1435 Brickell Ave., Miami; 305-358-3535. Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; $70 adults, $35 children, excluding tax and tip.
Talented executive chef Roly Cruz, who helms the brunch, has overseen banquet and catering operations since 2007 — a tall order. The meal begins with complimentary champagne and mimosas as diners dive into 12 prepared vegetable salads, a mix-your-own salad, four ceviches, a cheese table, a fruit table, and assorted cured meats and antipasto plates.
Two sushi chefs make ten different rolls and nigiri. Chef-manned stations include wild mushroom, pasta, and omelet (all that's missing is a bus station, but that seems unlikely here). There are also prepared breakfast items such as eggs Benedict, sausage, bacon, quiche, and waffles; a carving station with three meats; six or seven covered side dishes; paella; and a kids' table. Then there's a dessert area featuring homemade marshmallows; individually portioned pastries such as pies and tarts; candied apples; an ice-cream sundae station; and a chocolate fountain.
Phew! Standout items are the black-and-white rice with mushrooms and truffle oil and the roast pork loin served with unusually and delightfully creamy mojo and pico de gallo. The raw bar is tops in quality and variety: three types of Washington State oysters; king crab legs; a smoked selection of trout, salmon, white fish, and mahi-mahi; and three tins of caviar (wild U.S. and Bering Sea varieties) with an array of diced red onions, capers, egg whites, and crumbled yolks. Though no mastery of cooking is required, it's nice to see these big-ticket items on just an ordinary Sunday. Meticulous care is taken to ensure the temperature of the seafood remains up to code despite the outdoor heat.
Dessert from executive pastry chef Olivier Rodriguez — the only station housed inside — is a real bright spot, especially a layered Belgian chocolate cremeux topped with a rich chocolate crème anglaise. The chocolate melts on the tongue and has just enough cocoa (64 percent) to make patrons want seconds.
Things turn south when it comes to creative composition and presentation. Why leave the shells on stuffed avocados? And there's red-lamp syndrome. Too many items are left to tan like the fabulous sunbathers at the Biltmore's world-famous pool. Tater tots in the adult section — seriously?
A recent addition, the wild mushroom station, has potential for greatness but fails in execution. A United Nations of wild mushrooms is enticing but ends up in a pool of brandy and cream that didn't have enough time to reduce after a flashy flambé during our visit.
The pasta station seems better suited for a school cafeteria, and a vegetable pâté of carrot, zucchini, and squash is pretty but pasty and tasteless, with the same going for its non-veg counterpart of pork surrounded by mushy white bread. And finally, the "Kids' Corner" is summed up well by an exchange overheard between a mother and her kindergarten-age daughter:
"Look, honey, this is little chicken and pizza for kids."
"I want to go somewhere else!"
At the Four Seasons' Sunday brunch, you could call chef Joey Tuazon (also of the hotel's flagship restaurant, Acqua) "curator." His dish presentation and ingredients have been selected to serve a specific purpose in the overall arrangement. Very rarely do flavors or textures repeat. This makes you vividly aware of each one.
Tuazon's interior design background is evident. For decoration, there are bento boxes and fennel bulbs with their fronds twisted in unexpected ways. A brilliant garnish of soft white roses softens the sharp angles of the raw bar. There are decorative structures from Home Depot and IKEA that use items such as glass shelving as raised platforms to play with the height of cold dishes. The setup succeeds at making dignified what some places make a cattle call.
But the keys to the Four Seasons brunch are the hand-crafted food and beverage items, including complimentary mimosas and mojitos from an open bar, 12 prepared salads, assorted cured meats, and grilled vegetable dishes such as Parmesan-truffled asparagus, a raw bar with fresh mussels and oysters, smoked salmon with caviar-style fixins, eel sushi rolls, carving dishes like a signature dulce de leche lamb chop and seared filet mignon with creamy horseradish sauce, handmade dim sum dumplings, a waffle/omelet/risotto station, multiple covered hot dishes such as miso sea bass with edamame, and a handful of fresh-cut fruit and yogurt items. There's also a cheese table, kids' food including toasted peanut butter and jelly petits fours, and a dessert area featuring a table of hundreds of individually portioned treats (30 varieties sugar-free) and a chocolate fountain with six dipping options.
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Among our favorites were the dainty, individually portioned old-fashioned chicken salad with celery and raisins; orecchiette pasta salad with Black Forest ham and sweet peas; mu shu duck rolls with green onions, carrots, and hoisin; and a moist and tender whole roast pig with sinfully crisp skin.
Desserts from executive pastry chef Charles Froke are a revelation. Move over, Mounds: A decadent dark chocolate bar with layers of coconut, nutty wafer, and ganache is a must-try.
Of course, all is not perfect. The dining room lacks character, and there could be more variety, especially at the raw bar. But the Four Seasons launched its brunch just one year ago, and service is on the ball. "There's nothing like the Four Seasons," beams Gilda Howell, who, with husband Mitchell, lives in Fort Lauderdale and regularly makes the trip.
"The Biltmore is a close second, but this is the best brunch in town," Mitchell adds. "Everything is a 10 if it's on this buffet. I mean, look at the size of these shrimp."