There are times when it's awfully difficult to explain why one lives in Miami. Like now, during this period of embarrassing Elianmania, with the national media trumpeting the arrogant antics of one small but stupid-as-a-stump group of right-wing refugee residents as they loudly and proudly point out that our county is not, culturally or legally (so they'd like to believe), part of the USA.
But in fact within months of moving to South Florida seven years ago, my partner and I came up with the definitive answer to any visitor questioning this city's allure: brunch at the Biltmore. The setting, in the historic "Grande Dame" hotel's palm-planted outdoor courtyard, is a fountained faux-Spanish tropical fantasyland (modeled on Seville's exotic Giralda). It makes many major points, especially in winter months, to someone who'll soon be returning to a cold cubicle up north. Those points are quickly quintupled as skeptics circulate around nearly a dozen well-stocked buffet stations sheltered under the court's arcades: oysters/smoked fish/caviar (three kinds); pastas; hot roasts; crisp salads; fresh sushi; a charcoal grill station that does seafood plus the usual meats; desserts, including custom-made flaming crêpes; an old-fashioned ice cream cart; even breakfast food. A subtle Latin guitar duo conveys the message that Hispanic-influenced culture can be seductive as well as sane. Unlimited champagne, at any rate, retires all remaining questions.
Still, in a coastal area, both visitors and locals sometimes crave that casual kind of Jimmy Buffett brunch-on-the beach experience, something a bit more relaxed and less pricey. And while the Biltmore doesn't discourage children, the ambiance is too sophisticated (and the fountain too tempting) for truly tiny tots.
Sundays on the Bay
5420 Crandon Blvd, Key Biscayne; 305-361-6777.
Open for brunch 10:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Sunday. $22.95 for adults. $12.95 for children ages four to twelve; free for kids under age four.
So, with another couple and their three year-old kid in tow, we set off for Sundays on the Bay, a sprawling marina-front family friendly eatery just past the Seaquarium on Key Biscayne, where the livin' is easy, the price for an all-you-can-eat brunch is roughly half that of the Biltmore ($22.95), and the food, though not fancy fare by any definition, is fine.
The assortment of dishes is advertised as 200 items -- could be, if one counts each croissant individually. Fifty items is more like it. And champagne is limited to one glass. But the bounty is ample enough to satisfy most appetites for the rest of the day.
The selection begins with breads, mostly croissants that are small and buttery (good), and bagels that are small and stale (bad). Fortunately it's easy to ignore the bagels, since the smoked salmon is nothing special. Nothing awful, either. But anyone used to the subtle and silky salmon at the Biltmore, or, better yet, at the Fontainebleau's Sunday spread, won't be tempted by Sundays' presliced, overly smoky stuff. Neither will the buffet's only other smoked-fish item, something I guessed to be either swordfish or marlin, appeal to fans of moist Jewish-deli sturgeon or sable. Fans of Southern-style smoked fish, however, might just love the formidable firmness and stick-to-your-fingers-for-days hickory smell of these hefty chunks.
Better are Sundays' South American and Italian-inspired cold-fish dishes. Ceviche snaps with citrus and the somewhat less common hot-bite characteristic found in Peruvian interpretations of this marinated-seafood item. Italian-style mixed seafood salad is a pleasant combo of tiny shrimp and tender squid; although marred by the inclusion of surimi, it is not, thankfully, overvinegared as this type of salad often is. Especially good are cold mussels on the half-shell, poached too long for ideal tenderness on one visit but perfect on another, and bathed in a very tasty mustard vinaigrette. (Don't worry about how terminally uncool you look searching the platter, as you should, for specimens with tons of sauce -- Sundays isn't SoBe.)
Basic peel-and-eat shrimp and raw oysters on the half-shell both taste fresh. But the oysters would be much more appealing pristinely presented on shaved ice, rather than being sloppily stacked so they're oozing onto each other like a Dave Barry booger joke. And the fairly small shrimp would benefit from boiling 30 seconds less.
While mushroom salads are standard suburban buffet fare, Sundays avoids the usual canned buttons and instead uses meaty fresh portabellos combined with roasted red peppers. A distinctive dressing with more fruity olive-oil taste and less watery-mushroom moisture/vinegar tang would make this salad a standout, though it still tastes refreshingly healthful.
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Chicken salad is a classy affair featuring big chunks of white meat. Tuna salad, similarly, is albacore, not cheap dark meat. Each would need only some definitive simple spicing (for instance fresh dill in the tuna and a touch of tarragon in the chicken) to seem as special as the quality main ingredients warrant; as is, both taste mainly of mayo. Carrot salad, sadly, is made from those ubiquitous prepeeled processed baby carrots that look like a million bucks but taste like two cents, even when they're not overcooked and blandly dressed, as these were. (I use the bagged babies at home but only because I'm a lazy amateur cook. After being stunned by the sweetness and tender-crisp delicacy of a perfectly cooked, genuine young carrot -- a taste and texture I'd virtually forgotten -- at Mayya a few weeks ago, I'm in no mood to let paid professional chefs off the hook.)
Carnivores will find it easy to eat more than their money's worth in roast beef alone. Astonishingly for those of us resigned to rib roasts that are overcooked 45 minutes after dinner hour begins at most Miami steak houses, it's possible to get one's slices super-rare, even at the end of brunch service at Sundays. Roast pork with citrus mojo was equally satisfying the first time I tried it, succulent and juicy, but absolutely mummified the second time -- which actually was much earlier in the day. Odd.
Steam-table treatment negatively affects much of the breakfast food; eggs Benedict looked especially tired, even just half an hour after opening. But omelets, made to order with your choice of fillings, are fresh and fluffy, far superior to standard coffee-shop fried Frisbees. Sundays' longest lines were at the custom pasta station, which features three noodle choices (penne, fettuccini, cappellini) and three sauces (tomato, Alfredo, pesto). It's rare to find anything but mushy pasta in a buffet setting, but surprise: Even the thin cappellini was properly al dente.
Desserts, a not very large array of not very imaginative cakes and puddings (which across the board were judged too sweet by our table's adult Anglos, not sweet enough by the adult Latinas, and perfect by the three-year-old), were an anticlimax. But frankly even the Biltmore's custom crêpes would have been eclipsed by the meal's main event: the sudden surfacing, within feet of Sundays' dockside front tables, of three humongous manatees. These supposedly shy swimming wild mammals are evidently regular Sundays brunch patrons; within minutes of their appearance, restaurant regulars who knew the routine had disappeared inside to the salad bar. And before you could say "maniac," the mild-mannered marine megameat loaves with mouths were being hand fed mesclun by maniacs of all ages and nationalities.