Have you ever had the feeling that you've bitten off more than you can chew? Try sizing up a brunch buffet, and you'll have the metaphor made literal. Die-hard brunchers have it down, and they're a fiercely loyal group with All Clad allegiances. We're talking protective over their preferred turf like "mama bear" wannabe Sarah Palin guards her cubs.
For this Plato Royale, which is plural for the occasion, we will peruse, ponder and pick at the $75 Sunday spreads of two acclaimed upscale hotels, the Four Seasons Hotel Miami and the Biltmore Hotel.
How is it that, despite the economic tailspin, we haven't lost the urge to indulge in the ultimate
expression of excess at a time when it's so out of style? And why is it at once appalling, yet strangely reassuring?
Of course there are some new kids on the block with more affordable
a cross section of the entire brunch universe in Miami, lest we end up at Jackson with healthcare the way it is these days. And you
know the New Times isn't about to buck up for a private room.
Setting intimidation aside, table upon glorious table quickly came into focus, and in a zen like moment of clarity, a true champion among the contenders.
Biltmore Sunday Brunch ($75, not including tax and tip) - Complementary mimosas, 12 mixed vegetable salads, mix-your-own salad, 4 ceviches, cheese table, fruit table, assorted cured meats and antipasto plates,
seafood raw bar, smoked fish selection (trout, salmon, white fish and mahi mahi,) caviar service, two sushi chefs making 10 different rolls and nigiri, wild mushroom station, pasta station, omelet station, prepared breakfast items (tater tots, eggs benedict, sausages and bacon, quiche, and waffles) carving station with 3 meats, 6-7 covered prepared side dishes for the meats, paella, kids' table, and dessert area including table including homemade marshmallows, individually-portioned desserts, candied apples, ice cream sundae station and chocolate fountain.
Pros: Standout items are black and white rice with mushrooms and truffle oil tucked away in a chafing dish at the end of the line, and the adjacent roast pork loin served with unusually cream mojito and pico de gallo sauces.
The raw bar is a home run in quality and variety of choices, the highlights of which are three types of Washington State oysters and King Crab legs. Of course one can't go wrong with caviar service, especially three different tins (wild USA and Bering Sea) and all the fixins on a blini. Even though no mastery of cooking is required, it's nice to see these high ticket items available on just an ordinary Sunday. Meticulous care is taken to ensure that the temperature of the seafood stays up to code despite the heat outside, with laser readings taken regularly.
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 creme anglaise. The chocolate used melts on the tongue and has just enough cocoa content (64 percent, to be exact) to be just rich enough to make you want seconds.
Cons: Things quickly turn south for The Biltmore when it comes
to points for creativity with composition of individual dishes and
their presentation. It's a personal preference, but why leave the shells on
the stuffed avocados? The cold prepared salads as a whole
are just ok, with too many inconsistencies and too few sporadic flashes
of almost brilliance.
This brunch suffers from red lamp syndrome, with many items left to tan like the fabulous people at its world famous pool. Now I can understand the need to pre-make certain things and keep them hot, especially for less fancy brunches. But to sacrifice attention to detail and finesse for variety in bulk just seems wrong for a hotel of this caliber.
A recent addition, the wild mushroom station, is the one à la minute dish that has potential for greatness but fails in execution. A United Nations of wild mushrooms are so enticing lined up on the prep table, manned by the Sous Chef, but end up in a pool of brandy and cream that on our visit didn't have enough time to reduce after a flashy flambe. Also, opt for the crepe option, since a tough pastry shell is not the best receptacle in this humidity.
From here the stations get more ordinary, like one dedicated to pasta which seems better suited for a school cafeteria, with its pre-cooked rigatoni, cheese tortellini and penne with choice of red sauce or Alfredo sauce.
When something as simple as a salad dressing goes wrong, you have to
wonder, is it just lack of effort or resignation of creativity to the
demands of an unsophisticated crowd? I'd keep it in the back available
on request rather than giving up.
The "Kid's Corner" is summed up well by an exchange overheard between a mother and her Kindergarten-aged daughter:
"Look hunny, this is little chicken and pizza for kids."
"I want to go somewhere else!"
In case you are wondering: The Biltmore Hotel is an old standby, almost a local legend in the
art, since 1992. "Nothing compares to this brunch," says Bob Berman, a Biltmore regular. Everywhere you look is food. The set-up is in the open-air square outside, with tables seating 45 in the center surrounded by the buffet on the perimeter. There's also seating inside at Palme d'Or (16, plus two private rooms) and at Fontana for 11. The service is good with an impressive amount of staff in a coordinated effort to pull off the feat. At times though, the orchestration is very in-your-face, like when the managing chef overseeing the meat station radioed loudly for his carving chef's roasts to be replenshied. "I'm gonna need one more beef and one more lamb" can sound very much like "price check, aisle three" in such close quarters.
Talented Executive Chef Roly Cruz heads up the brunch and has overseen
banquet and catering operations since 2007 -- a tall order. One wonders
if the brunch does not suffer polish on account of the disconnect with
its restaurants, and for that very reason is intentionally dumbed down
Four Seasons Sunday Brunch ($75, not including tax and tip) - Complementary mimosas and
mojitos from an open bar, 12 prepared salads, assorted grilled vegetable dishes and cured meats,
seafood raw bar, smoked salmon with caviar-style fixins, 1-2 nigiri or sushi
rolls, 5-6 carving dishes, 3 handmade dim sum,
waffle/omelet/risotto station, 7-8 covered hot dishes, 5-6
fresh-cut fruit and yogurt items, cheese table, kids' food and play
area, and dessert area including table of hundreds of
individually-portioned treats (30 different varieties including
sugar-free) and chocolate fountain with 6 dipping options.
Pros: Standout items include a dainty and individually-portioned old fashioned chicken salad with celery and raisins, orichette pasta salad with Black Forest ham and sweet peas, mu shu duck rolls assembled before your eyes with green onions, carrots, and hoisin -- and of course the moist and tender whole roast pig, including its sinfully crisp skin. We could go on. Everything is labeled here, which food nerds can appreciate. If
you can expect anything from the Four Seasons, it's going to be
impeccable service, and Chef Joey Tuazon (also of the hotel's flagship restaurant, Acqua) has somehow managed to
translate this same level of care into his thoughtful, detail-oriented brunch presentation.
Tauzon's title may well be Curator, as you can't help
but feel like his dish presentation, down to each ingredient, has been selected to serve a specific purpose in the overall arrangement. Very rarely are repeat flavors or textures encountered. In fact, you are vividly aware of opposite.
Tuazon, who has an interior design background, likes to use whatever he can get his hands on in the kitchen, like bento boxes and fennel bulbs with their fronds, in unexpected ways for decoration. And it doesn't stop there. He sources decorative structures from the Home Depot and Ikea, using items like glass shelving as raised platforms to play with the height of cold dishes. The effect actually succeeds in making dignified what some places let become a cattle call to a uniform trough.
Desserts from Executive Pastry Chef Charles Froke are a revelation with a spread in a separate room fit for Willy Wonka or the board game Candy Land. A decadent chocolate bar with layers of coconut, wafer, and ganache is sinful and a must-try. Froke will sadly be leaving us for the Four Seasons in Washington, D.C. later this month. He will be missed, but is on to bigger, more presidential adventures no doubt.
Cons: The dining room, while comfortable, is reminiscent of a ballroom in size and lack of character. You may wish there is more variety, especially in the raw bar arena. On the day of our visit there was only one kind of Gulf Coast oyster on the half shell, and there was no caviar, which is reserved for special occasions only. (Caviar service, however, is served with smoked salmon -- a delightful alternative use.)
In case you are wondering: The Four Seasons is a newcomer, with its brunch launched just one year
ago. The service is on the ball. For example, when one leaves to fill another plate, don't be surprised if upon your return, a freshly-made, piping hot macchiato awaits you.
"There's nothing like the Four Seasons," beams Gilda Howell, who, with husband Mitchell, live in Ft. Lauderdale and make the trip down regularly when they're not traveling.
"The Biltmore is a close second, but this is the best brunch in town," boasts Mitchell. "Everything is a 10 if it's on this buffet. I mean, look at the size of these shrimp."
The Verdict: We would rather pay $75 for a smaller, edited selection of high quality treasures than for more than we need of slightly better than average with mere flashes of brilliance. We concur with the Howells, the Four Seasons Hotel Miami takes the crown! A victory parade of more images is below.
Four Seasons Hotel Miami
1435 Brickell Avenue
Sundays, 10 a.m. - 2 p.m.
1200 Anastasia Avenue