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BEST OF SUMMER / RESTAURANTS

Let's Do Brunch

June 01, 1997|S. Irene Virbila

It's Sunday morning. you could stay in bed till noon, reading the paper and doing the crossword puzzle. Or you could head to Santa Barbara for a lavish brunch at the Four Seasons Biltmore. Sloth or gluttony? The choice is simple. Especially when you consider that the luxury hotel sits just across from the beach and has an outdoor terrace and a lovely Victorian-style garden room filled with potted plants and gorgeous natural light.

The very word brunch, which coyly combines breakfast and lunch, conjures visions of a leisurely meal presented in splendid surroundings. Here, it certainly is. Food is laid out in two rooms behind the more formal La Marina dining room, where sprays of orchids grace every table and the Pacific Ocean glitters in the distance. It's quite a display--as well it should be at these prices.

A good brunch offers many choices, so the best strategy is to pace yourself. Start slowly with a coffee or cappuccino and maybe a juice. On my most recent visit, the orange juice lacks that fresh-squeezed vibrancy. It's billed as freshly squeezed but tastes more like it was made hours ago. The sparkling wine the waiter offers to pour--on its own or in a mimosa--is pretty decent; it's a Paul Chamblain blanc de blancs from France, though not from Champagne.

Now sit back and watch those plates people carry away from the buffet. Some pile it high with everything that will fit. Others feast in discrete courses.

A lucky few like only two things and concentrate on those. The crowd is a giddy mix of Santa Barbarans, tourists, honey-mooners and brunch addicts. At one table, a small girl in ruffled dress and Mary Janes belts out "Happy Birthday" to her grandpa. Another little girl in fancy dress negotiates three rooms, sans plate, two link sausages in her hands. Her mother shrieks as she approaches the table.

What to eat first? That is the question. I start with the seafood bar, an ice bank covered with raw oysters (though they could be a bit colder) and firm, coral-streaked boiled shrimp. One gentlemen eating only shrimp spends the morning absorbed in digging every last morsel out of the tails. Such discipline is awesome in light of all there is to choose from.

While I wait for my spinach and mushroom omelet to cook, a marimba, bass and drum trio plays a lilting rumba. I hear a father say to his 10-year-old son: "Here's the omelet station. I know you're not an egg person, but it's a possibility . . ." Instead of staying to watch the cook flip fluffy omelets in the air, the kid makes a bee-line for dessert. Eggs Benedict are excellent, made with perfectly poached eggs, flavorful ham browned on the griddle and a gossamer hollandaise sauce. Pass on the dull and greasy corned beef hash and bacon.

I keep an eye out for the wild mushroom station that was so beguiling on a previous visit, but it is missing from this particular brunch setup. Oh, well, you can fill up on bagels with smoked salmon, cream cheese and all the fixings. Or make yourself a fruit salad, and load up on the pate and cheese.

The one table to avoid is the one laden with dim sum and other Chinese specialties. To begin with, they are pallid versions every one. And since the dumplings steam vigorously until someone comes along to take them, they cook to a gummy paste. It's just a bad idea all round.

If you dally long enough over the breakfast items, you just might be able to count one more pass through the buffet line as lunch. After the wild mushrooms, the roasted-meat station is my favorite because you can get thick slabs of moist, smoky country ham, roast turkey or rosy roast beef carved to order and served with a creamy horseradish sauce.

The Biltmore provides a children's section with plates of neatly trimmed peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and, concealed beneath silver domes, tiny chicken drumettes, fish sticks, macaroni and cheese--and French fries.

You can also turn the little darlings loose on the desserts, presented here in miniature: excellent two-bite eclairs, melt-away bars, cookies and cheesecake and surprisingly good and comforting sweets such as bread pudding.

Me, I'd rather have one of the thin, freckled crepes warmed in butter and a dash of rum, wrapped around sauteed apples, blackberries or strawberries. After trying all three, I can say the apple is the best but on the sweet side.

The down side to brunch is eating much more than you intend. One of my guests keeps a running tally of how many hours he'll have to spend on the treadmill to work off the calories he's consumed. It isn't a pretty picture. Fortunately, the beach is close by. We can walk down the Biltmore's driveway, cross the street, kick off our shoes and walk until we've redeemed ourselves just a little.

Four Seasons Biltmore, 1260 Channel Drive, Santa Barbara; (805) 969-2261. Brunch 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday. $39.50 per person, including Champagne; $16 for kids. Valet parking.

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