Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ladies Who Lunch: Not Quite Breakfast, Not Quite Lunch

It used to be that there was nothing finer than the ritual of Sunday Brunch.  A lazy Sunday morning doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, sipping a little coffee and then a leisurely stroll to meet up with friends at a favorite restaurant.  In my teens and early twenties, Sunday Brunch would be the gathering spot for all of my friends with as many as 15 of us at a table.  More likely than not, we had only just left each other around 4am after a night partying at Studio 54.  But that Sunday early afternoon meet up was an essential part of our social circle.
As I got older, Sunday Brunch was still an important part of the week, but it became confined to just a few close friends.  We would meet up and discuss our weeks and plan for the future week while noshing on traditional brunch fare.  For a while, Bubby’s in Tribeca became the preferred spot, my friend Janine always insisting on meeting there.  When John Jr. and Carolyn made it their spot, we continued to go despite the crowds.
Then, I started spending more time on the West Coast.  More specifically, in Orange County, CA.  Not having that tight circle of friends most certainly curtailed my brunch activity.  But even more so, the culture in the OC just doesn’t seem big on the whole brunch thing.  Quite honestly, I do not believe i have ever been to brunch here.  Sunday Brunch joined so many other things of my past that I look back on nostalgically and partake in only on visits back home to NY.  Until last weekend.
Having been invited to attend a gala dinner in Century City, I decided to spend the night in LA rather than driving back late at night after perhaps one too many glasses of wine at the after party.  Being in LA on Sunday, I decided to try out the Sunday Brunch at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills.  I had heard a lot of raves about it and not only wanted to have a brunch experience again, but also wanted to weigh in on their concept of brunch.

The Peninsula Hotel has an old world elegance about it with its cobblestone driveway leading into a serene and luxurious lobby.  We cut through the Club Room Bar, a wood paneled and gentlemen’s club decorated refuge, and made our way to The Belvedere where Sunday Brunch was being served.  The very friendly hostess led us past the dessert bar at the entrance and into a comfy beautifully set semicircular booth in the corner and a live jazz ensemble played in the background at just the right volume to set the mood.  The waiter brought the Brunch Menus, filled our champagne glasses with Piper Heidsieck and the adventure began.

The waiter explained the prix fixe brunch menu to us: the appetizers listed on the menu would all be served family style to us and we only had to make a selection for the main course.  Choices made, we relaxed with our champagne and nibbled on items in the wonderfully varied bread basket.  The atmosphere, like the rest of the hotel is very relaxing and luxuriously appointed, perfect for this Sunday Brunch experience.

The main appetizers arrived on a tray in four glass dishes with the two remaining appetizers being served in a porcelain serving dish or individually to each guest. I partook in the Heirloom Tomato Salad with fresh mozzarella, baby greens, basil and aged basalmic, a pleasant start to my meal.  I followed this with the “Macaroni and Cheese”, a concoction of elbow macaroni with Hen of the Woods mushrooms, summer truffles and parmesan.  Creamy and flavorful, the pasta was perfectly al dente and the mushrooms and truffles amazing.  I was glad that it was an appetizer portion, as I could have easily consumed mass amounts of it.  My partner in crime started with freshly carved Peking Duck wrapped in Moo Shoo with scallions, cucumbers and Hoi Sin. A chef was on duty at a carving station for the express purpose of making these appetizers and they were so good, my companion had seconds.  Next he moved on to an herb crusted Ahi Tuna with fennel, cucumbers, oranges and a champagne vinaigrette.  Then it was on to a salad of Smoked Salmon with watercress, red onions, cumin roasted potatoes with a dill aioli.  The combination of flavors in both salads highlighted the freshness of the fish and created a refreshing entrance for what was to come.

A nice pause between courses, accented by free flowing champagne, and then we were on to the main course.  My companion had the “Kobe Style” Flat Iron Steak with a Yukon Purée, Bloomsdale Spinach, Cipollini Onions, Asparagus and Cabernet Jus.  He proclaimed that this was perhaps one of the best steaks he had ever had, cooked to the perfect temperature and insanely tender.  The Cabernet Jus reduction was a flavorful pairing for the beef as were the accompanying vegetables.  This guy is a tough critic so I took note that he was so impressed.

My main course was a little bit more eclectic.  As there was not a vegetarian choice among the entrées listed, I got creative and pulled together different items to create my own.  I must say that I was impressed that the staff not only didn’t blink at my request, but were extremely accommodating.  I had the “Croque Madame” from the menu, sans the country ham and the organic eggs (in essence, a hamless Croque Monsieur) paired with the vegetable selection from  their chicken entrée.  My version of the Croque Madame was made with Fontina cheese on Truffled Brioche.  The truffled brioche was light, buttery and had that slight hint of sweetness you expect from brioche.  I wasn’t sure how brioche would be for a Croque Monsieur, but it toasted up beautifully and its delicateness highlighted the slightly sharp Fontina Cheese. The side that I had chosen was a tasty mélange of fingerling potatoes, artichoke hearts, morel mushrooms with grilled romaine and lavender. I had not had morels in a long time and this dish reminded me why I used to love them.

Finally it was time for the dessert bar.  To be honest, by that point I was completely stuffed, but I had to give it a try.  I took a small sampling from the copious and tempting offering, just to see if they tasted as good as they looked. Yes, they did. :) Meanwhile, throughout the meal, our champagne glasses were kept full and the staff was friendly and attentive.

While I won't always have the opportunity to do brunch these days, this experience made me vow to carry on the tradition whenever I am in a locale that supports a brunch scene.  After all, these are the things that make you pause and reflect on how beautiful life can be.

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