Although we maintain that no kitchen shows itself to best advantage with mass-produced fare set out on a buffet line, the days when Sunday brunch meant a $5.95 spread of congealed eggs and stale danishes are fading away. Today's brunch is more likely to include a wide selection of well-prepared dishes served in a handsome setting, possibly with live entertainment to boot. Diners pay more for the pleasure, but when everything goes right, they get an unparalleled treat in return. Here, then, is a look at what you may find at two enticing destinations, one in the heart of the city, the other in the countryside. (Menu items are subject to change.)
Living Large at the Ritz
Not that we're ever eager to roll out of bed on a Sunday, but the indulgent spread at Century, in the downtown Ritz-Carlton, makes the effort seem worthwhile. Of course, luxury comes at a cost. The Century tab is listed as $28 per person; however, be aware that the cost of beverages is not included in this already princely sum. In fact, plan to add another $5 to the bill if you choose to order freshly squeezed orange juice and French press coffee. Then again, the price also includes live entertainment and a selection of mouthwatering sushi.
But where the Century really excelled on a recent visit was in the variety of its brunch offerings and their extraordinary quality. Have a taste for fresh berries? Century had them by the bushel -- dewy blackberries, bigger than the tip of a big man's thumb, with a freshness that took us straight back to the berry fields of our childhood . . . crisp blueberries, so moist and sweet, they were like fruit-flavored candies . . . fragrant red raspberries, as good as any we've picked on a warm July morning.
How about shrimp? Enormous, succulent epiphanies, these, poached in white wine and herbs, and so extraordinary, our eyes widened in delight. Crab claws? Big, cool, and buttery. Plump sea-scented oysters on the half-shell? Like a trip to the shore.
Roasted potatoes, whole baby carrots, scrambled eggs, thickly sliced applewood-smoked bacon, and made-to-order omelets, yes. But also rich Eggs Benedict, pillowy slices of berry-sprinkled French toast, a top-notch cheese platter with Gruyère, Port Salut, and Boursin, and an array of smoked fish including salmon, mackerel, whitefish, and fat little mussels.
Then there were salads -- mixed greens, tossed vegetables, and a batch of savory marinated olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and peppers. And at a nearby station, a solemn chef carved handsome roasts of beef and pork.
For the final touch, there was a spectacular dessert display, ranging from glazed pear tarts to warm bread pudding; trembling flan to tiny pumpkin pies topped with whipped cream; homey apple crisp to pecan tarts finished with piped rosettes of chocolate ganache and a ribbon of candied orange peel, all made in-house and handsomely arranged on a series of immaculately clean, high-topped tables overlooking the Tower City promenade.
Despite the sophisticated food and ambiance, however, service occasionally fell short of our expectations for the Ritz. Used plates lingered longer than they should have. Soiled flatware was removed, but seldom replaced. And it seemed to take forever for our unfailingly polite but distracted server to finally present the bill. When it eventually arrived, it was a hefty one. But Century's pizzazz factor made it seem worth every penny.
Sunday Drive Time
While the landscape of this increasingly developed section of Portage County is no longer entirely pastoral, nature still seems appealingly close in Aurora. And the handsome Bertram Inn, with its clapboard siding and fieldstone trim, is well suited to its countrified surroundings. But if the setting still maintains a certain rusticity, there is nothing coarse about the hotel's up-to-date interior, with its airy lobby and sophisticated dining spaces. The Sunday brunch production, available only from September through Mother's Day, is mounted in the lounge, immediately adjacent to the inn's fine-dining restaurant, Leopard. Here, a sleek wooden floor, colorful halogen pendant lamps, and black-and-ivory table linens make a thoroughly contemporary statement, while even on a gloomy day, floor-to-ceiling windows flood the room with natural light.
The fragrance of hot Belgian waffles -- at least an inch thick, and baking to a golden brown -- grabbed our attention even before we took our seats, and once our orange juice arrived, we made a beeline in their direction, bypassing the salad bar and the selection of hot entrées. As it turned out, though, we had more than enough time to contemplate our other mealtime options once we got into line: With only one person in charge of the waffle irons, the omelet pans, and the carving station, it took us nearly 15 minutes to snag a waffle and a well-stuffed omelet of our own. To avoid having to queue up again, we also had the chef throw on a thick slice of succulent herb-encrusted roast strip loin.
While the waffle, slathered with butter and real maple syrup (or, even better, whipped cream and fruit compote), was all that we had hoped for, there were more delays in store. When we finally got around to investigating the contents of the silver chafing dishes, nearly every one of them was temporarily empty. It took about five minutes for the staff to restock them with the usual sausage links and bacon, as well as a collection of tasty dishes -- quiche, roasted chicken, cranberry-studded wild-and-short-grain rice, bouillabaisse, carrots and green beans, and firm tri-colored tortellini with black olives and a basil-scented pesto sauce -- that almost justified the wait.
The nearby salad station offered fresh watermelon, cantaloupe, and grapes; smoked oysters; an ample cheese platter with slender breadsticks and assorted nuts; grilled-chicken salad with grapes and pecans; and a savory cold-beef-and-pepper salad. But alas, although the salads were laid out on the sushi bar and we had been told that sushi is often a featured item, we searched for it in vain on this particular day. Equally disappointing, we saw an empty ice bowl that once had been filled with shrimp replaced with a good, if infinitely less luxurious, bowl of pasta salad.
Even though only about half the tables were full and we had arrived three hours before closing time, it seemed clear that the kitchen was having trouble keeping up with demand. The final blow came as we approached the end of the meal. "They just put out some good-looking desserts," our waitress confided, motioning toward a sparkling lineup of martini glasses heaped with tiramisu and wine goblets full of berry-and-shaved-chocolate-topped custard. "But there are only a few of them. You ought to get over there and grab one while you can."
Staffers say the brunch turnout was unusually large on the day of our visit, with lots of guests stopping by without reservations. This undoubtedly helps explain the rough spots, which should be fairly easy for management to address. Once the supply-versus-demand issue has been successfully resolved, brunch at the Bertram is likely to become a pleasant diversion, especially considering the good quality of its food, its staff of friendly servers, and the attractive decor. And the ride into the country might turn out to be just the ticket for lifting those post-holiday blues.
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