Thanks a Brunch, Mom!

Psst -- Mother's Day is May 9. Don't wait to call for reservations.

Ritz rewards: If you've been good, after brunch you can - have one of these. - Walter  Novak
Ritz rewards: If you've been good, after brunch you can have one of these.
C'mon, you guys. Mom gave you life, sustenance, and boundless love. And in return, what have you given her, besides facial tics, crow's-feet, and a hard time?

Now that you're old enough to have some perspective on the inequality of it all, face it: There is nothing you can do for Mom -- on Mother's Day, or any other day, for that matter -- to show your thanks that would be good enough. (Of course, if you've got the big bucks, please feel free to take a stab at it. We hear Cancun is still lovely this time of year. And Tiffany's does have a website.)

But for the Average Joe or Josie, the token of your esteem will necessarily be less grand -- somewhere between a stay on the French Riviera, say, and that gruesome breakfast-in-bed fiasco that blew up, quite literally, in Mom's face. (By the way, we hardly even notice the scars anymore. Really.)

Which is about the point where a fabulously upscale Sunday-brunch buffet seems to fit right in. Do not even think about taking Mom to one of those folksy-fakey, down-home buffet chains for a special treat: She deserves sooo much better than crumb-topped casseroles and soft-serve. But do consider brunch at either the Ritz-Carlton or InterContinental hotels, elegant bastions of marble and linen, where delicacies such as sushi, shrimp, and chocolate mousse abound, and gracious staffers will bend over backward to make Mom feel special -- which, as it happens, is more than she can say about you.

We recently completed some Sunday-afternoon snooping to scope out both locations. However, if you plan to take Mom out for Mothers' Day, be aware that buffet hours, selections, and prices are subject to change. Here's our report.

Puttin' on the Ritz
Century at the Ritz-Carlton
$45/adult; $24 for children 12 and younger
$5 valet parking
All Mom wants to know before she shuffles off to her final reward is that you can stand on your own two feet. So take her to the Century restaurant, at the downtown Ritz-Carlton, and she will realize that you can not only stand, but jump, skip, and cha-cha, too. Her epiphany will arrive somewhere between the time the uniformed doorman throws open the high, gilded portals and the time you start peeling off the dead presidents -- and lots of them -- to settle up the bill. But if you aren't willing to treat Mom to the most expensive Sunday brunch in town, what kind of a kid are you, anyway?

For your money, you will gain admission to one of the city's most beautiful dining rooms, a sophisticated sanctuary that channels the Golden Age of Downtown Dining. The 150-seat restaurant takes its name and decorative theme from the Twentieth Century Limited, the deluxe New York Central train that provided the fastest and most elegant Chicago-to-New York rail service available during the early years of the 20th century. For accessories, architects raided the old Terminal Tower's basement treasure troves to rescue and recycle gorgeous art-deco grillwork, lighting fixtures, and the terminal's original train schedule. Meanwhile, decorators filled the meandering space with moderne metal finishes, slick inlaid marble floors, and golden wood paneling. Gently vaulted ceilings, lots of plush draperies, and recessed spotlighting lend an excitingly theatrical feel to the lively environment.

The luxurious Sunday buffet is set up just outside the dining room, in the area that usually serves as the sushi bar. There are no gravy-blanketed "mystery meats" here. Rather, hot entrées may include such dishes as red snapper with pistachio brown rice, asparagus, and beurre blanc, or sliced chicken breast on creamy polenta, with spicy tomato sauce and a topknot of slim golden onion rings.

Staples such as freshly made omelets and Belgian waffles, and carved-to-order roast beef, are joined by a crêpe station, a colorful collection of fresh fruits and berries, and a small but delicious collection of thickly sliced sushi (including Spider Rolls, crab-salad rolls, California rolls, and smoked-salmon-and-avocado rolls, on the day we visited). There's a small raw bar, with chilled shrimp, crab claws, and briny, ice-cold oysters on the half shell. And the impressive dessert buffet, stocked with pretty-as-a-picture individual cheesecakes, chocolate bombes, ganache tarts, opera tortes, and crèmes brûlées, sparkles almost as seductively as the jewelry cases at Bailey, Banks & Biddle.

The Price Is Right
North Coast Café at the InterContinental
$28/adult; $14 for children 12 and younger
Free valet parking
On the other hand, Mom might be relieved to learn that you know how to snare a great deal. In this case, your cause will be well served by treating her to the more moderately priced brunch at the new InterContinental Hotel on the Cleveland Clinic campus.

Although service is flawlessly gracious (perhaps even more so than at the Ritz), and the sumptuous buffet, spread out in the handsome, marble-lined lobby (complete with double-sided fireplace, overstuffed sofas, and a pianist playing show tunes on the black baby grand), is meticulously maintained, it must be said that the actual dining space, inside the North Coast Café, is considerably less exquisite than Century's. It's bright and comfortable enough, appointed with faux snakeskin placemats, fresh flowers, and thick linen napkins. But despite the crisp jade-and-brick color scheme and brightly painted murals of the city's skyline, there is an impersonal quality to the space that seems to whisper "hotel coffee shop."

Still, the buffet is first-rate, with options that seem designed to satisfy every member of the family. First off, the grown-ups can begin their meal with a complimentary Mimosa. (A lesser version of the same orange juice and champagne cocktail cost us $8.50 at Century!) Then it's on to the usual lineup of scrambled eggs, bacon, pork sausage, french toast, and muffins, augmented by such refined hot entrées as veal tenderloin with porcini sauce, grilled seafood with saffron, and prime rib au jus. Weight-watching teen-aged daughters have options, too, in items like low-fat yogurt, packaged granola and mueslix, and turkey sausage. And everyone, including the family's vegetarians, can feast on fresh fruits and berries, lush grilled veggies, out-of-the-ordinary salads (including tossed-to-order Caesars), and a much-better-than-expected pasta bar, featuring angel hair, gnocchi, fettuccini, tortellini, and ravioli, topped with sauces piqued, à la minute, with your choice of such goodies as sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, fresh spinach, smoked chicken, or prosciutto.

For the sweet tooth, the dessert table is loaded with temptation, including cloud-like chocolate and vanilla mousses, German-chocolate cakes, tiramisu, chocolate tarts filled with vanilla custard and gem-like bits of fruit, and pillowy bread pudding, served with pots of crème Anglaise.

And Mom is apt to be especially appreciative of the kids' buffet -- a knee-high, white-linen-draped table, sprinkled with M&Ms and stocked with hot dogs, mac 'n' cheese, pretzels, potato chips, orange jello, brownies, and more. It's a clever way to keep the youngsters occupied while their elders feast on shrimp, smoked salmon, and carpaccio. Better still, Mom knows it's just the ticket for introducing the next generation of gourmets to the pleasures of taking her out to eat.