by Lauren McAllister

The atmosphere at the Davenport on a Sunday morning is so remarkably pleasant, it is worth savoring even if you don't have reservations for the hotel's over-the-top brunch. People stake out those big comfy sofas and chairs in the lobby, spread all the sections of the Sunday paper out on the ample coffee tables and sip mochas and lattes from the espresso bar. Contented travelers file through as they check out the elegant holiday decorations.

But behind the curtains in the Isabella Room, one of the region's most talked-about Sunday brunches is underway. Originally, a lot of the talk was about the robust price of $37 per person, which has since been reduced to $29.50. Even at that price, the brunch had still better be pretty impressive. Fortunately, it is.

The Isabella Room is one of the hotel's grand ballrooms, with impressive frieze-crown moldings. Round tables draped in white floor-length tablecloths were adorned with fresh roses.

The room is, however, overshadowed by the sheer size of the buffet-style spread along two walls, with a rotating three-foot ice sculpture as the centerpiece. This is a truly a cosmopolitan brunch, with something for everyone. The line begins with cheeses and salads, including a nice Caesar just like the one served in the Palm Court. There was a huge platter of choice fresh fruit, including flavorful strawberries and fresh blueberries, kiwi, melon, sweet ripe pineapple and grapes. This fruit was as perfect as you'd find on a midsummer morning and quite a treat at a time of year when the sun sets before 4 pm.

Next came several platters of beautifully prepared sushi, which definitely sets this brunch apart but would probably be more appealing for those arriving after noon.

The real eye-catcher in this region of the buffet was the cascade of prawns spilling out of a black bowl onto a river of ice embedded with bowls of cocktail sauce. These babies were some of the biggest prawns I have ever seen -- the kind you usually only get just three or four of in a spendy appetizer. Here were hundreds, all perfectly steamed and as sweet and tender as could be. We even spotted hotel owner Walt Worthy gathering up a plateful of these beauties.

A less eye-catching but no less wonderful bagel zone followed. A platter of luscious lox, herbed cream cheese and cream cheese rolled in crumbled walnuts accompanied chopped hard-boiled egg, capers and finely minced red onion. The combination on one of the mini-bagels was outstanding, with the only possible improvement being in the bagel itself. The cold, fine-textured mini bagels were a long way from the traditional chewy variety.

Next came a daunting array of pastries. I sampled a delicious coffeecake with lots of berries over a moist, rich cake. The croissants weren't anything special, but the tiny triangles of baklava were delicious.

Next stop was the omelet and crepe station, where two chefs in tall toques cooked to order. There were more than a dozen choices for filling omelets, from sausage, ham and crumbled bacon, to fresh tomatoes, green and red peppers, red onions, shiitake and regular mushrooms, and three kinds of cheese. This was a bit of a slow spot in the line, as only one omelet and one crepe could be cooked at a time, with each omelet taking about five minutes. Not a long time, unless two or three people are ahead of you. Tip: Eat some other selections and when the line dies down, be ready to pounce. I did enjoy my fluffy finished creation, especially with the shiitake mushrooms.

Crepes were much faster, as they were already prepared and just warmed in the pan, then rolled with your choice of fruit filings.

Next there were steam trays of various casseroles, including some yummy scalloped potatoes, poached salmon, beef stroganoff and a Mexican beef-and-rice dish. Finally, at the end of the line was the carving station, where roast beef was sliced and served with rolls. This last section would probably be more appealing for those who have had breakfast before coming to brunch. It's a little difficult to get excited about beef stroganoff before one has had orange juice and coffee.

Our server kept us well supplied with orange juice; other juices are also available. The only hitch in the service related to coffee, which is served out of pretty silver pots. However, there was a lengthy delay in getting our cream and sugar, which left me with a full cup of cold coffee. Perhaps a carafe of coffee and cream and sugar on each table would solve this problem. Otherwise service was delightful, with our server encouraging us to go through the line "at least six times."

It would be hard to come up with a more sumptuous spread than the brunch at the Davenport. With sunshine streaming in the south-facing windows, the atmosphere was warm and elegantly comfortable. A truly wonderful way to begin the week.

Our Legacy: Our Voice, Our Action, Our Power

Thu., Sept. 24, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
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