There is something slightly self-indulgent about Sunday brunch to begin with: that between-hours meal that accommodates pillow-hugging late risers as well as their more energetic up-and-at-'em brethren. Served forth in a sweetly cultured setting, its charms only increase. And when it's paired with an opportunity to contemplate beautiful things, our sense of being pampered is complete.
An Oasis of Style
Have a taste for the exquisite? Where better to satisfy it than at the renowned Cleveland Museum of Art? Of course, cultural feasting -- admiring a Jackson Pollock, sighing over Faberg´ objets d'art, or ogling a knight in shining armor, say -- can work up a hunger of a baser sort: one that cries out for tidbits like smoked mussels, fresh blackberries, and precious little scones. Luckily for us artsy types, the Oasis Room, on the museum's lower floor, serves all that and more at its elegant Sunday brunch buffet.
Its patrons -- learned members of the nearby university community, aspiring artists, and assorted culture vultures, as well as couples and families -- are a handsome lot, well dressed and with an intellectual gleam in their eyes. They take their seats at white-clothed tables set with fresh flowers and gold-and-platinum-banded china, in a daylight-filled faux-painted room with an exotic "view" of a distant sea. Generally prompt and efficient (if not uniformly cheerful) servers pour endless cups of coffee, fetch hot water for tea, or bring refreshing juices while directing brunchers to the nearby buffet room.
Here, in a tranquil terra-cotta-colored space made to resemble a garden courtyard, a more-than-adequate selection of dainties awaits, all tastefully arranged on double-clothed tables that are kept neat and well organized. From the right beckons the smoked seafood (mussels, scallops, trout, and salmon), as well as a bowl of peel-and-eat shrimp. On the left is a multileveled cornucopia of breads (cinnamon rolls, sugared doughnuts, crusty buns, brown breads, and those darling cranberry-studded scones on this day), fruits (grapes, melon, pineapple, and berries), cheeses (Brie, Cambozola, and smoked Gouda, to mention a few), and desserts (most notably this morning, carrot cake, brownies, and tiny pecan tarts). Then there is the line of silver chafing dishes holding well-prepared versions of items such as eggplant Parmesan, rice pilaf, paprikash and spaetzel, balsamic-kissed grilled asparagus, and lemon-pepper fettuccine tossed with seafood and summer squash. At the end of the room, a staffer carves thick slices of prime rib; nearby, another deftly assembles made-to-order omelets and bakes fragrant malted vanilla waffles -- perfect paired with lean slices of baked brown-sugar-and-pecan-rubbed bacon. No matter how often we cruise around the room, we simply can't manage to sample everything. But everything we try is good, and some things -- like the waffles, omelets, and fettuccine -- are very good.
Among our niggling complaints: Although our server reliably removes our empty plates before we return with full ones, we are expected to use our original flatware for the entire meal, from that pungent smoked salmon all the way through the chocolate espresso torte. We are also surprised to find that, while some tables are set with butter, salt, and pepper, others (including our own) are not; and it takes more than a few minutes to flag down a server to secure some.
But such minor annoyances fade as we wander the museum's spacious galleries, treasure troves of more than 40,000 works of art ranging across 5,000 years of history. After looking at all that beauty, how can we resist the well-stocked museum store -- full of jewelry, books, prints, stationery, toys, games, and sculptures -- where we search for some lovely little trinket to call our very own? A pair of Helios-faced earrings, perchance, or cappuccino cups in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright? The cravings of the belly can be easily assuaged at the Cleveland Museum of Art; the desires of the soul take a little more time.
Brunch by the Book
It's probably those vibrant yellow walls, split by soaring Palladian windows and expansive white woodwork, but it always seems bright and sunny at Brontë, the full-service bistro in Joseph-Beth Booksellers.
On Sundays, the colorful, contemporary corner room -- with its tan and cobalt ceilings, faux-granite tabletops, and jewel-toned upholstery -- seems to blossom with energy. Young families, older couples, and various friendly groupings chat, read newspapers, and study the menu's wide assortment of brunch offerings, ranging from quiche, eggs Benedict, and frittatas to salads, chops, and the ubiquitous hamburger. Meantime, classical music ebbs and flows in the background.
Both prices and portion sizes are fairly modest here, with an $11.95 roasted pork chop -- well seasoned with salt, pepper, and a maple-apple glaze and sided with tasty new potatoes and a portion of savory bacon-studded braised red cabbage -- being the most expensive and substantial item on the menu. Preparation generally appears attentive, flavor quotients are high, and ingredients are fresh. French toast, made from a buttery split croissant, is touched with cinnamon and stuffed with fresh fruit, and comes with a little pitcher of real maple syrup and a pot of tangy crème frâiche; on the side is Red Bliss potato "hash," a summery-tasting salad spiked with crunchy bits of celery, carrots, and dill. Sweet melon and juicy red grapes are temptingly arranged in a sturdy white fruit cup; their companions, snowy poached eggs, perched on slabs of toasted focaccia and layered with thinly sliced prosciutto and a golden tomato-flecked hollandaise, are sunny and bright. In fact, the only false note at our pretty table is the flimsy flatware -- so thin and meager that it collapses when we press it into service against our pork chop!
In addition to the dining room, Brontë incorporates a separate caf´, with a few tables, cushy upholstered armchairs, and a counter surrounded by tall stools. Choices here include a variety of coffee and espresso drinks as well as comely muffins, tortes, scones, cookies, and pastries. Too bad, we think, that these items aren't also listed on the dining-room menu. It wouldn't have taken much arm-twisting to get us to order a frothy cappuccino or a slice of flourless chocolate cake after our meal, had we been reminded; however, rather than tempting us with sweets, our server slaps down our bill and sends us on our way.
Of course, that's not all bad: The browsing in the rest of the enormous bookstore is first-rate. Besides carrying more than 120,000 titles, the store offers seasonal gift, card, and stationery selections; gourmet chocolates; handsome luggage and travel accessories; imported pottery and dishes; classical and orchestral CDs; and a large selection of aromatic lotions, potions, soaps, salts, and balms. And if that isn't enough to sate the inner consumer, the shops of the newly renovated Shaker Square are just a short stroll away, with the Wild Oats Community Market and Betsy Ann Chocolates (don't miss the buttery Paras Truffles) of special interest to dedicated foodies.