- Rand Carlson
Okay, I'll 'fess up: There are any number of things that I would rather do -- herd tarantulas, say, or play the back nine during a thunderstorm -- than visit a Sunday brunch buffet. From bland steam-table food to careless service, brunch buffets just aren't my cup of tea. Apparently, however, this prejudice is far from universal: Vast numbers of Northeast Ohioans flock to the buffet tables each weekend, marking anniversaries, celebrating Grandma's birthday, or just trying to shake off the Sunday blahs. For these honest souls, then, who want nothing more than some decent food in a clean and friendly setting, we present a snapshot of three popular brunch destinations. Besides the "serve-yourself" motif, all three venues share one other salient feature -- a striking waterfront location. Hey, at least the view is fine.
Even on a cloudy day, the dining room at Pier W is filled with shimmering light reflected off Lake Erie. The ship-shaped restaurant, protruding from rocky cliffs that line the shore a few miles west of downtown, has one of the most spectacular views of Cleveland you are likely to find. From this distance, the grim realities of life in the city are invisible. Instead, the surprisingly symmetrical skyline sparkles like a crown of jewels, and structures like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Great Lakes Science Center, and both Cleveland Browns Stadium and Jacobs Field are clearly visible gems.
The Sunday buffet spread wasn't too shabby, either, with nearly 40 different dishes ranging from individual-serving-sized boxes of Sugar Pops to a peppery, rosemary-scented bouillabaisse-type soup, filled with mussels, chunks of fresh fish, carrots, and onions. Still, for a restaurant that specializes in seafood, we were surprised to find so few fruits of the sea. Besides the bouillabaisse, there was thick corn-and-potato chowder with a smattering of tender clams; whole smoked Atlantic salmon with chopped egg, red onion, tomato, capers, and a zesty dill sauce; and a pot of delicious steamed mussels. But a rice-and-seafood Newburg, with lots of creamy sauce and a few bits of fish and scallops, was way too light on the seafood. Also unimpressive was the breaded scrod, which had a pleasantly crunchy coating outside but was bland and undistinguished within.
Noteworthy non-seafood selections included buttery cheddar-and-potato pierogi with sautéed onions and sour cream; delicate cheese blintzes; and freshly made Belgian waffles with a choice of whipped cream, maple syrup, sliced bananas, and cherry, blueberry, and strawberry toppings.
Standards like scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage links, made-to-order omelets, and Eggs Benedict -- a poached egg and a slice of Canadian bacon on a toasted English muffin, topped with a passable Hollandaise sauce -- offered no surprises. Very rare, chef-sliced roast beef was flavorful but tough; the carved ham was a better choice.
Dessert selections included goblets of chocolate and vanilla pudding, chocolate mousse, three different tortes, and a collection of tiny layered pastries, as well as a rich, boozy bread pudding that was delightful with scoops of vanilla ice cream from a nearby bowl.
Service was neglectful. Slow to remove soiled plates, our waitress had to be flagged down for coffee and water refills, and she never bothered to replace soiled flatware. (We were eventually reduced to trying to eat our ice cream with a fork.) Overall cleanliness was an issue, too. Piles of crumbs littered the floor, and when I casually rested my arm on a railing, my sleeve stuck to it. The linens surrounding the buffet area were splattered with dribs and drabs of spilled food, and more than one busboy sailed by in a white jacket covered with so many multicolored stains that he looked like a survivor of the Texas chainsaw massacre.
The final blow came when our server charged us full price for the 12-year-old in our party, even though we had been told twice on the phone that kids 12 and under got a price break. Nope, our waitress insisted, the cutoff point was 11 and under, and that was that.
Summary: The food's not bad, but cleanliness and service must catch up with the view before this brunch buffet will be a winner.
On the waterfront
Like its neighbor to the west, Hornblower's Barge and Grill (a 19th-century barge permanently anchored between the East Ninth Street Pier and Burke Lakefront Airport) has a remarkable if significantly more gritty view of the waterfront. It was easy to recall the city's history from here, with the Steamship William G. Mather off our port side, the airport to starboard, and the World War II submarine U.S.S. Cod off the stern. Yet just beyond them, the Rock Hall, the Science Center, and looming office towers appeared as gleaming portents of the future.
On this sunny Sunday, much of the out-to-brunch bunch was shoveling it in and then shoving off to an early-afternoon Cavs game, and no one seemed too troubled by the odd selections placed before them. But if "Sunday brunch" had indeed been code for "time to clean out the coolers," some of the combos -- say, a hot dish with mushy lumps of what appeared to be broken lasagna noodles mixed with bouncy meatballs, sugar-snap peas, and carrots in a sweet tomato sauce -- could scarcely have been stranger.
Not everything was so, uh . . . unique, however. The usual scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage were perfectly average. Large-diced home fries, with bits of red and green pepper, were crisp and well-seasoned. Made-to-order omelets, with a choice of ham, green pepper, green onions, cheese, jalapeños, mushrooms, and tomato, were deftly tossed together and flavorful. A non-standard take on Eggs Benedict, made with spinach in place of meat, was a success, and notably small portions of chef-sliced roast beef and ham were tender and tasty.
Desserts were basic but not especially appealing. A big tray of grocery-store bakeshop-type cookies was the centerpiece, along with bowls of orange Jell-O, soggy mini-cream-puffs, and individual servings of a trifle-like creation, with what seemed to be whipped topping, chocolate cake, and chocolate cookie crumbs stirred together and topped with canned cherry and blueberry pie filling.
Our server was friendly and quick to remove used plates, but otherwise inattentive. When she asked if we wanted more coffee, she was apparently just taking a survey, since she never actually returned with any. Clean flatware and coffee cream were the stuff of dreams. And once again, although we had been told when we made reservations that children 12 and under eat for a reduced price, the story changed when it came time to pay up, and we were charged full price for our 12-year-old.
Summary: Even considering its striking view and relatively modest price, brunch here is unlikely to satisfy those looking for an assortment of truly good food.
Hornblower's Barge and Grill.
1151 North Marginal Road.
Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Adults, $12.95; children 5-12, $6.25.
A river runs through it
Perched on the steep banks of the Cuyahoga River as it tumbles through churning rapids, the RiverFront Restaurant is as elegant a setting for Sunday brunch as one could hope for. Beyond the lovely view, the split-level dining space is decked out in buttery yellow linens, bouquets of fresh and silk flowers, and carved-pine armchairs. A pianist strokes the keys of a sleek baby grand. Smiling servers float by with never-ending beverage refills. Used plates are whisked away and soiled flatware is magically replaced by the time one returns from the buffet tables, which themselves are decorated with ice sculptures, fountains, and ornately carved fruits and vegetables.
Among the more interesting food selections on a recent Sunday were warm New England spoon bread -- similar to a moist bread pudding sauced with thick Albemarle-honey cream -- and rectangles of firm egg-ham-and-cheese kugel that, unfortunately, were beginning to suffer a bit from their stint on the steam table.
Both scrambled eggs and omelets were cooked to order, as were the moist, light Belgian waffles served with a choice of maple syrup, whipped cream, or freshly sliced strawberries. Thick oatmeal, yogurt, granola bars, whole fresh fruits, skewered fruit "kebabs," muffins, and packaged cereals were just right for the younger set. Hickory smoked bacon, links of mild country sausage, and Eggs Benedict with an outstandingly light, dill-accented Hollandaise sauce were all above average. Generous slices of hand-carved rare roast beef almost melted in our mouths and were especially tasty with savory horseradish-cream sauce on the side.
Other upscale steam-table fare included grilled medallions of toothsome rib-eye steak in a lemony sauce, a solid Shrimp Dijon (small shrimp with a medley of diced carrots, beans, and summer squash in a light cream sauce), and penne tossed with roasted onions, eggplant, and peppers in a mellow tomato sauce.
A separate seafood table included velvety slices of Nova Scotia lox, surrounded by artfully arranged garnishes. Salty, intensely flavorful scarlet and jet caviar was served with fresh lemon wedges and an assortment of crackers. A large bowl overflowed with medium-sized cocktail shrimp, and a small display of sushi, with sliced ginger and wasabi, waited nearby. (Although the sushi smelled fresh, its construction was ungainly, so we passed.)
Bowls of leafy greens and fixings, including shredded cheeses, slices of pepperoni, and loaves of crusty breads filled one table, and desserts -- a truly impressive selection of multilayered tortes, miniature tarts, carrot cake, and goblets of chocolate mousse with whipped cream -- shared another.
And lo and behold, we were charged the quoted, reduced price for our 12-year-old.
RiverFront Restaurant at the Sheraton Suites.
1989 Front Street, Cuyahoga Falls.
Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Adults, $18.95; children 3-12, $9.95.
Summary: Within the limitations of buffet dining, it's hard to imagine how a spread could be much better or a view more beautiful than this.