Beating the Buffet Blues

In summertime, a Houstonian's fancy does not turn comfortably to thoughts of a Sunday brunch buffet. That ritual American excuse for shameless self-indulgence is suited to brisker weather -- unless you happen to be talking about the buffet at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, where the cold seafood table constitutes a balm, a restorative, a reason to spring for 32 bucks.

The mere thought of chef Todd Rogers' impeccable pecan-wood-smoked salmon is enough to get me out of bed and into something presentable. (Sundays may be dressed down, but it is the Ritz and there are appearances to keep up.) In the hotel's manicured driveway, Mercedes Benzes sparkle in the noonday sun. Yet polite, preppy valets act exactly as if they are glad to see me and my elderly Isuzu. Through pale marble halls, past towering tropical flower arrangements, the sense of reality in suspension gathers: this is Ritz World, where life has the cool, glossy perfection of a vignette in a shelter magazine, and every man who can pay the freight is a king.

At the restaurant door stands dining-room manager Will Creighton. Devoid of the hauteur flaunted by Dallas maitre d's, he is a fitting guardian of these Houston gates. With a dry one-liner and a droll arch of the eyebrow, he leads the way into a plush, dreamily lit cocoon where ice sculptures gleam and drip. Cole Porterish piano music trips from the corner in which Marshall Maxwell holds forth, sporting keyboard-patterned suspenders. Champagne buckets sweat discreetly. Conversation murmurs low ... Italian, Spanish, twangy River Oaks. Outside the high, arched windows of the adjoining Garden Room, Houston's bright subtropical landscape throbs, safely at bay. Summer without tears.

Fine, fresh orange juice arrives. Sunday-buffet champagne, no better or worse than it should be, cascades unceasingly into tall flutes. Wise guests will combine the two, the virtues of one concealing the deficiencies of the other. Time for a battle plan, lest you succumb to the gluttonous temptations posed by the all-you-can-eat ethic. My advice is simple: case the buffet tables at the room's perimeter if you must -- the hot entrees reposing under their bulging, silvery, chafing-dish domes; the haunches of lamb and beef; the omelet-and-waffle man's station -- then proceed directly to the cold seafood spread, where nirvana glistens on ice and silver trays.

There, pink and satiny, lies the chef's sumptuous house-smoked salmon, not one iota too salty. Having secured enough, it's all too easy to go slightly berserk. Feeling conservative? Postmodern? Schizoid? You're in the right place. Next to the sacred shellfish without which no Houston buffet would be complete (pristine jumbo shrimp; fat Alaskan crab claws), a surprisingly serious sushi display unfolds, complete with cool pickled ginger and kick-in-the-head wasabi horseradish. Two varieties of tuna, rosy and rosier, perch on rafts of sticky rice; glazed, smoked fish and kaleidoscopic vegetable rolls wrapped in seaweed beg to be sampled.

Oysters on the half shell, so out of fashion in these cautious times, beckon the devil-may-care; the bivalves are the diminutive kind that always seem to taste better than the behemoths. Need a status fix? Three species of domestic caviar wait to be spooned into miniature buckwheat blini; briny and unctuous, both golden and black versions are more than respectable. Better have some more -- and a lustrous sheet of that wafer-thin tuna carpaccio, anointed with sharp mustard-seed oil and cracked pepper, for good measure.

Two or three pilgrimages to this oceanic shrine could send me home happy. Bit that would mean passing up the tiny, raised Belgian waffles with gorgeous fresh raspberries and cream. Or the perfect small Danish pastries centered with creamy cheese and an unexpected garnish of coconut. Or the splendid leg of lamb, roasted so that there are actually rare sections to be had, and served up not with the inescapable mint jelly, but with a refreshing relish of dried apricots and cilantro.

The lamb -- or even that hallowed buffet staple, prime rib of beef -- is more predictable than the hot entrees that lurk beneath the Ritz's silvery domes. Such is the universal law of Sunday buffets, where cooked dishes invariably languish and shrivel as the afternoon ages. Runny poached-egg yolks solidify; noodles desiccate at the edges; sauces thicken and ultimately congeal as the chafing dishes chafe on. A friend of mine insists that he once encountered a buffet at which the entrees were as good as everything else, a claim I equate with a Loch Ness monster sighting. (For the record, it was at the Laguna Niguel Ritz-Carlton, where O.J. and Nicole had a famous quarrel and where Nicole's father operates a Hertz franchise.)

Buffet entropy is no stranger to Houston's Ritz. On a recent Sunday, beef medallions looked gray and forbidding in their peppercorn sauce. Amid cloyingly honeyed rice nestled an unidentifiable piece of meat that was later revealed, on the day's posted bill of fare, to be "roasted young duck breast." Opulent little spinach ravioli with sun-dried tomatoes had withered away in their gorgonzola cream.

Not that the hot entrees are a lost cause. One afternoon this spring the buffet yielded comforting Hungarian goulash with rib-bony egg noodles in good condition and a vividly Southwesternized chicken with black beans that lived up to the dining room's day-in, day-out reputation. Inevitably, the earlier you arrive, the better your odds. The always-available Benedictine poached egg treatment, which involves crabmeat instead of Canadian bacon, tends to grow weary and sodden with time, yet if you snatch this dish up fresh, it requires only a squeeze of lemon to lift its meek sauce out of the doldrums.

Other distractions from the buffet's main events are an oddly modest and unexciting salad collection (best of show: gently dilled cucumbers and a medley of nicely grilled vegetables), and the obligatory fruit and cheese platters, upscaled here with representatives of the goat and triple creme families. The seafood terrines are pretty and dull as dishwater. The omelet man flips his small pan with admirable savoir-faire, but I cannot bring myself to care.

After all, there is dessert to consider. Here the Ritz slam-dunks as convincingly as Hakeem, offering a head-spinning array that includes an irresistibly tart, homespun berry buckle and an even more irresistible creme brulee. Housed in individual pastry shells, this silky custard is sublime stuff, laced with fresh raspberries and wearing the thinnest, crackliest burnt-sugar glaze. I could eat several -- and, I blush to say, I have.

In general, however, the denizens of this brunch behave with a restraint (or the pretense of it) befitting the loveliness and gravity of the room. Enfolded in its easeful calm, surrounded by well-fed burghers who can afford to eat this way every day of the year, one feels inclined toward seemly conduct. At least until it becomes necessary to rap the knuckles of fiercely attentive buffet minions who whisk away your precious tuna carpaccio the moment you go back for a few last shrimp. Gentlemen, please! Do not come between me and my raw fish!

It is entertaining to linger, and watch, and eavesdrop. There are a million stories in the big city, so you wonder what brought that very European table of Italians to town, and whether that handsome young Chinese couple is always so silent, and whether the codger in seersucker and bow tie is related to that pretty young woman in the off-the-shoulder blouse. They lean toward each other. They retreat to a more private table. They leave arm-in-arm. Soon there is a barely detectable stir among the waiters, and life suddenly becomes even more interesting than it was a moment before. The mystery couple has walked the check.

The Ritz-Carlton, 1919 Briar Oaks Lane, 840-7600.

Ritz-Carlton: Sunday brunch, $32 including champagne.

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