Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My Love Affair With Brunch

This is a story that begins with buffet and ends with brunch.

First plate

When I was a kid, I used to say, "I don't know" a lot to people's questions. What did I want for lunch? I don't know. Did I want to sit next to Mom or Dad? I don't know. Do I want milk or juice? I don't know. Buffets, however, were the perfect answer to my indecisiveness. At a buffet, you don't have to decide on just one dish, only to regret your choice later. You can have it all.

Second Plate

I loved buffets. My family used to go to the Sunday brunch buffet at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco. I don't actually remember much about the food there, except that there was a lot of it, and I could choose anything I wanted. What I remember most are the distinctive concentric circle-patterned floors.


My love of buffets often befuddled my parents. Or maybe just pissed them off, because much as I loved the variety of food available, I could never actually eat enough to get their money's worth. Such are the perils of having a small stomach.

Third Plate

When my family moved to Hong Kong, we started frequenting the Sunday buffet at the Conrad hotel. There are actually two restaurants that jointly occupy the eighth floor of the hotel, Nicholini's and Brasserie on the Eighth. Though they generally function as separate restaurants, with a de-nationalized room mediating between their Italian and French cuisines respectively, on Sundays, the borders dissolve to host a tour de force champagne brunch buffet. Over 20 years of patronage, my family has now come to refer to this experience simply as "Conrad". As in, "Did you confirm the reservation at Conrad?" or, "If I died tomorrow, I would want my last meal to be Conrad."

Or, "Conrad is the birthplace of my love affair with brunch."

Photograph courtesy of my niece

What Conrad lacks in cool floor patterns, it makes up for with a bounty of deliciousness.

Photograph courtesy of my niece

Omelette station, carving station, sushi and seafood station, pasta station, waffle station. Mounds of breads and pastries, plates and bowls of antipasti and salads, tureens of cold and hot soups. Bamboo steamers with dim sum delicacies, sterno-fueled chafing dishes full of international cuisine reflecting the diversity of Hong Kong's globalized influences, and, in more recent years, a kiddie table with popcorn, mini-hotdogs and hamburgers, and gummi cola bottles.

Photographs courtesy of my niece

There's a respectable cheese selection, a massive array of desserts and fresh tropical fruits, juices and bottomless champagne for the adults. Still not satisfied? You can also choose from one of several hot entrees from the cook-to-order menu.

Though the potlatch-esque excess of the buffet at Conrad seems to be its main feature, for me, brunch at Conrad is never just about the food. I mean, of course it's a little bit about the food -- it's hard to find such an expansive selection that does not sacrifice quality for breadth, and there are few other places where I can find gummi cola bottles to accompany my prime rib.

Fourth Plate

But Conrad is less about taking advantage of an all-you-can-eat deal and more about a complete experience. It's about making a reservation at 11 am, with the luxury of getting there closer to noon, and not leaving until 2 or 3 in the afternoon. It's about starting off with a few plates, taking a break to explain how baseball team standings work, perhaps having some dessert, and then deciding that you actually want more pasta.


It's about the Conrad-stamped rubber duckies they give to kids that have accumulated around my mom's tub in Hong Kong. It's about the choice between champagne or sparkling peach juice that makes you feel fancy even if you are a teetotaler. It's about the floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the tangle of skyscrapers of Hong Kong's banking district. In short, Conrad is a break from LIFE -- the very definition of luxury and leisure.

Fifth Plate

From time to time, my family will attempt to branch out of our Conrad mold. Like Vegas, Hong Kong is awash in buffets. We've tried the Japanese fusion brunch at Zuma, and the French-inspired brunch at Spoon. Stateside, the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay has come close to a Conrad experience, though the price point is much higher, and their two-seatings system doesn't allow for quite the same amount of langour. Despite consistently good food, magnificent settings, and superior service, nothing seems to satisfy quite like Conrad.

Sixth Plate

Objectively, no brunch experience truly rivals Conrad in my mind. Yet, over the years, I have extrapolated my love for Conrad to my love for brunch in general; brunch in any context ultimately relates back to Conrad in some large or small way. The drawn-out, forget-the-clock, lazy feeling of brunch at home. The indulgence of eating a substantial meal early in the day, wherever and whatever that meal might be. The intimacy of gathering friends and loved ones around before dispersing for scheduled activities and individual errands.

Six and a half

Brunch is not a business meal, a first-date meal, a grab-and-go meal. It's not as formal as dinner, nor as casual as breakfast or lunch, even if all you're doing is having breakfast in the afternoon or lunch in the morning. It's about taking the time to say, "Hello day!"

Final Plate

Oddly, my affinity for brunch has intensified over the years, even as my love for buffets has waned. Perhaps now that I'm older and have to pay my own way, I realize what a bad deal I am in those all you can eat scenarios. Brunch at Conrad though? For that I will gladly shell out anytime.

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