Restaurant Review: New brunch boon in Palo Alto

Publication Date: Friday Dec 3, 1999

Restaurant Review: New brunch boon in Palo Alto

Once the Crowne Plaza's bistro irons out service glitches, its buffet will be the brunch to beat

by Laura Reiley

Sheraton Palo Alto, $24.95. Stanford Park Hotel, $26.95. Hyatt Rickeys, $22.50. And what does the weekend brunch buffet run at the newly opened Crowne Plaza Cabana? Drum roll, please--$14.95, only $8.95 for kids under 12. This time of year, with families in town, celebrations to be endured and paid for, an inexpensive brunch spot is a real boon. A recent visit to the Crowne Plaza proves that their 4290 Bistro & Bar purveys everything those other places offer, except for tolerable service. With a serious waitstaff bootcamp, the Crowne Plaza could be brunching with the big boys.

During our visit last weekend, the service staff committed every waiter felony in the book: No one greeted us. No one told us how much the brunch costs, what to do, what beverages were included. No one refilled coffees, offered more orange juice, asked us if we'd like a mimosa, a Bloody Mary or any other tasty brunch cliche. Clearing dirty plates was either overzealous or lackadaisical. No one asked if everything was OK. No one brought the check.

There, I feel better with all that off my chest. Otherwise it was a lovely brunch. The new hotel is spilling over with good taste, from the glorious atrium to the toney bar and bistro. It is visually quite unlike most hotel restaurants: Small, it balances a warm-wood and tomato-red color scheme. Regency armchairs with a little Mediterranean spirit are upholstered in camel and tomato corduroy. The room is open to the rest of the hotel, giving it an airiness despite its intimate size. Little red vases offer up chrysanthemums and daisies, white napery is crisp and snowy. The buffet sets up at the far end of the room, with two long rows of choices, both standard and more unusual.

Warmed plates can be instantaneously crowded with pancakes (nice, airy) or French toast (a little gooey, but good flavor) cottage cheese-filled blintzes (delish), and the full gamut of breakfast meats (the bacon is perfect, the link and patty sausages were both strangely rubbery). Syrup is offered only in little glass jars, and therefore not warm. Butter is all the way at the other end of the buffet. There are grits for the Southerner within and corned beef hash with poached eggs for the Anglophiles.

My favorite offering was a steam tray containing warm orzo salad topped with fillets of halibut studded with tomato concasse and mixed herbs--simple, wholesome and expertly cooked (a real feat for the steam tray). Before reaching the "cold side," one must shuffle past the Belgian waffle station and eggs-o-rama corner. Chefs will whip up a perfect waffle, which you can then drizzle with any manner of fruit sauces and blobs of whipped cream. And omelets can be concocted to your eggs-act specifications, with lots of chopped veggies and cheeses.

Connecting the hot side to the cold side was a spread of breakfast pastries and desserts. The powdered sugar-covered donut holes were a washout, but the danish pastries were quite flaky and serviceable. A little more attention should be paid to the dessert pastries. There were almost no chocolate offerings or individual tartlets, both things that are de rigueur on a brunch buffet in my book.

The cold side was perhaps the most successful and unique part of the Crowne Plaza's buffet. The kitchen has a clear passion for orzo pasta, offered two ways in savory Greek-style salads. Brussels sprouts were steamed slightly and dressed with a simple vinaigrette, and a huge platter spilled over with carefully grilled squashes, peppers and other vegetables. A smoked fish platter was quickly depleted (why no replenishing?), not surprising given the quality of the gravlax and smoked trout, complete with chopped egg, onion and capers.

As at any buffet, plates get crowded with disparate items (my highlight was pumpkin pie next to a pile of pepperoncini peppers), but you can hardly blame the Crowne Plaza's kitchen for those kinds of idiosyncrasies. Now, the service is another story. Did I mention that no one ever brought me water? I'm still waiting.

4290 Bistro & Bar, Crowne Plaza Cabana, 4290 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, (650) 857-0787

Hours: Brunch Sat. and Sun. 7 a.m.-2 p.m.

Atmosphere: It's no wonder that the Beatles purportedly stayed at this hotel once upon a day: The design of the new Crowne Plaza is a gorgeous study in hip good taste. This extends to the hotel's pretty little bistro and bar, perfect for a romantic assignation or a large family get together.

Highlights: The brunch buffet offers solid standard fare (pancakes and waffles) as well as more unusual breakfast items (tiny smoked shrimp, seasonal marinated Brussels sprouts). Reservations - accepted Credit cards - yes Parking - lot Full liquor - yes Takeout - no Banquet - yes Wheelchair access - yes Highchairs - yes Outdoor seating - no 

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