The Fat Lap of Luxury

Whitney Grille
at the Whitney Hotel

150 Portland Ave., Mpls


Nicollet Island Inn

95 Merriam St., Mpls.


          MY MOTHER, WHO loves the finer foods in life but is too wallet conscious to indulge in this militant passion, would be in tears if I sent her this report. I can almost hear her now: "You had what? With what? Don't tell me. Okay, tell me. Stop, it's not fair! Wait, what did you have next?" It really isn't fair, either, but I can honestly say that the morning meals I had at the Whitney Grille and the Nicollet Island Inn will not soon be forgotten by this ingrate.

          Those of you who occasionally treat yourselves to a breakfast out (and there are quite a few of you; I see you lined up in front of the local greasy spoons nursing your weekend hangovers) should know that going somewhere really nice for breakfast can cost the same or even less than a trip to the diner. An examination of the Nicollet Island Inn breakfast menu reveals prices that fall within the range of popular Uptown breakfast destinations, from $3.50 for a light breakfast of pastries and bottomless Starbucks coffee to $6.50 on the upper end for a posh plate of eggs Benedict with chive hollandaise.

          I'm not knocking the thrill of dining in a greasy spoon, but sometimes an upscale change of pace is most refreshing. You can drag yourself from bed wearing yesterday's clothes and plop yourself at a table next to toddlers in designer outfits and their manicured, grown-up parents and the wait staff will still treat you like royalty. When I slyly poked around for some ketchup and tabasco to go with my roast chicken hash (I was too embarrassed to ask my waitress for it outright, lest I offend with my pedestrian preferences), the hostess rushed me back to my seat and returned to our tables with ketchup and tabasco poured out lavishly in silver ramekins.

          Not that my meal needed anything (just habit, I guess); the hash was delicate, well-cooked, and not a bit greasy or heavy, made with chopped Red River potatoes, a variety of brightly colored, fresh peppers, large pieces of roast chicken, and topped with two perfectly cooked poached eggs. It was accompanied by thick homemade toast and strawberry preserves. My friend did us both a favor (we were sharing, of course) by ordering the oatmeal French toast ($4.75), the thick crust crunchy with oats, tenderly cooked with a soft, milky finish on the inside, and served with whipped cinnamon butter and warm maple syrup. Each bite was exquisite.

          Some day we'll go back to the Nicollet Island Inn for brunch, although it won't be for quite a while, as our quotient of luxury has been overstated of late; the week before our incredible breakfast at the Inn, we ate brunch at the Whitney Grill.

          Brunch. The king of meals, so wonderful because it includes the best of everything: dinner, lunch, breakfast, juice, champagne, and dessert. Our experience began in the gilt-edged, Whitney Hotel elevator, which at 10 a.m. on a Sunday is already full with the aromas of butter, bacon, maple syrup, and vanilla. If this alone made us giddy, we were blown away by the sights awaiting us in the dining room.

          For Sunday brunch, the Grill's dining room is transformed into various buffet stations, all lavishly decorated with heaps of fresh flowers and greenery. The main buffet table stretches out under the oak bar, behind which the bartender is busy pouring endless glasses of champagne. Every bit of space on this buffet table is taken up with countless glass bowls and silver trays containing something divine. Though the menu changes every week, you can always count on some mouth-watering basics, such as made-to-order omelettes and waffles, fresh fruit, a carving station loaded with meats, and a dessert station.

          So many choices, so little room. On our visit, for example, even the most ordinary brunch food groups, salads and vegetables, included a Moroccan eggplant salad, lusty with olive oil, garlic, and sesame seeds; a seafood salad made with juliennied vegetables, shrimp, tuna, mussels, halibut, and swordfish; chicken wild rice salad; a Caesar salad; and roasted vegetables served with a roasted red pepper aioli.

          It would be easy to loose your cool and start heaping up your plate, but control yourself; you've yet to reach the many-tiered platter of iced, peeled, raw shrimp with a pool of tangy cocktail sauce, to say nothing of the mirrored tray of salmon (smoked in-house), arranged in billowy spirals and accompanied with glass bowls of lemon zest, capers, and chopped red onions. Did I mention the catfish in lobster-tomato-saffron sauce or the chicken breast in a white wine-cream-panchetta bacon sauce? Or the beauty of a grand piano when it's completely covered with layered tortes, chocolate dipped fruit, and éclairs?

          The only drawback of such decadent luxury is the effect prolonged exposure to it has on some people. How else to explain the woman who butted rudely in front of my friend at the omelet station? She needed the omelet chef to make her some fresh waffles; the pile of ones he had made not more than 60 seconds earlier were apparently not fresh enough for her.

          All of this is, of course, much pricier than Denny's Good Morning America special. For four people, our bill with gratuity was $100. But if you need a rationalization, here it is: You won't need to eat again for the rest of the day. Look at it as three meals at $8 apiece, concentrated into a feast filled with as much salmon, champagne, shrimp, and chocolate-covered strawberries as you can eat. A feast that you--and my mother--will always remember. That's fair.


          HAM HOG: Having nightmares about what to do with that holiday ham that tradition dictates belongs on your table and in your fridge this winter? The National Pork Producers Council would love to see you out of this pickle, and offer a complete guide to the holiday ham that includes tips for purchasing, preparing, carving, and next day menu ideas. For a free copy, send a self-addressed business envelope to: The Official Hambook, NPPC, P.O. Box 10383, Des Moines, IA, 50306. I don't know if I'm ready to thread ham chunks onto skewers with pineapple chunks and squares of red bell pepper, or heat thinly sliced ham in my favorite barbeque sauce and serve it on a sandwich bun. But I must, my booklet tells me, remember that "there's so much more to ham than the classic ham & cheese sandwich." The following recipe ought to bust you into ham heaven easily enough:

          Linguine with Ham

* 4 oz. linguine

* 4 oz. spinach linguine

* 1 tsp. butter

* 1/2 lb. cooked ham, cubed (about 1 1/2 cups)

* 1 c. sliced fresh mushrooms

* 1 c. light cream (half-and-half)

* 1 egg yolk

* 4 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese

          In an 8-quart saucepan, cook noodles according to package directions. Drain noodles, return to pan. Add butter, ham, and mushrooms.

          In small bowl, beat cream and egg yolk together. Add this mixture, along with cheese, to noodle mixture. Cook over low heat, stirring until slightly thickened and heated through. Spoon onto individual serving plates. Garnish with additional Parmesan cheese, if desired. Serves 4.

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