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by arielle castillo | May 9, 2012 | Food & Drink
Courtyard tables provide a tropical setting
George Merrick created the Biltmore to resemble a Mediterranean Revival palace
Bite-size decadence: chocolate fondant cake with chocolate mousse
Biltmore executive chef Roly Cruz-Taura
The most classic of brunch staples, eggs Benedict, with truffled hollandaise
Brunch is more than a midday meal—it’s an opportunity to travel back in time to a more elegant past. On Sundays, indulgence-seeking locals head to the opulent Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, which hosts one of the last few stately brunch buffets in the area in its palm-shaded, Spanish-style central courtyard. Known for its award-winning restaurant, Palme d’Or—made legendary by its former longtime executive chef Philippe Ruiz— the Biltmore’s brunch follows that culinary heritage.
“The hotel is so iconic and so, so classic. The brunch is almost an ode to a time gone by,” says Roly Cruz-Taura, the Biltmore’s executive chef. “It’s a traditional grand hotel brunch with a lavish spread.” Every Sunday—and brunch is served only on Sunday—some 19 stations fill the courtyard’s covered edges. These include several seldom-seen, notably old-school touches, such as a complete garde-manger station of terrines and charcuterie, as well as a mini buffet of caviar and a full raw bar complete with endless oysters on ice. There are also mainstays such as made-to-order waffles, pancakes, and omelets, and freshly roasted legs of lamb ripe for the slicing.
New additions come in the form of a sushi station, or from seasonal offerings like a wild mushroom bar, with up to 12 varieties available for an on-demand sauté or flambé. Desserts by executive pastry chef Olivier Rodriguez occupy a separate room of their own, off the main courtyard. Dozens of delicate, petite offerings comprise everything from tiny, retro French opera cakes to shot glasses of coconut rice pudding and house-made gelato.
That unabashed but tasteful excess has long been a hallmark of brunch here. Half of the thrill is simply being surrounded by the cornucopia of the spread. Unsurprisingly, the event has become a favorite of residents looking to make an impression. “The Sunday brunch is the equal of any I’ve had, and that includes the famous brunches at The Beverly Hills Hotel & Bungalows and Hotel Bel-Air,” says Paul Levine, author of the crime novel Lassiter, among others, who splits his time between Miami and Los Angeles. “It’s a must-stop for me when I fly in. It’s fun, too, to take people for the first time. One look and they want to check into the hotel for a week.”
The rest of the crowd forms a similarly eclectic mix of locals, part-time residents, and visitors. At one table might be a dozen Brazilian tourists cradling monogrammed Louis Vuitton leather totes, while at another, young twenty-somethings reconvene for a post-wedding send-off. Pastels, florals, and khakis figure heavily, blending with the pale canvas of the canopies shielding the mostly outdoor tables. “You can hear the laughter and people genuinely enjoying themselves around you,” says frequent Biltmore bruncher Theresa Amandi, of the creative production group MEAD.
While this marks the 20th year of the Biltmore’s contemporary brunch era, that two-decade run is really a continuation of an earlier Gilded Age idea. When the resort opened in 1926, it was part of George Merrick’s marketing campaign for then-nascent Coral Gables: a Mediterranean Revival palace meant to crown Merrick’s plan for a Venetian-tinged city of canals and colonnades, and a royal brunch figured from the Biltmore’s beginning.
The building served as a veterans hospital after WWII and then lay empty, before reopening as a hotel in 1987. Its current management company, Seaway Group, took over operation in 1992 and relaunched the brunch. The ensuing years have offered enough time for entire families to grow up and spawn new generations of regulars who still seek out the Biltmore as their go-to celebration spot.
Levine has been frequenting the brunch since its reinception, as has Marissa Rios, a Miami resident who visited first as a child with her family. “I vividly remember the first time I ever went. The sun was shining, the water fountain was trickling in the background, there was a violinist playing in the corner, endless mimosas, and tables of food all around,” says Rios, now an attorney at Legal Aid Service of Broward County. That initial impression has led to plenty of special-occasion return visits over the years. “It sticks out as the epitome of Miami luxury.”
But while the refinement of the setting hasn’t changed, the brunch has undergone an incremental evolution. Executive hotel chef Cruz-Taura, former owner of Fifty restaurant on Ocean Drive, came aboard in 2007 with the charge of updating the offerings. “I started to look at the carving board,” he says. “We began elevating the quality of the product we were putting out, with quality meats like a prime rib with an herbes de Provence crust.”
Executive pastry chef Rodriguez joined the Biltmore staff just two days before Cruz-Taura, and similarly changed the dessert board. “Olivier saw that they were making very large cakes that you’d have to go up and slice,” says Cruz-Taura. “Now you can try six or seven types of dessert that would take up the same caloric value and space as, say, one piece of Death by Chocolate.”
Cruz-Taura also likes to rotate special stations weekly, and a featured Champagne—served in unlimited quantities—changes monthly. “It’s a true French Champagne, so if you enjoy it, that alone is worth the price of admission.”
photographs by Bill Wisser (courtyard, desert, biltmore, eggs benedict)