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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Super-Size Brunch

From the Fridge Dept.: Sometimes hotel restaurants get the fine-dining thing right, but they need a regular clientele that supports it. Others have hit-and-miss success, constantly experimenting, usually settling for a fairly mainstream continental experience. The Albany Hilton used to have a fine-dining venue called Truffles (it’s now named Charter) that put on a very nice dinner. The brunch I sampled back in 1987, however, was a different story . . .


THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE the year in which a plague of locusts (cicadas) descends. We had a foretaste of that last Sunday at the Hilton.

What proclaims itself the area’s most elegant brunch makes the proclamation with the best intentions. Truffles is an elegant-looking restaurant with a good reputation.

Photo: Shutterstock
But the elegant Sunday brunch is as mythical as a morning coat: we suspect they once existed, but you just can’t be sure. When I was a snooty waiter a decade and a half ago it happened much too often that I poured complimentary brunch champagne for endomorphs in yellow slacks.

As it was, Susan and I stood in line at Truffles behind a flock of porcine gents in polo shirts, each with one change-jingling hand in a pocket.

“It looks like a rough day at the brunch buffet,” Susan murmured as we were led past the banquet table. What must have started out as a stately row of gleaming chafing dishes was now a cockeyed, soiled mess. Two or three cooks in paper toques tried grimly to keep after the table, but there was no stopping the onslaught.

It’s incongruous, this juxtaposition of smart-looking room and the Visigoths therein, but the concept of brunch itself is one of curious juxtapositions. It emulates an English custom of serving breakfast as a sideboard buffet; it has the all-American design of getting rid of the week’s leftovers. It dressed up during its evolution to include champagne (never too dry, keeping in mind that brunch attracts the Spumante crowd) and risible drinks like Bloody Marys and Mimosas.

For the restaurant manager, it’s a shrewd way of getting new customers in, ones who are nervous about paying a full dinner tab.

But Truffles isn’t nervous about charging for its brunch, and at $12.90, you would expect better than what’s offered, unless you’re really only shopping for quantity.

We sat at a small table in a room off to one side of the main dining room, away from the throng but closeted with a noisy infant that, propeller-like, decorated its table with sprays of food. Our own table had been the scene of a small explosion, we reckoned: there were bits of food adhering to the blue flock wallcovering and a shattered glass by my feet.

The complimentary beverage came from a pretty fountain on the buffet table. Mimosas. We opted for tea.

“Everybody’s drinking tea today,” our server moaned. “And we’re all out of pots.”

The menu is a cornucopia; some items work, some don’t. At the head of the line is a pile of doughnuts, muffins and rolls, with flavored butters available (although Susan mistook the cinnamon butter for pate and got a surprise when it melted all over her hot plate).

Sausage and bacon run the risk cooling quickly; that blue Sterno flame offers only so much heat. The tray of pancakes was downright cold and crumbled at the touch of the serving tongs. Why, if omelettes are being cooked to order, can’t pancakes be poured to order as well?

The omelettes are another matter. A chef I once worked for insisted that they should take no longer than 30 seconds to cook; others maintain that slow cooking doesn’t hurt. I opt for the former, and decry the use of the liquid cheese that was ladled into my order of eggs.

A dandy idea are the cheese-filled blinis, but they were cold and tough and coated with a thawed cherry sauce.

For the surf ‘n turf crowd there are various beeves and a pile of u-peel shrimp.

You could make a good meal out of the fresh fruit, and the assorted cheeses, and the chicken dish (fairly warm), and beef stew with rice. The dish we voted the best was, surprisingly, a tray of potatoes ordinaire, a tasty hash.

When you’ve plundered the entrees, there’s a table of desserts, including an unusual “Bananas Foster” – banana slices cooked in as brown sugar sauce, served over maple walnut ice cream. Along with a rich assortment of homemade cakes and pies, that really was the high point of the meal.

The servers move swiftly through the throng, clearing plates, serving coffee, but it was obvious that as two o’clock came near, they were just as happy as we were to see this devastation end.

Brunch at Truffles – The Albany Hilton Hotel, State and Lodge Streets, Albany, 462-6611. Full bar, wine available; complimentary mimosas with brunch. 11 AM-2 PM Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested.

Metroland Magazine, 12 February 1987

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