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If You've Got the Time: Sunday Brunch @ Casa del Mar

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Once upon a gorgeous SoCal Sunday, a group of friends journeyed to the tip of the county to enjoy brunch by the sea at the beautiful Hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica. They had a reservation, and, like most studied food aficionados, had perused the menu beforehand for the $29 two course plus dessert buffet meal, and dutifully texted in ahead of time to get the secret code for free unlimited champagne or Bloody Mary brunch cocktails (hello, wouldn't you, too?). They were ready for brunch.

Brunch is, for many diners and restaurants alike, a sort of refined art form. A good brunch is leisurely without being a drag, has high-caliber dishes that make getting out of bed and going out--and sometimes even getting dressy--worthwhile, but without breaking the bank. A good brunch, of course, has booze. Casa del Mar's brunch has the makings of all of the above. The interior of the charming old hotel is warm and inviting; as you ascend the curved stairway with its wrought iron banister and Spanish tiled risers you arrive in a cozy lobby area flanked by subtle gift shops, a massive working fireplace, bar areas, and a pretty spectacular full-frontal view of the Pacific. Our group was seated in the brightly-lit upper-level of the restaurant, where the dessert bar is located. And, apparently, where tables go to be ignored. For long periods of time. Sigh...

In a restaurant running a lucrative brunch offer and booze promo, with full tables as far as the eye could see (most in the main area seated near the sporadic and inobtrusive live entertainment), one would hope that Casa del Mar would be on their game with service. One would hope, indeed. It took about 25 minutes from the time we were seated to get our drink orders in. Here we raised our cellphones to show the waiter we'd texted in our message, and in response he slapped a pad of paper on the large, circular, dark-wood table and asked that we write down our names and phone numbers so the text could be verified. We wrote while he took our order, and secured us some water. "Flat or sparkling?" was the offer. Without really thinking this through we said "flat," and a busboy returned to decant water from a glass bottle into our lovely blue-and-green goblets.

Our brunch cocktails arrived fairly soon after, and included a refreshing and brisk Bloody Mary for some, and other champagne cocktails for others, like a crisp Rose Kava, and a very understated (read: not really any flavor) Bellini. For the bargain price of free and unlimited however, we felt victorious and appreciative. Cheers!

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But we were also hungry. As we sipped our drinks a few things began to happen as time wore on. First, we grew restless staring at both the menus that still sat before us and the pretty spectacular dessert buffet that faced two-thirds of our table. Then we grew indecisive about our eventual order. Then most of us decided we should start dessert first, since we'd long swallowed our tasty bread slices and gotten about halfway through our drinks, and had yet to order. Yes, it was nearly 40 minutes into our meal and we hadn't even ordered yet. There's leisurely, and then there's just plain long.

In order to get our server back to us we had to call over the older gentleman who seemed to be in charge of the shenanigans (we witnessed multiple times his frantic and dismayed walk from the hostess stand to the kitchen and his hand-waving chagrin when the ice cream at the dessert bar was down to a melty puddle). Eventually our server came over, and minus any sort of pleasantries or offer to help us choose or answer questions (and really, at this point that sort of good service would have been just for show since we could probably have taken an exam on the menu at this point, they'd been sitting in front of us for so long) took our orders.

For most of us the appetizer course was their seafood salad, which is a generously-portioned romaine salad mixed with bites of calamari, crab, and prawns and just a tiny bit too dressed in a mustard-heavy cream dressing reminiscent of a Caesar. Others at the table sampled a fresh tomato and mozzarella salad, a smoked salmon plate that had a perplexing tofu-based cream cheese, and a beet salad. The beet salad, mind you, was another Casa del Mix-up, when the diner was served an Eggs Benedict in its stead (an entree) as the rest of us were served our appetizers. First, find a server. Next, inquire why you didn't get your beet salad but someone else's entree. Then, wait for your salad. Luckily it didn't take too long, but, remember that entree. It might come back to the table later. In the meantime, good luck getting a twist of fresh-ground pepper for your salad; no one will come to your table to offer such a thing.

The pacing and taste of the meal proved to be on par and enjoyable when it came to the actual serve-and-eat segment. We didn't have to wait long after our appetizer plates were taken to be served our entrees. At our table were a few different selections from the menu's breakfast and lunch offerings, with a few of us opting to try the Eggs Benedict, a few the Lobster Club sandwich, one Skirt Steak and Frites, and one name-your-ingredients omelet.

Remember we asked you to keep that premature Eggs Benedict in mind? Well, we're pretty sure the Casa del Mar waitstaff and kitchen did, too, because it seems likely that the very same plate was kept aside for our table and returned to us at entree time. This is because it didn't take yours truly more than a moment to notice that piled upon the very hot plate was some very lukewarm-to-downright cold food. A tap of the yolk on the poached eggs didn't yield a warm, yellow gush, but rather a firm jiggle and a clammy feel. "Feel my eggs!" was the invitation to my friends and fellow-diners, who obliged and concurred. This was the same dish served erroneously a course before, or was at least plated and held on the hot plate too far in advance. Either way, as part of a $29 brunch it's not the kind of food that should be leaving the kitchen.

Our server, however, was not anywhere to be found. Or, rather, if we did spot him in the section he was tending to other tables and moving from them to other places, but never to us. No one came to ask us how we were doing, how things tasted. Once again, we called over the manager and asked for the wrong to be righted. (Mysteriously enough, when he entered the kitchen we soon heard a massive clatter, and for fun speculated his ire over the cold Eggs Benny prompted a Gordon Ramsay-style Hell's Kitchen-esque rant involving a thrown plate and a swift kick to the trash bin for good measure. More likely, someone dropped something. No matter, we all heard it in the dining room. Good times.)

A hot Eggs Benedict emerged soon (the yolks ran, hooray!) and was fairly tasty. The English muffin base was a bit too thin and well-done for my liking, but the eggs were nicely cooked, the Hollandaise not too thick, and the potatoes well-prepared and seasoned. Those dining on the lobster sandwich enjoyed the generous portion of lobster meat, but one had been given both the "ass" end and a mutilated center "piece" of tomato (sorry, but those wouldn't even make it onto a sandwich I made in my own home), and the potato chips served as a side were not anywhere near warm as promised. The omelet was enjoyed, and the skirt steak, well, "a skirt steak's a skirt steak," shrugged its eater. Brunch entrees: Good, but not great.

Ah, but dessert. The help-yourself table was laden with inviting sweets and goodies, including a sundae bar, a tiered cupcake tray bearing the goods from what our table's cupcake expert is certain is Vanilla Bakeshop, huge cups of butterscotch and chocolate puddings, small cake-like bites of cheesecake and tiramisu among others, crepes, and berry crumble. Most of us had indulged in mini-cupcakes and crepes pre-appetizer, but we all headed back for a course of sweetness to finish off the meal--now in its third hour, with many of our parking meters ticking impatiently outside. The desserts were the highlight of the meal.

With the bill came some lessons for us. First, never assume that when you're offered "flat or sparkling" that the "flat" option means tap. That glass bottle from which your water was served was actually labeled Evian, and your thirsty table may have been enjoying free cocktails, but you drank $27 dollars' worth of H2o--no wonder the joke goes that Evian is Naive spelled backwards. Consider us snookered! Second, never assume on a prix-fixe meal that the waiter can swiftly process credit cards for each diner (no matter that in this era of plastic as payment most restaurants have handled this burden with aplomb, patience, grace, and ease) because he will disappear with your payment for another long stretch of time. (You'd think by now they'd want to be rid of us, no?)

With the bill squared away, we emerged into the glinting late-autumn mid-afternoon SaMo sunlight, stuffed to the gills but not feeling satisfied. The flaws of the meal unfortunately outshone the merits, which is always a letdown, particularly when the outing was meant to be a pleasant weekend meal shared with the good company of food-loving friends.

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The real kicker, however, came two-fold in the days to follow. First, the email informing me that @CasaDelMar was now following me on Twitter (so someone in the back office pays attention to customer service). Then, the text message reminding me that their text-for-free-booze promo ends Sunday November 22. So this is what I pass on to you, so that if you dare, you can at least drink for free for your possibly 3-hour mix-up meal. Just don't order the water.

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