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Three waterfront Sunday buffets that won't break the bank

TAMPA AND CLEARWATER BEACH

Take one water view, add one Bloody Mary (heavy on the horseradish), plus an absurd quantity of egg dishes and pastries. Blend ingredients slowly, adding more of second and third ingredients, to taste. The result: one Sunday brunch buffet to end the week on a salubrious, or at least mellow, note. • With Easter a little more than a week away and Mother's and Father's days not far behind, brunch is taking center stage in restaurants on both sides of Tampa Bay, including, of course, the fabled Oystercatchers ($45), the Vinoy ($59.95) and the Don CeSar ($64.95). But did you catch those prices? These are splurges for when you're hoping to hide a ring in an eggs Benedict or to really butter up your in-laws. • How about at a lower price point? I sampled three waterside Sunday brunch buffets, eating untold strips of bacon in the name of journalistic inquiry.

According to chef Keith Williamson, Jackson's Bistro (601 S Harbour Island Blvd., Harbour Island, (813) 277-0112, jacksonsbistro.com; 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; $19.95) does 400 to 500 brunches every Sunday, up to 1,500 for a holiday like Easter or Mother's Day (which this year will run $33.95). It's not the hugest buffet spread, but the indoor/outdoor harborside setting is gorgeous, and the outdoor bar and much of the patio seating has a roof so the Tampa sun isn't too rough (still, watch those predatory sea birds; they'll abscond with a pancake if you don't keep up your guard).

Nice big plates mean you don't have to crowd everything together, from staple items like scrambled eggs and eggs Benedict, to the day's five main entrees (these can range from kung pao chicken to chicken melanzane, roasted pork loin, broiled cod or sauteed mussels with chorizo). The centerpiece of the buffet is a steamship round (that's a monster roast beef) carving station, to the left of which is an omelet station and to the right of which is a pasta chef (which some weekends is instead a wok station).

On my visit there were a few clunkers (a murky Asian dumpling salad, a totally marauded poached salmon with dill sauce that never got replenished) and a few clear standouts (warm housemade doughnut holes with cinnamon sugar, a zingy Caesar salad). Because Jackson's is known for its sushi, the Sunday display is opulent, with at least half a dozen different rolls with wasabi, ginger, etc.

Bottom line: Despite the fact that the price doesn't include champagne or a mimosa, this is a good value. The quality of the food is high and servers are attentive with check-backs and plate clearing. A chocolate fountain's elegance is marred slightly by the presence of a commercial cardboard tub of vanilla ice cream, but you get a lot for $20.

• • •

Shephard's Beach Resort (619 S Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater Beach, (727) 441-6875, shephards.com; 11:45 a.m. to 3 p.m.; $23.95) has been doing a brunch buffet for decades, now overseen by executive chef Damon Bogell and sous chef Evan Gibson. During the spring and summer, brunch gets an added boom-bada-boom from the adjacent Shephard's Backyard Tiki Bar and beach, with DJs whipping the bikini-clad revelers into a frenzy (it doesn't take much with a $3 cover charge and $1 drinks from 1 to 6 p.m.). This time of year, Shephard's can be a scene, with the valets breaking a sweat and a whole lot of sunburned flesh on display.

Despite the impressive size of the resort, brunch does not do epic numbers (maybe 300 diners on a Sunday), with a long sneeze-guarded buffet spread. The clear focus for many people is the monster pile of warm Alaskan snow crab legs, with nearby drawn butter and lemon wedges to complete the agenda (haphazard cracking and no crab tools can make excavation tough on occasion).

The first mimosa or glass of champagne is free; refills are $1. Very tempting. There's quite a bit of choice on the buffet: On the right is a long row of salads, sushi, peel-and-eat shrimp and oysters; on the left side is the hot stuff, from carved prime rib to biscuits and gravy and blintzes (with creepy squeeze bottle fruit topping). The kitchen staff is vigilant about restocking the buffet; would that the servers were equally attentive about refilling drinks or clearing plates.

Bottom line: It's fun to watch the watercraft pull up while listening to a DJ exhort the crowd, but service can be frustrating. The price is reasonable given the sheer number of buffet choices, but the quality was a little wobbly on several things (dry ribs, heavily breaded fried shrimp with an unappealingly mushy center). The $10 cash valet charge is reimbursed in dog-eared one-dollar bills if you get your ticket stamped, an inelegant system.

• • •

Island Way Grill (20 Island Way Clearwater, (727) 461-6617, islandwaygrill.com; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; $23.95, but $31.95 for Easter) is the big kahuna of Sunday brunches at this price point. They do some serious volume, the restaurant owned by Baystar Restaurant Group (Frank Chivas and Tom Pritchard), a well-oiled machine for getting folks in and out and for maneuvering huge platters of peel-and-eat shrimp, scrambled eggs, sausage and so forth in and out of the dining room. A central room convenes all of the hot dishes (on one Sunday it was pastrami sliders, salmon hash and chicken wings in addition to a number of seafood dishes and eggy things), then one wall contains a mountain of cold salads (white beans, black beans and rice, green salads). A bit further on, you'll find a tremendous assemblage of pastries and breads, and a separate room is reserved for desserts.

Folks shuttle inside for refueling and back outside to sit waterside and listen to the band (well, it's often just one guy, but through the magic of technology and/or Bloody Marys, it sounded like a bunch). Servers are attentive, zipping between tables to bring a complimentary mimosa or whisk rounds of plates away.

Bottom line: A carving station (ham and roast beef), an omelet station and a mini waffle iron are grouped together, sometimes causing a small traffic jam, but in general, efficiency is the name of the game here. Because it's high volume, the sheer size of the salads and platters can be off-putting, but kitchen workers do a good job so that things don't look "picked over." As the weather heats up, the patio won't be as appealing, but for Easter, watching the boats bob seems like a perfect way to spend a Florida Sunday.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.

Three waterfront Sunday buffets that won't break the bank 03/27/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 4:30am]
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