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Sumptuous buffets and elegant dining at the Antlers Grille

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The Antlers Grille is one of those places that doesn't scream out for attention, tucked away as it is in the downtown Antlers Adam's Mark Hotel. But venturing off restaurant row to dine at the elegant Antlers Grille is a worthwhile detour. I can't think of a better place to take someone you want to impress for lunch.

When you walk in, you get an old-fashioned, comfortable feeling. The lighting is subdued and the dining room has an elegant but not oppressive air about it. There are lovely dark wood tables, with lots of comfortable and private booths, and yet the freestanding tables have extremely cushy, well-padded chairs that encourage diners to linger over their meals.

And linger we did, over one two-hour lunch. We sat and talked so long that our waitress (and the rest of the dining-room staff) went off duty, but not before they made sure we were well-supplied with a pitcher of Arnold Palmers (half iced tea and half lemonade). There are several nice selections at lunchtime, with salads ranging from fresh fruit ($7.25) to Thai shrimp ($8.95), burgers and sandwiches like the club and grilled seasonal vegetables, and special treats like pecan-encrusted rainbow trout or Moroccan chicken.

I think the real deal, however, is the lunch buffet. The soup and salad buffet, at $6.95, includes a homemade soup, fresh salad greens and accouterments, an array of breads, rolls and bagels and a beautiful piece of smoked salmon with every garnish you could desire, and a large platter of fresh meats and cheeses. For two dollars more, add the pasta bar, where a chef is standing by to saut your heart's desire (shrimp, mushrooms, onions and tomatoes, to name a few), into one of the three hot sauces. And for $2 more, you can get all that plus the hot food bar, which was rapturous the day we visited.

Plan on toast for breakfast and a small salad for dinner, because this makes lunch the main meal of the day in a big way. Sauted, lightly seasoned beef medallions with real mashed potatoes and gravy, a Southwestern-spiced sauted chicken with a wild rice pilaf, a divine catfish with pistachio cream sauce ... is your mouth watering yet? There was also an outstanding pasta and seafood saut, where the seafood was perfectly cooked, the pasta was al dente, and the sauce was spicy without overpowering the other ingredients. The vegetable medley was excellent, with all the vegetables cooked perfectly crisp-tender, retaining a little crunch. The hot dishes were all hot, the individual elements prepared perfectly, and everything was prepared in small batches so the dishes didn't suffer from being kept on a buffet table.

I'm a little embarrassed to describe in great detail the array of desserts that come with the buffet. They are small and perfect, and I suggest that you get several and split them with a friend so you can taste them all. Yes, I said all.

The dinner menu at the Antlers Grille is small but interesting. The appetizer we sampled, Fire and Ice, featured Thai-spiced chicken and shrimp, definitely a tongue-tingler, alongside a small goblet of light lemon and lime sorbets. It was an excellent contrast of flavors, textures and temperatures, although our dinners came right on the heels of the appetizer, with no break in between. We sampled the Antelope Osso Bucco (normally a veal dish) along with Potato-Encrusted Halibut. Maybe I've been watching too much Food TV, but when it says encrusted, I expect more than four or five slices of potato on the top of the halibut. That aside, the dish was sumptuous. The halibut was moist and tender, napped with the same rich butter and lemon sauce that coated the sauted zucchini and yellow squash. All this was accompanied by two perfect mounds of crab and saffron risotto, delicately yellow and flecked with tiny pink pieces of crab. The antelope was richly flavored, as I expected, although the cut was a wee bit tougher than other cuts I've eaten. It was perfectly complemented by a huge, fluffy mound of perfectly seasoned mashed potatoes.

Brunch is where the Antlers Grille especially shines. The same care shown to the lunch buffet is evident here, with steaming hot casseroles suitable for lunch as well as breakfast favorites like scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and eggs Benedict, plus stations where omelets and waffles are made to order. The dessert buffet almost looks too pretty to eat, with a vast, creme-filled, chocolate-coated and fruit-topped array that is just too tempting to resist. For special holidays, the brunch price rises considerably, but you get extended offerings (like succulent peel-and-eat shrimp) and glistening, graceful ice sculptures.

The only problem you might encounter is getting a reservation for brunch. The number listed under restaurants in the yellow pages (listed here) gets you the Antlers' front desk. The number in the white pages has always sent me to voice mail when I've called. But rest assured, keep calling and your persistence will pay off.

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