Entrées come with vegetables, but you can amend any dish from a group of tasty, inexpensive sides. We invested in a side of sweet potato fries with lively house-made ketchup. It was a winner on both counts.
The wine list seemed so dreary -- mainly top-shelf supermarket bottlings -- that I passed on it entirely and thumbed through the bound stack of colorful cards depicting house-specialty cocktails. The best drink we sampled was the bright, tangy pamerita, a cerise-colored margarita with pomegranate juice.
For dessert, we shared a white chocolate banana bread pudding with whipped cream and caramel. Like most New Orleans--style bread puddings, it was on the dry side, and it had little white chocolate character. The portion was sufficient for four to share and not quite finish.
Overall, we felt that the Southern cooking here is enjoyable but not extraordinary. Extraordinary food requires personality and the courage to take chances, which a chain can't risk if it's going to please everybody. But the price is right, and the scene is a lot of fun, whether you're dating, hanging out with friends, or getting together with family. You can kick back, eat agreeable food, listen to the blues, and let the bon temps roulez -- good times permeate the building.
HOB GOSPEL BRUNCH BUFFET
HOURS: Sundays, 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.
PRICES: Tickets, $35 adults (13 and over) in person; children 6--12, $18.50; free for 5 and under, but reserve seats for each tot. All phone orders have a $2 per ticket surcharge.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Vast buffet of American breakfast foods, Southern dishes, salads, with omelet and carving stations and separate dessert station. Plenty of everything. Nonalcoholic beverages included in price, alcohol extra.
PICK HITS: Smoked roast beef; omelets; peel-and-eat shrimp; cheese grits; biscuits and gravy; jambalaya; smoked barbecued chicken; breakfast potatoes with peppers; wild mushroom pasta.
NEED TO KNOW: For best choice of dates and hours, buy tickets well ahead and be flexible. Call this minute for dates before New Year's -- most brunches sell out during the holiday season. Handicapped access: use Fifth Avenue entrance to avoid stairs; take elevator down to brunch. (Mobility-impaired patrons may want to wait for crowds to clear at opening time to ensure elevator access, and again before tackling buffet; the food won't run out.) Many lacto-vegetarian items, very few for vegans.
The room where the Gospel Brunch takes place is in HOB's subterranean depths. As you start down the stairs with the rest of the crowd, in small groups each led by a server, the colorful art on the walls makes you feel as if you're entering the old Tunnel of Fun at Coney Island -- but then, as you march down, down, down, thoughts of Alice and rabbit holes come to mind. Finally, you reach bottom, a vast, semi-dark room with a bar along one side and a curtained stage opposite. While loud recorded gospel music plays, the server shows you to your assigned seats at one of several long communal tables. The unpadded metal folding chairs are horrendously uncomfortable. We lucked out with our table-neighbors -- Charlene and three girlfriends were celebrating her 50th birthday with mimosas and quiet, contagious joy. They were the very people whose company you'd want at a gospel concert.
Once you're settled, you rise again to head for the buffet in a better-lighted adjoining room. Clearly, many of the patrons were veterans of the Gospel Brunch -- they were less pushy and tense than the average buffet-hound, because they knew that at HOB, none of the selections -- not even the most desirable dishes -- would run out.
The food quality? Well, it is a buffet. The pros: a huge and interesting spread, with plenty of flavorful dishes along with the inevitable blah selections. The cons: it's still a buffet. HOB doesn't use Sterno or steam trays to keep the food hot. Warm dishes soon cool to room temperature, which may not be so hot when it comes to items like biscuit gravy and baked macaroni -- but the food doesn't congeal over continued heat, nor does it suffer risky, bacteria-breeding sub-simmer temp-
eratures. (Two hours at room temperature is actually safer -- after that, the party's over.) Between the two shows (at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.), the staff rings out the old dishes and brings in fresh batches.
Although HOB's website boasts of the buffet's "Southern specialties," most offerings are regionless American breakfast and picnic dishes. First go-round, I zeroed in on the Southern food. I liked the biscuits and the light sausage cream gravy (even if it had cooled), with a choice between well-browned or pale biscuits (they're in separate bins next to each other). I loved the very cheesy Cheddar grits, pure comfort food. (Despite their ugly name, grits are much the same as the soft polenta you eat at Italian restaurants -- moist cornmeal pudding.) The peel-and-eat shrimp were tender, cooked in a well-seasoned boil -- HOB's own house blend, as it didn't taste at all like Zatarain's, Chachere's, or Old Bay. When brunch-veteran Charlene got back to our table, her plate was piled high with them, for good reason.
The jambalaya was different from the dinner version, proving that it's cooked by humans, not robots. It was spicier and moister, more soulful than the version upstairs. Another hit was the smoky barbecued chicken, with tender flesh and crisp skin glazed with sweet barbecue sauce.
Also on hand are numerous salads, pastas, and potatoes. We liked the country-style breakfast potatoes with peppers and onions (better than the vinegary "Creole" potato salad), the penne with wild mushroom cream sauce, and (before it got too cold and sticky) the baked mac'n'cheese. On the downside, the fresh fruits, bacon, and link sausages were nothing to get excited about, and the crawfish cheesecake was leaden. The rosemary cornbread with maple butter is served stone cold, which takes some of the glamour off it, and in a salad of cheese tortellini with lobster, the pasta was gummy. We didn't bother with the several green salads.