brunch


bread & gougeres

bread & gougeres

First impression of steak tartare came courtesy of Mr Bean, on his “travels” to neighboring France on the eponymous show. Judging from the wild antics that ensued, there was no doubt he was more than a little perturbed by the mound of chopped raw beef. Thank goodness I share none of his squeamishness, because a good version of steak tartare, with quality hand chopped meat mixed in with sharp, tangy accoutrements including onions and my favorite capers is a light, refreshing meal. The most traditional accompaniment is golden pomme frites, making the dish even more so appealing. Benoit, a member of the Alain Ducasse empire serves steak tartare, which was exactly what I ordered, a little too dressed for my taste but still a tasty treat on a wet Saturday afternoon.

My friends whom I was lunching with picked the lunch special, an absolute deal at a mere $19 for 2 courses and $24 for 3. The menu, while severely truncated provided enough choice with only one clunker that afternoon, a very pedestrian slab of pate. Otherwise, everything else were delicious, the salmon en croute delectably moist yet with a flaky, buttery shell while yc’s slow baked pork butt had a super tender consistency reminiscent of bbqed pull pork. The red and yellow room, dressed in the classic Gallic brasserie style was bright and cheery, but serene enough on a relatively slow afternoon for us to relax, chat and eat. Remarkably, service is attentive and warm, quite unlike what I’ve read in other media and expecting. So I’ve never made it to the original in Paris, but its American facsimile ain’t bad either!
Post lunch, Cezi and I adjourned to Saks where I introduced her to one of Britain’s oldest chocolate maker, Charbonnel et Walker’s cafe for some respite from the relentless rain. The lovely cafe, hidden away in a corner of the 8th floor of Saks is an oasis of calm compared to the frantic energy of the designer shoe salon right next to it. Loubutins at 400 are cheaper than loubies at 900, but it still means I can’t afford them. Thank God for affordable luxuries like chocolate! Besides truffles and bon bons, one can also order sinfully rich chocolate based drinks and enjoy fresh pastries such as a rich brownie and butter croissants. The ganaches are pretty decently, but the shell was much too thick. Its a good stop when you’re in the neighborhood, but not something that’s going to make me give up going to Kee’s or La Maison. Still, a good place to rest and conduct post-mortem on one’s purchases, and definitely a place to impress!  

Benoit

60 W 55th St (Between 5th and 6th Aves)

http://www.benoitny.com/index.html

Charbonnel et Walker

611 5th Ave (8th Flr)

http://www.charbonnel.co.uk/erol.html#758X0

Chicken and Waffles

Chicken and Waffles

I don’t know the origins of this dish, nor the proper way of eating the 2 disparate components of the plate, but one can’t really go wrong ordering the “Al Sharpton” at Amy Ruth’s. The chicken is piping hot, succulent and coated with a thin, flavorful batter while the waffle was sweet, soft and doughy. My friends and I devised different eating tactics. One could eat first the chicken before attacking the waffle base, or vice versa. Or, try waffle sandwich making with chicken in the middle and syrup on top. Either way, its best eaten with hands.

Amy Ruth’s

113 W 116th St

www.amyruthsharlem.com

 
Potato Pancakes
Potato Pancakes
Online communities. Gotta love them. The genesis of my trip to Veselka came about when I commented on Jon’s facebook status that same weekend we both hit the slopes. Then we found mutual facebook friends, Mabel and Alex and decided to meet. Jon chose Veselka as it happened to be bookmarked on Jon’s Yelp.com to-do list.
Veselka is an extremely popular joint in the East Village but luckily spacious enough such that a 20 minute wait was all that took to secure us a nice 4-top in the middle of the action, so we could see what was being ordered around us. I liked the atmosphere of the place, with great natural light, a buzzy feel, friendly servers and a black-and-white wall mural I would love to haul home, if only I could afford it. The expansive menu is split into typical American diner and Eastern European standards, and we had a lot of ground to cover. Thank God for healthy appetites!
Beety borscht

Beety borscht

I generally consider brunch a one dish meal, but here at Veselka, wracked by indecision, we decided to order our overflow decisions as appetizers. I warmed up with a hot cup of borscht, packed rimful with beets, onions, carrots, dill and tender beef, the flavors rich and slightly sourish. Then I joined the rest in devouring a plate of potato pancakes, crisp fried but a little doughy and blintzes, think crepes stuffed with ricotta and doused with raspberry sauce. Not bad, a little bland.
As we were halfway through our appetizers, the oversized plates of “real” food came and we had to rearrange the table settings for everything to fit. A stack of kasha pancakes, oddly gray and with a nutty flavor graced M’s breakfast plate.  My tomato and feta omelette was rather mediocre, the only saving grace being its overwhelming, sides off the plate size, meaning ample leftovers for a second meal.
pierogies and other stuff

pierogies and other stuff

The boys fared better. J’s meat platter was a manly entree, the famed meat combination platter comprising of everything stuffed and delightful. Pierogies are little dumplings filled with ricotta and meat, while a hefty lump of stuffed cabbage revealed more meat and minimal cabbage.  From the starter salad and soup to the main affair, J was well pleased. A’s meal was a plate of bigos, a traditional Ukrainian stew that is “fit for a hunter” according to the menu. Again, not necessarily something I would order for my lunch, but for A, substantial, tasty and he needed no help polishing the casserole of meat, sauerkraut, meat, potatoes and more meat off.

Bigos!

Bigos!

   Overall, a very satisfactory dish. I got to tick off a neighborhood staple off my to-do list, Jon got to yelp about it, and we all got to catch up. Now, if facebook technicians can invent a share a meal function….
Veselka
144 2nd Ave (corner of 9th st)
scrambled egg and merguez sausage

scrambled egg and merguez sausage

Colorful markets, vibrant streets, a multicultural population, its air steamy and pungent with the smells of fish and brine. This is my romanticized version of the city of Marseille, not the French brasserie in Hell’s Kitchen that adopts every Parisian brasserie interior design cliche known to man, include wooden panelling, cushy banquettes and mirrored walls. Thank goodness the menu is more varied than the decor and actually plays homage to its namesake. The dinner menu boasts a wonderful North African couscous served with fall-of-the-bone lamb and a spicy and gamey lamb sausage that is worth ordering even as a side, and the desserts have not disappointed thus far.

I find myself there most often at brunch though, because not only is it terribly convenient and fuss-free to walk in, Marseille also satisfy brunch disbelievers such as I with entrees with a twist. The merguez and egg scramble comes with a kick from the spicy sausage whereas the frittata verde, a golden eggy disc filled with raisins, pignoli nuts, bitter chard and pesto made me a believer of the Italian eggs-and-raisins combination. Who knew it would be that tasty? Traditionalists get to choose from a myriad of regular brunch items like eggs benedict and waffles, while lunchers get to pick their sandwiches and salads. So what if bouillabaise is only a special and not a staple? I’ll take this Marseille until I make it to the real one.

Marseille

630 9th Ave (Between 44th & 45th Sts)

www.marseillenyc.com

bouchonGood news: I seem to have found the brunch spot where I actually don’t mind paying for eggs and sausages.  

Bad news: I can’t frenquent it regularly for it is in Vegas.

The place? Bouchon, a down-market casual bistro within Thomas Keller’s restaurant empire.

Brunch started with freshly baked bread, a crusty baguette that branches into roll shaped leaves.  It comes with little pots of sweet butter, soft and spreadable, and a slightly tart and thick raspberry jam. Next comes coffee, the strongest my parents have encountered during their 2 week vacation, after a series of disappointingly bland cups of drip coffee. And endless was the pour, as our server took care that our cups were never more than half-empty.

Then came the meal, a blend of classic bistro dishes and hearty brunch stuff. My god-mother’s roasted chicken was succulent inside and crispy outside, my god-pa’s trout an austere whole fish decorated with scales of sliced almonds and a bed of crisp beans. Mum’s celery root soup was like drinking molten cashmere as the creaminess slid to the back of the throat, with the aftertaste of anisey caraway seeds. SY’s croque madame is a grilled ham & cheese sandwich gussied up in rich bechamel sauce and a fried egg, so rich you could feel instant heartburn, and second only to the monte carlo in terms of decadence. Fries that graced our table in a cone was thin, crispy, almost grease-less.

The brunch stuff wasn’t quite as exciting but still really good. Ruoyi’s french toast should be named brioche pudding instead, stuffed with apples and topped with a rich maple sauce. My father’s crab hash if a riff on corned beef hash, except with generous lumps of crab meat on top of delicately diced potatoes and two poached eggs that my father enjoyed making a dipping sauce out of, for his fluffy and eggy brioche. I looked longingly at Ying’s omelet, stuffed with diced bacon while I ate probably the most boring and least fattening dish, a smoked salmon platter for which the fish was unremarkable but the petit baguette once again crunchy without breaking my teeth, chewy without being elastic and just a little sour, the way I like it. But i undid the good with sides of coarse ground sausages and crisp bacon slices. We looked past the neighboring table, and pitied the lady who ordered granola.

The food was American in size, and seemingly too much. Somehow we managed to finish it off, but it took a while. But the pace was wonderfully languid, the service attentive and the space, a larger, more spread-out Balthazar made it comfortable to talk in normal volumes, something I’ve not managed to accomplish in the New York brunch hotspots. Of course, one had to overlook the outdoor pool facing the restaurant, where even in late December were there game and obstinate souls trying to sunbath in sub-50 temperatures. And the fact that to get out of the Venetian, where Bouchon is situated, one had to fight past the crowds at the Grand Canal shopping area, complete with Venice inspired canals, gondolas, and singing gondoliers. But perhaps that is all good, for a walk through the throngs may just what the doctor ordered after a gut-busting meal at Bouchon.  

Bouchon (inside the Venetian Hotel and Casino)

3355 Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas

www.frenchlaundry.com

Just like in New York, brunch is a big deal in Chicago, and people are not afraid to wait for it. Orange in the lakeview area is one such place where brunch devotees congregate, where clumps of people form along the sidewalk and happily wait for their names to be called. Peishan, Kayla and I were there at 11am last Saturday, unearthly by New York standards but mightly late in Chicago. We put our names down, headed back to Peishan’s loft just around the corner to check out Peiyun’s wedding photos, went back to wait some more, and were finally seated a little before 1230pm. Peishan even gave a little hop and skip when the hostess mercifully called for us.
Like its young, tanned and generally thin clientele, Orange exudes a fun, hip vibe. The orange (at this point it gets a little trite) walls creates a cheerful setting for a nice big meal while the very high ceilings and well spaced tables help keep the noise level comfortable. The juice bar is the focus in the main dining room, and an enormous juicer works double time making fresh squeezed fruit juice. Coffee is poured as we pore over the menu of innovative eats, smelling and tasting like orange, as these beans have been roasted with orange essence. Funky more than tasty. Frushi, or fresh cut fruit on sushi rice was another gimmick we did not fall for.
The brunch dishes were eclectic, huge and in general pretty good. My eggs benedict were smothered in a basil flecked hollandaise sauce and the perfectly runny poached eggs sandwiched between to thick slices of tomato. Instead of ham, the eggs sit on barely melted pieces of milky mozzarella. What was my eggs benedict channeling? A caprese salad!got it?
Kayla’s plate of coconut french toast kebab looked like a CSI crime scene, with the fruits bleeding passion fruit and raspberry blood. But the fresh mango, pineapple and strawberry slices were just tart enough to balance the sweetness of the coconut crusted brioche, which in turn did an admirable job of soaking up fruit purees. All she needed was a margarita to feel like she was on a beach in the Carribean. My favorite dish however was Peishan’s green eggs and ham. Scrambled eggs and pesto is for me a new flavor combination I will forever keep and employ at home, and the generous chunks of ham didn’t hurt, adding savoriness to the heap of fluffy eggs. With all these and other intriguing dishes, like a daily flight of silver dollar pancakes dolled up in various styles and chai-tea flavored french toast, no wonder people line up here.

Orange
3231 N Clark St (bet Aldine & Belmont Aves
Chicago

I remember a time when cheese meant tasteless Kraft singles on toast and the green bottles of powdered parmesan that I avoided like plague everytime my mum makes spaghetti. Even then I knew those stuff wasn’t real cheese. Now that my palate has grown up, so has the humble grilled cheese sandwich. At Casellula, a cheese and wine bar devoted to the finer things in life on Saturday afternoon, Gerrie and I found for ourselves a contender for best grill cheese and tomato soup pairing. 4 folded wedges of toast are grilled till golden brown, and between the slices of bread is a luscious blend of comte, fontina and cheddar, at times creamy and others sharp. A slice of tomato is pretty to look at but doesn’t do much else for the sandwich. The chunky bowl of chilled gazpacho, more a salsa than soup is simultaneously cooling but spiked with spice and herbs, and made the perfect companion for the comforting cheese sandwich.
Since it was too early in the day for a decadent meal of cheese and wine, we ordered yet another sandwich cheekily called the “Pig’s Ass” sandwich for the presence of pork butt (another name for shoulder). This updated cubano is another lovely little crunchy lunch, packed with juicy shredded pork, cheddar, sweet and sour pickle slices and just enough olives to pack a salty punch. A little crispy on the outside perhaps, but the crunchy toast did take well to the spicy chipotle aioli that added even more flavor to the sandwich.
Eating is truely hard work and we lounged around after our sandwich handling, sipping coffee from the attractive cups and admiring the airy and inviting decor. I love the antique-ish cabinet, the rugged pine bar and even the often-times cliched barnyard chic exposed brick wall. Casellula is perfect for lingering in the afternoon, and probably only even better at night, when it becomes legitimate to just have cheese and wine.

Casellula
401 W52nd St (Bet 9th & 10th Aves)

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