For the feature story of our Fall 2017 issue, Brunch, Resource decided–in light of our dedication to world class photography–to find out which brunches out there were not only delicious to taste, but easy on the eyes. Staying local (and grass-fed, free-range, etc.), we scoured the mean streets of New York for the twelve best and “most Instagrammable,” dishes. Our expert photographer, meanwhile, Greg Neumaier, attempted to see how his images of these late morning/early afternoon treats (seen below) stack up to the best of Instagram foodporn (hint: favorably).
I myself was lucky enough to go behind the scenes, speaking to the men and women responsible for these culinary artworks. I hoped to get a sense of the unique history which ultimately brought each dish to fruition. To do so, I divided each interview into four sections: the dish, the look, the process, and the brunch ethos. In order, they take us from the most basic elements–the literal ingredients found in the meal–to the most abstract–their conception of “brunch” and the role it played in their work. Their responses, as you’ll see, were quite candid–one chef declared he was “so fucking old” that he remembered a time before brunch existed–and offer a gaze into the mad rush that is the back of house during brunch hours. Enjoy.
- THE SMITH, breakfast pot pie
The Smith is crisp, clean, understated American elegance at its finest. From the uncovered wooden tables to the black-and-white tiled floor and the various waiters’ black T-shirts with “The Smith” written in bold across the chest, this place plays it cool. The menu goes along to the tune: timeless, recognizable dishes executed in a way that makes you wonder “Why can’t everyone make [insert classic American dish here] taste so good?”
While the menu boasts an impressive array of tastes to feed even the pickiest member of any family, we have come for one thing and one thing only: the breakfast pot pie. Dubbed the “King of Comfort Food” by Food and Wine, the pot pie is also one of The Smith’s most photogenic items, coming out looking like a chicken-infused tennis racket. Overcoming the urge to grab it by the pie-crust handle, we dug in and devoured it to our heart’s content, with only one phrase capable of slowing our destructive, digestive roll. Namely, “the mac and cheese is ready.”
This pie’s got heart. What you see is the cheddar-chive biscuit top supporting two sunny side eggs just waiting to run. What you don’t see is the fast-breaking bonanza of smoky slab bacon, sweet pork sausage, roasted baby portobello mushrooms, and a white pepper gravy all snuggled up under that thin, flaky crust. Even while looking at our technically perfect, stellarly designed cover photo, do please try to remember: when it comes to this pie, it’s what inside that counts.
Other options: 4-cheese, cast-iron baked Mac + Cheese, Monkey Bread, Tomato Soup, Sticky Toffee Pudding
Executive Chef Brian Ellis says that each dish is plated “based upon the inspiration behind it.” For example, he plates the breakfast pot pie—a casserole he describes as “comforting”—in an oversized dish which cradles the pie much the same way as the warmth and nostalgia of the pie cradles your soul. In contrast, the hot potato chips—designed less to provide comfort than to relieve the anxiety brought about by having nothing do with your hands coupled with your attempt to kick that crippling salt habit—are served in an oversize bowl to “create the illusion” which we all desire when snacking on chips: that the bowl is “never-ending.”
With the breakfast pot pie, Chef Ellis sought to assemble a team of breakfast items capable of making it “the best of all brunch foods.” If Food & Wine’s title is any indication, he seems to have done just that. The inspiration, meanwhile, is far from the gilded street of Manhattan where Chef Ellis dishes out his fare. It’s a “greasy truck stop breakfast,” he tells me, but “without the heartburn.”
Prilosec is not going to be happy about this.
The Brunch Ethos
For the folks at The Smith, brunch is more than a meal, it’s an “NYC institution.” This means that inclusivity is the name of the game; everyone is going out, and no one is going out alone. For that reason, Chef Ellis prides himself on his extensive menu, making sure “there is something for everyone.” This is vital as most parents will be bringing their children to brunch for one simple reason: their babysitter is out to brunch, too.
2. SAUVAGE, french toast
If Sauvage sounds to you like” savage,” you’re doing it right. Inspired by “outsiders and the outdoors,” as well as the naturalist wine movement and “anyone who works to craft their own dream,” this neo-bistro aims at getting to the heart of things, no frills allowed. With a focus on heritage ingredients and the “savages,” as they call them, that feed us, the team there respects the land, the people, the environment, and, perhaps most importantly, your taste buds. Serving brunch since they opened, these wild men and women have made quite a name—and image—for themselves.
We spoke to head chef Chad Richard to get a better idea of what went into his brunch menu, including his thick-as-a-Brooklyn-accent french toast.
“A 1.5″ thick piece of brioche is soaked overnight in a custard infused with dark rum & vanilla bean. Upon order, the brioche is cooked in a pan with clarified butter and baked in the oven briefly until the custard is just barely cooked through. Finally, it’s garnished with fuyu persimmon jam, mascarpone and some fresh mint. Meanwhile, the req quinoa bowl features quinoa cooked in-house with vegetable stock and seasoned to order with sea salt, freshly cracked black pepper, lemon juice and a Spanish olive oil. Accompanying it are smoked shiitake mushrooms, roasted delicata squash, grilled red peppers and roasted pumpkin seeds, all dressed with charred orange & black garlic vinaigrette.
Other Options: Egg white frittata, avocado toast, steak and eggs, pressed mortadella sandwich, oat granola and a “harvest moon.”
Ever the naturalist, Todd described his plating approach “in general to be more of a natural look rather than calculated placement of the ingredients.” Savage.
It appears the French Toast was a brunch item long before Chef Chad joined the team at Sauvage. Nonetheless, while keeping its “overall concept,” he’s added a few twists of his own. For instance, dark rum has been added to the custard, and the accompanying fruit jam has been put on a seasonal rotation. Currently it’s fuyu persimmon jam infused with ginger & star anise. Yum.
The Brunch Ethos
Chad’s take on brunch is very Chef-centric. Notably, he detailed just how difficult it is for a restaurant to execute brunch successfully, saying it really is “its own beast.” This is due to a combination of factors all coming together in the mid-morning meal: “incredibly impatient” customers who have yet to eat, diners who are “very particular” about what they choose, and heaps of “modifications” being requested, making it challenging for the kitchen to sort out. To counteract these difficulties, Sauvage’s strategy “has been to put a lot of work in the preparation of the ingredients…so the execution of the dishes can be fast to pick up.” After all, “brunch is no joke,” Chad told me, and if you want to succeed, “you have to produce delicious in an instant.” For the gang at Sauvage, that challenge has been accepted.
3. JACK’S WIFE FREDA, green shakshuka
“Freda was the life of party,” Dean Jankelowitz, one half of the ownership team behind Jack’s Wife Freda—along with his wife, Maya—tells me. “Jack,” he continues, “was lucky to find a woman like Freda.” Her legacy, one of gracious hosting with open arms, open doors and an infectious warmth, is proudly upheld by her namesake eatery.
Opened in 2012, Jack’s Wife Freda is a reflection of Dean and Maya’s life as immigrants (Dean from South African, Maya from Israel) growing up in New York City. The cuisine is more than just what they “want to see” on a menu—though it’s certainly that, too—it’s a list of dishes that, to quote the founders, “remind us of who we are, who we used to be.”
Complete with sugar packets printed with adorable sayings like “Hug More,” Jack’s Wife Freda exudes community. Same goes for the staff: our waiter appeared almost as excited for our food to arrive as we were. The art lining the walls, meanwhile, comes replete with backstory connecting it to the location and its people: a piece above the bar painted by a bartender, a piece by the bathroom gifted by the father of a waiter, or a piece above a table painted by a friend and frequent diner. Not to mention the black-and-white of Jack and Freda by the entrance, as if to ensure your experience is up to Freda’s standards, lest her ghost bewitch the entire place.
When Maya was just a “little girl” in Israel, her mom would frequently make that middle eastern favorite, shakshuka. When it came time to open up her own establishment, she knew it had to be on the menu. “Revised and twisted” with a green sauce made from tomatillo—as opposed to the classic red tomato—this dish is both a remembrance of things past, and a signal of exciting originality and continuing exploration.
Other Options: Rosewater waffle, grapefruit and yogurt, “eggs benny” with beet hollandaise, a “Madame Freda” with cheddar bechamel, and their famous cantaloupe mimosa.
The couple was first introduced to green shakshuka in Sydney, Australia, where it was concocted with spinach. When their chef suggested making it with green tomatillos, they knew they had a winner. Yet even with the “green” in the title, they still have guests who, upon its arrival to the table, respond with something like “this isn’t shakshuka,” or the more basic “why is it green?”
For Maya, making a dish worthy of both Instagram and IRL fame is less about being concerned with “coming up with a photo that looks good,” and more about answering the question “how are we going to get the guy who lives in the Bronx to come in at 5 am to chop the habaneros and bring soul to the dish?” That, she says, is “what makes food beautiful.”
The Brunch Ethos
For the people of Jack’s Wife Freda, brunch is just another meal. That’s what happens everything in your restaurant—from the mimosas to the silverware—is hand picked with care. There is no “upping their game” or “looking pretty” for the ‘gram, they just do what they do, and they keep doing it well.
4. CLINTON STREET BAKING COMPANY, pancakes
Sixteen years ago, Clinton Street Bakery took over a space previously occupied by a restaurant which, although ostensibly serving “fusion,” was closer to “confusion”, as owner/Chef Neil tells me. While initially sticking to wholesale, simultaneously hawking out baked goods from behind their counter, the neighborhood clamored for a sit-down breakfast; Neil and Dede were kind enough to oblige. So, they switched on the griddle, cracked open a few eggs, and began dishing out classic breakfasts to folks who scarfed it down greedily.
As their following grew, so did the demand to keep open their doors. What had started as a bakery-turned-breakfast spot quietly grew to encompass lunch, dinner, and, our personal favorite, brunch. Along the way, the owners stuck to their roots—their devoted clientele—for all the support and recommendations they could offer, specifically in answering the question: “What do you want to eat?” After years of hard work and sustainable growth, Clinton Street has developed into a “huge” place, including a full bakery and restaurant kitchen downstairs, two separate entrances on Clinton and Houston and, most notably, two locations in Dubai and Bangkok. How does Neil explain his unprecedented success? With “great ingredients,” he told me, “comes great things.”
“Our pancakes are made with love,” then placed alongside a maple butter “ridiculous sauce”—a combo of real NY state maple syrup whisked with whole butter. Employing “a French technique and American ingredients,” Clinton Street’s pancakes are neither sweet nor savory, lying just in between, with a thin, crispy-edged body to leave you full, but not too full. The blueberries found inside and out—all of their pancakes include goodies inside as well as a garnish on top—are wild Maine blueberries, in season for a brief month or two. The sauce, meanwhile, consists of these same berries, liquefied, with an added lemon zest. They’re not “inventing anything spectacular,” Neil says, but “for each ingredient, there is something special done to them,” the addition of their Love notwithstanding.
Other Options: House granola, buttermilk biscuit sandwich, brioche french toast, huevos rancheros, eggs benedict, and hard blueberry lemonade.
“I always come back to my classical roots,” Neil says, “so when someone talks to me about pancakes, I don’t want a ‘tower of whatever,’ I want the classical three, a perfect stack.” The rest of the plate is specified to an exact standard upheld at all Clinton Street locations throughout the globe: maple butter at 12 o’clock, garnish on top, and a light sprinkling of powdered sugar or cinnamon, depending on the stack’s flavor. Instagram is perfect for Neil in that it allows him to make sure his instructions are being properly executed even in Clinton Street’s faraway iterations. As for the decor, he describes it as “no frill, no pomp and no circumstance,” instead sticking to a simple design that hasn’t changed in years, despite the brand’s immense success.
When they first opened, Clinton Street’s breakfast menu was “an homage to days in diners in Brooklyn,” serving a little bit of everything. As time wore on, certain dishes emerged as staples—the spanish scramble, the biscuit sandwich, the pancakes—while others became seasonal, allowing Neil and Co. room to experiment. Perhaps nothing better encapsulates Neil’s approach to constructing his brunch menu than the way he describes the much-raved-about spanish scramble: “it’s the hangover egg dish you have to eat to set yourself straight.” The man knows what the people need, and he isn’t afraid to give it to them.
The Brunch Ethos
“I’m so fucking old,” Neil admits, “that when I was young, they didn’t call it brunch. It was more like ‘where we went when we had breakfast on the weekends.’” As for his more grown-up thoughts on the meal’s current cultural relevance, he recognizes how important the meal has become for many, though not all. “Everyone goes out to brunch,” he notes, “everyone, that is, except me.”
5. BUTTERMILK CHANNEL, eggs huntington
Buttermilk Channel is proud to be an American. A “small but busy” neighborhood bistro taking regional influences from across the nation, people travel from far and wide—as well as near—to taste its offerings. Operating out of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, it straddles the line between timeless-class-act and hipster-chic-nouveau, doing things like serving your typical pan-roasted arctic char alongside an atypical accompaniment of concord grapes and jalapeno brown butter. If you’re able to stifle your good ol’ American impatience and endure the wait, eating at Buttermilk Channel is by far the yummiest way to display you’re a true patriot.
The Eggs Huntington is your normal brunch dish tweaked to perfection. Available in three varieties to meet everyone’s needs—benton ham, sauteed spinach, or house-cured lox—this plate hasn’t left its spot on the menu once since Buttermilk’s opening. Besides the interchangeable toppings, each iteration has got two soft-poached eggs, a housemade buttermilk biscuit (Chef told me that Buttermilks’ in-house baker spends about half her shift on the weekends churning out these addictive puffed breads), a dousing of hollandaise, and a scallion on top. Like many of their brunch offerings, it comes alongside a mix of organic green lettuces touched off with a traditional mustard vinaigrette dressing.
Other Offerings: housemade granola, buttermilk pancakes, house-cured lox platter, short rib hash, fried pork chop and cheddar waffles
Chef Chris Norton describes the Eggs Huntington’s plating as through-and-through “traditional.” So traditional, in fact, it predates his employment at Buttermilk. The eye-catching brilliance of the hollandaise’s yellow, however, is the result of two things: “really good, high quality” eggs whose yolk is as bright as its diner’s eyes, and a touch of Tabasco mixed in to really bring out its color with a tinge of orange.
Whereas around fifty-percent of Buttermilk’s menu changes along with seasons, the “hits,” like their brunch menu, does not. “We don’t mess with brunch,” Chef Chris tells me. And for good reason. “People have expectations of a Buttermilk brunch,” he goes on to say, and that’s “standard brunch fare, but we do it really well. It’s consistent.” Meanwhile, their distinctive choice of using Benton’s ham as opposed to say, Canadian bacon, is once again an homage to the nation they call home: “we thought it would be nice to add a little spin, using an American product, and it’s also a little unique.” I can sure pledge allegiance to that.
The Brunch Ethos
“I see brunch as a mix of celebrations, baby showers, and the Saturday/Sunday morning crowd trying to get something quick to eat and knock down a Bloody Mary,” says Chef. So he tries to accommodate all manner of brunchers by keeping the place positive and vibrant: “it’s Brooklyn brunch,” he explains. As for Instagram, he warns against diners snapping a pic of their meal after having devoured three-quarters of it and smeared the rest on the plate. “If you’re going to take pictures of someone’s food,” he said, “make it look nice.” What he doesn’t want? Seeing his work on Instagram and thinking: “Oh god, I know that plate didn’t look like that.”
6. CITIZENS OF CHELSEA, avocado toast and beetroot toast
“G’day mate, wheel-kum to Citizens, can I get ya a flat white?”
This may or may not have actually been how the team at Resource was greeted upon our entrance to Citizens of Chelsea, the Australian-inspired brunch spot in, you guessed it, Chelsea. Regardless, this place is Aussie through and through—or at least what I imagine that to mean: impeccable coffee served with a pungent aroma to intoxicate your frontal lobe and a light acidity to relax the sides of your mouth into a comatose state just above that of a vegetable, and a menu of healthy fare leaving you buoyant enough to outrun the meanest of ‘roos.
Its Instagram, meanwhile, is poppin’, and it’s not hard to see why. Despite a decor of plant life, it’s the organic matter on your plate whose saturated hues catch your eye and refuse to let go. Whether it’s the emerald green of the smashed avocado, the deep magenta of the beetroot hummus, or the seafoam green of the matcha latte, the color palette at work here would make the Great Barrier Reef envious, and not just because only one of them is expanding.
The “Smashing Avocado” is more complicated than your average millennial-favorite avo toast. Beginning with a “fresh mash of creamy avocado” on a thick cut sourdough, Citizens then layers on the unexpected goodies: cilantro, lemon, feta cheese, a sprinkling of roasted pepitas, pickled onions, watermelon radish, and a healthy smear of beetroot hummus. Yum.
If the avocado didn’t make you reach for your social-media-connected device, the “Beetroot Hummus Toast” certainly will. Once again starting with a thick cut of sourdough, this dish gets a hearty serving of house-blended beets, chickpeas, citrus, paprika and fresh herbs. Finally, a light garnish of pepitas and pickled onions gives it the added crunch and flavor to keep you thinking back to it all day long.
Also recommended: the “Duck Benny” with crispy duck bacon, two soft poached eggs, fresh arugula, and a house-made hollandaise on sourdough.
“We like your dishes to be as beautiful as they taste,” the team at Citizens told me. Check. “We use a lot of bright colors and contrasting textured to create something that really catches the eye.” Check.
“The Smashed Avocado is one of the most classic Australian brunch dishes, so there’s certainly no shortage of inspiration out there. We wanted to create something that celebrates the natural simplicity of the dish, but also that offers something a little unique and special to make it stand out. That’s how the beetroot hummus garnish found its way onto the plate; it adds a unique flavor palate to the dish that complements the avocado so well, and also really makes the plate pop!” Well said, guys.
The Brunch Ethos
For Citizens, brunch is so much more than “the tangibles of good food and good coffee,” though they certainly off that, too. It’s about the experience: “what makes brunch really special is the coming together of people, the social element of getting together and enjoying yourselves, sharing stories, laughs and good times.” Their job in this whole scheme? Creating an “environment that celebrates these good times.” Cheers to that, mate.
7. SAXON AND PAROLE, saxon burger [brunch burger]
Saxon + Parole looks like one of those places where if you walk in without a houndstooth-patterned Purple Label tweed jacket replete with faux-scuffed leather elbow patches, they have a rack full of them to borrow while you dine. This meat-centric, aristocratic establishment has been described by the Times as “in fact…warmly appealing,” a description which, given its high-minded restraint and understated exuberance, fits perfectly.
Nicole Gadajhar, Saxon + Parole’s Chef de Cuisine, similarly described the atmosphere as “warm” and “fun,” a place where she loves to work. While no one item can be solely responsible for a brunch spot’s ambiance, the dark wood on almost every surface has got to have something to do with the “warmth” being referenced by all who are familiar. As my associate remarked immediately upon our entrance: “this place has got more wood than an Amazonian forest.”
All jokes aside, this place is good, like real good. What else could you expect from a restaurant which describes its seafood offerings as “aquatic delights”? Named after two “stately” nineteenth-century racehorses, Saxon + Parole boasts an all-star staff led by Executive Chef Brad Farmerie, winner of—among many other things—2009’s Iron Chef America. So if you find yourself looking less-dishevelled-than-usual one Sunday morning, and with a desire to play “member of high society” for a couple hours, hit up S+P. You won’t regret it.
The Food-The fan favorite Saxon Burger has been on the menu “since day one.” Inside is a juicy dry-aged custom blend from Pat LaFrieda molded into a patty in-house, topped with maple bacon (also made in-house), Havarti cheese from Ann Saxelby, a brioche bun with everything-bagel topping, fresh vegetables, bleu cheese mayo, sriracha ketchup, and, for brunch, a fried egg.
The Drink- S+P comes out swingin’ with three different Bloody Marys on the menu—the original Bloody Mary, the Bloody Caesar, and the Bloody Maria. Each begins with the same cold-pressed tomato juice, celery, cucumber, red bell pepper, salt and pepper combination, diverging sharply from there. While the Mary is garnished with “pickled stuff” arranged so as to mimic the Mexican flag, the Caesar comes with freshly shucked oysters and a hint of “clamato” juice. The Maria, finally, goes for a clean feel, utilizing Altos blancos tequila, fresh vegetable juice, cilantro, and topped with a mezcal float for that smoky aroma.
(food) Truffle burrata, clam chowder, baked eggs, Mangalitsa ham, chilled Mayan prawns.
(drink) Paloma fresca, yankee mule, oyster shooter, cranberry pisco sour.
To emphasize that gorgeous yolk—seated like a royal fowl upon its beefy throne—as well as their farm-fresh vegetables, Ms. Gadajhar deconstructs the burger and leaves it open, top bun set aside. There’s no mystery here—what you see is what you get, and what you get, you can see. When you’re proud of your food, there’s simply no reason to hide it. And the wood plating? Well, we’ve been over that.
Head Bartender Maxime Belfand told me that when constructing his brunch menu, he wanted things that were “fresh.” When you wake up, he said, “you just want coffee and orange juice,” and if he can fulfill those same cravings, all the while getting you drunk—though not too drunk—his mission has been accomplished. Hence his use of light ingredients like cilantro, coriander salt, and dill.
Ms. Gadajhar, meanwhile, wanted classic American brunch dishes, but with a twist. To that end, she added yuzu to her hollandaise, homemade Nutella to her french toast, and maple to her bacon. She’s happy to give the people what they want and expect from that iconic meal, but she’s not afraid to also “add some flavors that [she] wants.”
The Brunch Ethos
In what’s quickly becoming a trend in our interviews, Ms. Gadajhar, while affirming that brunch is the “it” thing, the “must-do” meal of the New York social scene, admits she has never gone to brunch herself. The reason? “I’m usually working,” she says. No surprise there. As much pleasure as she takes in her work, she still feels left out when her girlfriends post their meals to Instagram, or invite her to come along. And it’s not just her friends passing along the FOMO virus: “even the bartenders tell us about brunch they’ve had.” GRRRR.
8. SPEED ROMEO’S, brunch pizza
“Speedy Romeo” was the name of Todd Feldman’s family racehorse. Growing up, he remembers gazing at an image of the well-chiseled stead above his living room TV set. Once he got older, and grew to possess a broader cultural context, he realized that the moniker would be a great fit for something else, as well: a bar. With his college roommate and Jean George Vongerichten-trained chef Justin Bazdarich, he did what few of us with great bar names in mind actually do: bring them to life.
Opening in an abandoned auto body shop in Clinton Hill, Speedy quickly became a neighborhood favorite, leading some to consider whether the name was ironic considering how long the lines to eat could extend. More recently, they’ve extended to the Lower East Side, serving Katz’s pastrami as a nod to the neighborhood they now call home. The vibe is warm and neighborly, with tchotchkes lining the walls like a classed-up Applebee’s. Justin told me he wanted to open a place which felt like “it had been there for a hundred years.” With the help of an already antique structure, and some well-thought-out eclecticism, he’s done just that. The pizza, meanwhile, tastes far ahead of its time.
“New Jersey kids love the Taylor ham, egg and cheese sandwiches,” Justin informs me. So in that spirit—and with a nod to Todd’s mother’s diner The Ritz—he created a pizza called “The Ritz” to give them Jersey kids what they want, while spreading the gospel outside the state’s bounds. It starts with a thin layer of bechamel and some grilled Taylor ham, after which a splash of Provel cheese from St. Louis and two eggs (yolks runny) are thrown on top. Then, “slice it, hit it with Tabasco, finish it with black pepper” and you got a pie with the nostalgia baked right in.
If you’re going to serve brunch on the Lower East Side, you better have smoked salmon on the menu. For the guys at Speedy, however, serving the salmon wasn’t enough; they had to cure it themselves. Their “Gravlax Pizza” is topped with a 3-day-cured salmon rubbed distinctively with fennel fronds as opposed to the typical dill. Paired with a fresh ricotta made in-house each day, and the usual suspects of red onion, capers, and olive oil, this pie makes you wonder what the big deal is with those “bagel” things, anyway.
Other Offerings: radicchio salad, slab bacon, crispy potatoes, “led zepole”
It’s circular, it’s symmetrical, and it’s got an array of colors from green to pink to red, what else is there to say?
The process of making a delicious pizza isn’t all that different from making a delicious anything else. Having barely made pizza before starting Speedy, Justin tells me he treats it like “an edible plate.” Instead of simply garnishing it, he says, you “garnish it and then eat it.” This mindset—that pizza is no different a vehicle for food than an ordinary dish—shines through in his choice to translate familiar meals onto pizzas, a move which appears radical from the outside. Consider his “Paul’s Boutique”—available on the LES only—which has got Katz’s pastrami, 1000 island dressing, and an “everything bagel crust.” By treating the pizza as an open-faced sandwich, the formerly constraining bounds of what is appropriate for a “pizza” are thrown wide open, with Mr. Bazdarich standing there happy to chart its new course.
The Brunch Ethos
“I honestly hate brunch, I hate everything about. I can’t stand it. I think it’s something to do with the fact that I have to work it. So many people are in the room having a blast and I’m stuck in the back cooking.”
9. CRAVE FISHBAR, lobster benedict
From the guys behind Crave Ceviche (R.I.P., closed due to a crane accident) comes Crave Fish Bar, the full service seafood restaurant celebrating six years in midtown Manhattan and two on Amsterdam Ave. A go-to for all things aquatic, Crave keeps it nautical, decking its halls—and website—with old timey scuba gear befitting the most notorious Scooby Doo villain.
About a year ago, they decided to start serving brunch, taking advantage of their prime location on the Upper West Side. Of course, as a seafood restaurant, they couldn’t serve the typical fare, dedicated as they were to remaining “within the boundaries of who we are.” Instead, they took classic brunch dishes and made them their own, replacing for instance, the fried chicken on chicken and waffles with a fried dish. “We knew,” Owner/Chef Todd told us, we “wanted to play on certain favorites” of our staff and customers, while still getting “fun and creative.” Mission accomplished.
“The Lobster Benedict is a unique way, in our minds, of getting away from what you’d expect.” Amen. Putting lobster on top of this fan favorite has thus far proved a smashing success. To begin with, Hollandaise—the classic, beloved French sauce—is impossible to go wrong with. Further, it all sits in emulsified butter, the creaminess of which “showcases lobster really well.” “Draping” this over some sous vide eggs, alongside creamed spinach and kale, and a multigrain baguette from Orwasher’s bakery-—which had serendipitously moved to the area around the same time that Crave began doing brunch. The benedict is complete and classic as ever, albeit with chunks of juicy lobster sitting with aplomb on top.
Other Options: Baked eggs, crab & gruyere omelette, smoked salmon bagel, and the “hangover wrap” with fried shrimp and fried potatoes.
“We understand that we are not a fine dining restaurant, but that doesn’t mean we’re not taking the care to look at the food and plate it in an artistic, organized way.” Employing Earthware cutlery, crisp white plates and bowls, dark burgundy mugs, and “artfully plated food,” Crave goes for a look that is simultaneously restrained and organic. Case in point: they’ll give you four condiments in four separate stainless steel cups, but they’re going to place them all together on one side-plate, rather than allowing them to drift freely as one might expect at a less-look-conscious establishment. The rusted scuba helmet, meanwhile, serves to remind diners that as clean, well-lit, and dry as this place may be, someone had to go into the murky sea to collect this bounty.
When the team at Crave decided to begin serving brunch, they went in-house for ideas. They spoke to their employees, each other, and their most loyal clientele to determine how they were going to take on the task of serving such an iconic meal in the heart of brunch central NYC, the Upper West Side. As I mentioned earlier, they were determined to remain within their sweet spot—seafood—while still harkening back to popular notions of brunch. In order to do so, they couldn’t simply replace chicken for fish and rest happy, they had to experiment with entire flavor profiles. Cutting out the maple syrup on the fish and waffles, for instance, they switch in kimchi butter, homemade sweet chili sauce, and a purple shiso. The result? A menu full of dishes that are experimental, yet classic—call it nostalgia with an open mind.
The Brunch Ethos
For the staff at Crave, thoughts of brunch immediately circled the one place that does brunch every day—diners. A lot of people, he said “reference their best hashbrowns, or most extravagant pancakes.” “We,” he continued, “try to filter that through our own lens.” His own favorite childhood brunch item, no surprise here, was oysters. Specifically at Aquagrill, and best eaten on their deck on a sunny day. However, “if I lived on the upper west side,” he admits, “and lived near Crave, that would be my go-to.”
10. DOUGHNUT PLANT, doughnuts
The Doughnut Plant is a unique mix of historic legacy and path-breaking innovation. While it’s website lists a timeline—complete with family pictures—connecting founder Mark Israel’s own bakery to that of his father’s and grandfather’s, it also lists a variety of “firsts” achieved by Mark and his team including their “cake” doughnut and the world’s first Tres-Leches doughnut. Not to mention his invention, unveiled in 2004, of the Jelly-Filled Square Doughnut, designed to ensure a bit of jam in every bite. While making sure to pay homage to his roots—Mark opened The Doughnut Plant with his grandfather’s recipe—he continues to move forward, vowing to “do [his] best to make the doughnuts at Doughnut Plant always increasing in their deliciousness.”
Naturally, we ordered a bunch of these doughnuts and, after shooting, devoured them all.
Later we were lucky enough to speak to The Doughnut Plan’s Chief Creative Officer, Jeff Magness, who graciously answered our questions in the business-like manner you can only expect from someone with a 3-letter acronym for a job title.
Given the array, we’ll name the most notable:
The Creme Brulee is the world’s first creme brulee doughnut. The Vanilla Bean is a classic yeast doughnut and a longtime best seller. The Peanut Butter and Jam square-filled doughnut is made of peanuts straight from a farm in Georgia, roasted and mashed in-house, as well as a homemade jam utilizing fresh blackberries or seasonal fruit. Finally, the Tres Leches which, like the Creme Brulee, is the first of its kind but, unlike the creme brulee, is made of a cake body, as opposed to yeast body.
Mark just keeps expanding his boundaries. From a round yeast doughnut in the early days, to the square jelly-filled, to the miniature filled “Doughpods,” all the way to the beautiful “Doughflower” rose-shaped doughnuts which taste as sweet as they look. They’ve also recently unveiled—though not pictured here—their “Ripple,” which is a doughnut within a doughnut within a doughnut, encompassing three different flavors and capable of feeding 6-8 mouths.
The Doughnut Plant prides itself on its self-sufficiency and originality: everything is made in-house, and from scratch. This further allows them to ensure that only the “highest quality, all-natural ingredients” are used with, I assume, a big dose of love. Since day one, everything has been made in small batches, each day, by hand, with no preservatives or trans fats to speak of. Finally, a doughnut you can feel good about.
The Brunch Ethos
Jeff was unable to comment on this—I guess executives aren’t used to commenting on “Ethos”—I should’ve probably phrased it as “ what’s the most effective, sensory-based, emotionally resonant marketing strategy for brunch?” Would’ve definitely gotten an answer then.
11. PIES ‘N’ THIGHS, chicken and waffles
“We love to party,” reads the catering tab on Pies N Thighs’ website. Despite its tongue-in-cheek nature, this self-description feels pretty accurate. From the moment you walk in and see the red-and-white checkered tablecloth with a couple nice hunks of gooey pie atop it, you feel right back at home at your neighborhood diner, celebrating yet another uneventful homecoming with your friends. The only difference: the food here tastes way too good and the flavor variations on the baked goods sound straight out of a satire poking fun at the gourmand culture of #foodporn.
Although they’ve won numerous awards for their doughnuts, we sought out Pies N Thighs for the purposes of fulfilling what we all agreed was our favorite brunch item, the chicken and waffle. Emerging from unknown lineages (see the insightful article by my co-worker Cassandra Rohr for more on that), the waffle smothered in maple syrup and topped with juicy pieces of fried chicken is simply legendary. Whether it’s brunch, breakfast-for-dinner, dinner-for-breakfast, snack-for-lunch, or even lunch-as-dessert, there’s almost never a time in which a plate of chicken and waffles is not appropriate eating.
Consisting of two pieces of fried chicken, two buckwheat waffles, and topped with cinnamon butter, strawberries and, for me, a Hurricane Sandy-level influx of warm, sweet, real maple syrup, the chicken and waffles is modern simplicity at its finest. Sure you can blame the deep fried crust, or the sweet sugar of the syrup for this dishes’ ability to seemingly fulfill all your innermost desires. Personally, I’d rather believe there is some unseen alchemy which occurs whenever a fried chicken leg touches a waffle, the result of which is a tear in the time-space continuum and the appearance of a literal—albeit for a very brief duration—heaven on earth.
Pies N Thighs baker Sarah Sanneh told me that the look of the chicken and waffles is all about “color color color.” For that, she employs a monthly-rotating topping of cooked fruit which also happens to add extra freshness and sweetness. Win-win.
[Editors’ Note: The inclusion of chicken and waffles on the brunch menu must have seemed so obvious to the team behind Pies N Thighs, due to its infinite tastiness and position as a staple of truly refined tastes, that the question of why and how it was chosen must have computed as no more than inane gibberish. We apologize for this mistake on our part.]
The Brunch Ethos
Ms. Sanneh has a unique perspective on brunch due to her position as a baker. While most respondents made it clear that they were much too busy serving brunch to ever enjoy brunch—some going so far as to hate the meal, their envy scabbing into disgust—she pretty much misses out on the whole thing. “Brunch,” she says, “is a time to come in when it’s still dark out and go home when the rush starts.” So the next time you’re stumbling into bed at 4 am on a Sunday morning, just remember, Sarah is out there baking doughnuts and other goodies, awaiting your return to consciousness.
12. THE BAGEL STORE, rainbow bagels
Bagel Store founder Scot Rossillo grew up around bagels, literally. His childhood home in Gravesend, Brooklyn was located behind a bagel factory. When he first came into some money, inherited due to a tragic family member’s death, he spent it on opening his own bagelry with a childhood friend. That spot is now Bagel World and, even though Scot left due to creative differences—notably, Scot was creative and forward-thinking while his partner “couldn’t see it”—he remains friends with its owner. Describing the bagel world’s transformation over time from a rigid, unionized and Jewish-mob-run empire to the disparate, fractured industry it is now, Scot assures me: “I know everything about the bagel business.”
When he first opened in Williamsburg, it was still grungy. The unknown art capital of the world, its low rents allowed Scot to spread his wings and release his creative energy, a matter of his “spiritual and mental well-being.” Surprisingly for the “bagel that broke the internet,” success did not come overnight. Each failure, however, and every disappointment, only led Scot to “go back and try that much harder.” It was only after countless hours of pigmentation research, hundreds of thousands of batches of freshly-baked bagels, and too many days of waking up before the sun rose that the rainbow bagel was able to lay claim to its rightful title: Owner of the Internet.
It’s a bagel! Paired with cream cheese! And some of them have sprinkles!
The rainbow bagel is a bit different—aside from its coloration—than other bagels. It’s softer, with a consistency like dried Model Magic, and has a hint of sweetness. The spreads, meanwhile, range from concord grape to cookies & cream, and work surprisingly well—I can assure you, you’ve tasted nothing like it.
“Even the manliest of men,” Scot says, “love rainbows.” He adds a scene to help me picture it: “you’re driving around, you’ve just had a massive rain and everyone looks at that rainbow and it’s illuminating on the inside, for everyone. It’s inherent. It resonates happiness to everyone. I can’t put my finger on why, but it does.” Considering Scot’s stated mission as a baker and chef that “your happiness is my primary thought,” it’s no wonder he turned to rainbow for his signature item.
Making a rainbow bagel, Scot tells me, takes about ten times longer than making a regular one. It’s not so much about the ingredients as the numerous techniques—developed over time by Scot in his relentless quest for aesthetic perfection—which must be strictly adhered to. Nonetheless, it’s worth it, as the father of six explains, “it’s my seventh child and that’s how I treat it. I nurture it, I keep going back to the drawing board, even today.”
As for the cream cheese pairing? He thinks “long and hard” about each one, delving into the research books and utilizing his culinary school background. So many factors go into the decision that ultimately Scot is unable to give me a quick answer, except to say that, when you’re aiming for customer’s happiness, “nothing is ever on-the-fly.”
The Bagel Ethos
The spirit of a bagel is it’s “tradition”; it’s a “piece of Americana at its best.” As Scot attests, everyone’s got their own “stories of Ma or Pa bringing back bagels from the store on Saturday or Sunday,” and I know I do. It’s also ubiquitous: “every corporate event, every shiva call, every funeral, they always have bagels.” For Scot, the key comes from both preserving that rich history, not forgetting the bagel’s modest roots, while remaining creative, breaking bounds and creating the unexpected. His next taboo to tackle? Combining a bagel and a baguette. If anyone can do it, it’s Scot.
Photos by Greg Neumaier