19 June, 2011

New York - brunch

They love to brunch in New York. And when I say brunch, I mean something more than just a snazzy word combination to describe a mid-morning meal, something more than ordering off the breakfast menu late in the day.

Most cafes have a completely separate brunch menu, available only at set times on the weekend, normally something like 11-4. In most cases, the menu also covers cocktails - often one (or more) is included along with your meal. It's a dining tradition I'm quite keen on and its absence on these shores is leaving my Sundays feeling a little bland and disappointing in comparison.

The only frustrating thing about New York's winning brunch arrangements is that they're only available on weekends - even as happy-go-lucky tourists you can't take advantage of a quiet Thursday to knock back a few complimentary bloody marys with your poached eggs. So, when it came to the weekend, brunch was our priority tourist destination.

Within 36 hours of landing in New York, we'd been to Brooklyn twice. Our initial, jetlag-avoiding meander south from Houston Street led us to City Square, site of the striking Municipal Building and start of the Brooklyn Bridge. Never one to let debilitating tiredness and crazed melatonin levels get in the way of a travel opportunity, we duly crossed said bridge, and found ourselves incapable of much more than an atrophied rest in the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Even the attractions of a Calexico cart couldn't lure us to our first sample of street food.

The next day we crossed the river again, via subway this time, to hit the Brooklyn Flea Market, featuring the Smorgasburg food market. I held myself to a doughnut at the markets, however. As Brooklyn is gentrified by up-and-comers escaping the $800K median apartment price tag in Manhattan, it's embracing the cafe culture big time, and I had a whole list of possible places to brunch at.

One was Milk Bar, famous in these parts for having an Australian, indeed Melbournian, barista, who can make a 'proper' latte. Seems the Americans are loving it Aussie style too - the place was pumping full when we went past.

Instead we trudged (jetlag and heat don't really put a spring in your step) an extra couple of blocks to The Spot, home of the unlimited mimosa brunch. That's right - you promise to pay them $12.95 and in return you can pick anything off the menu and they will refill your glass with bubbles and orange juice as much as you like. Rather than the hiss of the coffee machine, this cafe resonated with popping corks.

The thing was, we were both ragged with jetlag, and unlimited drinks coupled with fatty food on a hot day was probably a recipe for....well, indulging in the crazy, nonsensical kind of things you do on holidays, really.

So, SG went a safe option with the pancakes, for which the customer could choose their own filling, his taste running to strawberry and blueberry. The great North American condiment, real maple syrup, came jugged on the side.

Without elaborating, the waiter advised that the 'French toast Spot style' was pretty special. I figured, when in Rome, and all that, and ordered according to his recommendation.Thank you, I will have my French toast deep-fried. The special addition was the cream cheese on the inside. It really wasn't that bad, and let's face it, we were drinking all the sparkling wine we wanted for the price of a sandwich at Earl, so there wasn't much to complain about.

To celebrate this, our first New York brunch, and to recover from imbibing alcohol and ingesting plenty of fat, sugar and dairy midday, we promptly went home and went to sleep :)

The next day we went back for more, this time keeping it much closer to home, needing only to trudge four doors down from our apartment to Jane. This was a fancier place than The Spot, overrun with good-looking Villagers. We perched at the bar, and spent as long picking a complimentary cocktail (raspberry champagne) as the food.
Here we have corn 'pancakes' (the discs sitting under the eggs), topped with perfectly poached eggs, maple chicken sausage and tomato hollandaise. Alongside are the home fries (it took us a while to hit upon genuine fries, rather than wedges). The maple sausage in particular was delicious. I love maple syrup in baked beans, and discovered in America what wonders it can do for meat as well.

Prune came to our attention via a friend's recommendation. It's in an unassuming street in the East Village, and I think exemplifies New York's weekend dining scene. Rammed inside, anxious groups hovered outside, awaiting and cursing missing friends who prevented them from being seated. The hostess ran the show with authority, in some cases seeming to fit people in at whim. The cafe's popularity was proven by diners who arrived unfazed by the prospect of a 40-minute wait.

We were seated within a couple of minutes (must have been of those hostess whim things). I'd been after something straightforward - a toast and scramble kind of thing, with cocktails, of course. The menu didn't present as straightforward, and it soon became clear that this was a cafe that took brunch very seriously. They've nailed the idea of a mix of sweet and savoury dishes - often both elements on the one plate - to fill the late-morning to early-afternoon eating requirements of cashed-up kids on the weekend.

Our choices were thus:Dutch-style pancake, with blueberries and coulis, served with sour cream and Canadian maple bacon. This was so delicious. The pancake was risen in the oven, rather than a pan, and it was like sitting down to a sponge cake for breakfast. The blueberries soaked right in, and offset by the salty, smoky bacon, it was just divine.

This was on the menu simply as 'spicy chickpea stew', but it was so much more. The (not very spicy) chickpea and tomato stew does form the basis, but sitting atop are two wonderful things: crumbed poached eggs, which held their runniness throughout the meal. Astride the plate are two pieces of flatbread, spread with the most decadently salty olive butter. I'd have paid the price of admission just for that.

So much for scramble on toast!

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