Thursday, September 6, 2012

Brunchemian Rhapsody

Bad pun, I know. But it's time I address my crippling preoccupation with brunch, a subject of much fantasy since my trip to Chicago. They do it right up in Chi-town, with fresh-squeezed juices, Metropolis coffee, massive, fluffy pancakes covered in all kinds of good things, French-toasted bread pudding (!!! So much genius in only four words!!!), and fat sausages from the heartland. *Sigh.* It is a happy place, this land of brunch.

I've been trying to replicate this happiness on Long Island, and although the results have been mostly positive, nothing has come close to Pauline's and m. henrietta in the Windy City.

Before I talk about my LI adventures in brunching, allow me to get all hot and bothered about both of these brunches that so blew my mind.

The scene: Outdoors, with trees rustling in the breeze, train tracks elevated above the street across from the cozy corner the restaurant is located on, and the chirp of songbirds echoing through the brownstoned residential neighborhood.

The stars: FAT, FAT pancakes, made with heavy whipping cream, unbleached flour, raw brown sugar, and Mexican vanilla, topped with a layer of confectioner's sugar and a side of hot maple syrup. So fluffy, so flavorful, elevating pancakes to a height they had never achieved before. And as if that weren't enough, the French Toast Bread Pudding brought two of the most heavenly carb-laden, sweet bread items together and married them in a ceremony of sugar cane goodness. They were a little too sweet for Boy, but not for me. Moist, medium-density bread pudding laced with apples, raisins, apricots, and other pieces of God's candy, it was then dipped in French toast batter, fried, and topped with thick, freshly whipped cream and fresh strawberries, which were ending their peak season when I was there. The strawberry rhubarb jam, which was perfectly balanced, was an absolute delight. I et ALL of that, and then tried my friend Kristen's homefries (which were also delicious).

The future: Their omelettes have five eggs. FIVE EGGS! I'd probably get the same things I got the first time, but the French Toast does sound pretty ridic. "Six thick slices dipped in eggs, heavy cream, vanilla, cinnamon and orange zest, topped with powdered sugar, whipped cream and fresh strawberries." The symphony writes itself.

m. henrietta
The scene: Cozy, indoor locale with scents of farm-fresh produce wafting through a whimsical but contemporary setting. Clean, airy, and soul-liftingly bright with natural sunlight, the outdoors was brought indoors through the color scheme, ingredients, and the cheerful colors that decorated every plate to leave the kitchen. All sunshine and happiness.

The stars: The Blackberry Blisscakes were a must-try for me, crusted in brown sugar and whole oats. Warm blackberries and its tart accompanying compote kept the pancakes from being too sweet, while the vanilla mascarpone cream rendered syrup completely unnecessary. The pancakes were so light (other than the crust), that it eventually dissolved into a soggy purple mess, but it was good while it lasted. The Breakfast Bread Pudding, made with egg custard, brioche, and vanilla was a bit too sweet and overwhelming, and waaaay too wet, but it was a great idea in theory. Save this for dessert, and not an entree! The Lemon Crab and Shrimp Cake Benedict was a study in fresh, green flavors made elegantly rich, and the chorizo scramble with fresh corn, salsa verde, queso fresco, and fried plantains, was hearty and fabulous.

The future: Lemon Raspberry Brioche French Toast sounds like an incredible combination of lemon curd and raspberry coulis, and I'd love to try their regular hotcakes, just to see. The Rustic Peasant Quiche sounds like an ideal lunchy-brunch choice, filled with asparagus, sauteed leeks, applewood bacon, Lorraine Swiss cheese, and gruyere, with a side of lovely local greens in a light dressing. I saw this pass by a few times and had food envy.

Now for Long Island ...

Maureen's Kitchen
The scene: Cows, cows, and more cows. Cramped, bustling, with every square foot filled with people, while every square non-physical inch flooded with wafting scents of sausage, frying butter, and warm syrup. Lines out the door at all times for this cash-only breakfast joint. Oh, and cows. So many cows.

The stars: Fluffy buttermilk pancakes that are rich and are as fabulously delicious and satisfying in their classic renditions as their more adventurous ones. I most recently tried the almond and orange special, with toasted almonds and orange juice and marmalade mixed right into the batter. A little too orangey, which got tiresome after a while, since the flavor got too cluttered. The Reuben was ridiculous, though, and the Famous Baked Oatmeal is like bread pudding with oats. Apples and raisins plump up in the baking, and the addition of the side of hot milk create a richness that turns the combination into a luscious treat.

The future: Pancakes and more pancakes! Although, next time I try one of their fancy pancakes, I'll also get a short stack of the classics. The best I've tried on Long Island, but still doesn't hold a candle to Pauline's.

Grey Horse Restaurant
The scene: A beautiful grey Victorian in lovely residential Bayport, only steps away from a small (and I mean small) farm. Restored dark wood floors and a homey layout with just enough sunlight streaming through the parklike grounds to imagine being at home in a house in the Hamptons.

The stars: Well, the coffee was great, and I had the Brown Butter Waffles, which came with more butter and maple syrup. It was good, but not a lot of food, and the homemade sausage was a little funky -- definitely not your average breakfast sausage spice blend. The Croque Madame that Boy had wasn't authentic French style, and the medium egg was overcooked; very little egg ran down when it was cut into. However, the side salad was really excellent, with fresh field greens and an incredibly light vinaigrette that was perfect for the summer morning we spent there. This was really delicious.

The future: I wouldn't come here for brunch again, I don't think, only because the portions were so small. I'd definitely finish up with a cup of coffee, and maybe get the Croque Monsiuer for lunch or something. If I were to have brunch, I'd try the Whole Wheat Flapjacks, which the server said was not as good as the Brown Butter Waffle, but I just wasn't impressed by it. I do want to love this place, because of the refined New American style and locally sourced ingredients. It's just a little restrained, but nice if you want to feel fancy and high-end.

Cafe Joelle
The scene: Reminiscent of the small restaurants that line Magazine Street in New Orleans, tin-tile ceilings and all, this Main Street restaurant is a lovely, quiet, and understated little restaurant.

The stars: The Belgian waffle was good, and I got the pecans and apples on the side. Warm syrup was served, too, and although it was all tasty, a waffle is usually just a waffle. (I think I have to stop getting waffles at these Long Island places, and stick to waffles in Vermont.) It was inexpensive and satisfying, but nothing too special. The Eggs Benedict were perfect, however, and the quiche with a light salad seemed really nice, and a healthy portion. Fat, giant sausages accompany.

The future: I can't fairly judge this place until I get the pancakes, so that'll be next.

Milk and Sugar Cafe
The scene: An absolutely adorable picture of Victorian excess, with parlor chairs and coffee table dining, wing chairs, and all kinds of rustic trim that bring to mind a lovely dollhouse.

The stars: Honestly, there weren't any, aside from their rather remarkable coffee and authentic cafe au lait. The ambience is far better than the food itself. The catering at The Victorian Room, their affiliate across the street, is excellent, but the brunch buffet was sad and disappointing, and certainly not worth the money.

The future: Pass. And I think I'm over them for dessert, too, since they're provided by a food supplier and not baked locally or in-house. Sad about that.

Cornucopia's Noshery
The scene: Set on Main Street in Amityville, this little homey place is small and quaint, specializing in locally sourced and organic foods.

The stars: Apparently, Cornucopia's Noshery is well known for its pancakes, but they don't look that fluffy from the pictures on Yelp. They also look a little burnt in every instance. I ordered a frittata when I was there, and it was good but small. I just wasn't wowed.

The future: Meh. It's kind of far and not impressive.

The following are places I really want to check out for brunch, but haven't gotten around to.

The scene: In King's Park, an area I'm not to familiar with, the pictures make the place look very simple and clean.

The future: As another locavore-focused organic-preferred place, I'm interested in checking it out, although the selections aren't as high-end and inventive as the gold standard that is brunch in Chicago. I'd like to get a taste of the "Light as a Cloud" ricotta pancakes with mixed berries, or the honey and nut pancakes, if that didn't sound so calorie-laden. The omelettes are self-reportedly "overstuffed," but that will remain to be seen. However, the eggs are local free-range.

La Tavola
The scene: I love this restaurant as it is, which is why I'm eager to try them out for brunch. Lovely outdoor patio dining with a rustic, classic upscale Italian interior.

The future: It's frittata time when I come visit here, because it'd be silly to go to an Italian restaurant for brunch and not try and Italian brunch classic. Theirs is with zucchini, prosciutto, grilled red onion, and goat cheese, for now, since their offerings are pretty seasonal, which I also love. Thick-cut French toast with strawberry jam and cannoli cream sounds like it could be a good choice, as well, but during the winter, it turns into something with vanilla, I believe. I'm looking forward to see what they choose to do in the coming months.

Bistro 25
The scene: I've been writing a lot about this place lately, but it truly is one of my favorites in the neighborhood. Modern, simple, and comfortable, this Hamptons-contemporary interior with the small dining room is intimate without feeling crowded, and always quiet and upscale in an understated fashion.

The future: Everything I've ever had here has been excellent, so I can only imagine that their super-cheap brunch is, too. $15 buys you a meal plus two alcoholic beverages (so you're kind of getting the meal for free?), but the food options sound as upscale as everything else on their menu. I already know the pork belly is superb, and so the Pork Belly and Poached Eggs promises to be tasty. Challah Bread French Toast is probably also great, since it comes with maple butter, and I always love a good quiche.

The scene: Upscale Italian, the ambience for the Greenlawn location is refined and classy -- not dissimilar to La Tavola. I was here for a really fantastic dinner a year or so ago, but haven't tried the Port Jefferson location. I'd assume the feel is similar.

The future: Nothing sounds bad about a Cranberry Nut French Toast with Apricot Butter. However, I don't know how long this will be on the menu, either, since they are also a seasonal restaurant, which means fresh, fresh, fresh creations! The other selections as of right now are kind of standard for upscale brunches, but the dinners there are spectacular.

Mill Pond House
The scene: Privileged North Shore waterfront dining. I haven't had the pleasure of eating here yet, but I've heard really great things and I've seen the magical view.

The future: I love when things I love are put together, because then it's just a love-food-smang. This may very well be the case when I read "Creme Brulee French Toast." Brioche, berries, and brulee -- finally, something that sounds like the standard I'm trying to find. And although it may be a lowly sandwich, the Warm Prosciutto and Fried Egg with basil aioli and arugula are calling my name as well. Will sweet or savory take the day? Hopefully, we'll find out this fall!

The scene: Unknown. The pictures and description make it sound kind of NYC SoHo eclectic, i.e. trendily old-school?

The future: I've read good things, and keep hearing that the coffee is really great. I'm a bit saddened that there's a $1.50 charge for real maple syrup (but then again, Maureen's Kitchen has that, too, which means we get the high fructose crap automatically), but inventions like Whole Wheat Peach and Raspberry Pancakes or Whole Wheat Apple and Blackberry Pancakes may make it moot in any significant quantity. The Sweet Potato and Honey Butter one sounds like a great fall combo, too, and I'd be interested in experimenting with that. The French Toasts are also pretty rich sounding, such as Graham Cracker with peanut butter, banana, and caramel (I'm a little confused about this one, to be honest), and the Apple Strudel French Toast (although it doesn't sound like a French-toasted apple strudel, if that's what you're looking for.) Nice omelette combos, too, but I'm into carbs right now.

The Cookroom
The scene: Divey old-school diner setting, in what used to be ... well, an old-school, Airstream trailer-looking diner.

The future: First, thank you to Erin Battaglia for mentioning this place to me so I could add it to this master list. Biscuits and sausage gravy sound like a delicious way to clog up your arteries, and with the cold weather almost upon us, a Chili and Cheddar omelette may not come amiss. According to photos on Yelp, most of the oversized, creative omelette creations come with cheese hearts melted on the top, which is a really cute touch. However, if carbs are winning the day, the pancakes look pretty kickass (read: giant and fluffy), and all are dusted with cinnamon and confectioner's sugar. Apple cinnamon sounds great, as do the Oaty Oats. And apple-stuffed cinnamon raisin French toast? Interesting ... Usually, I don't go for the cinnamon raisin because it's made with thin slices of manufactured bread, but the combination sounds unique. Another item that caught my eye was the Baked Oatmeal stuffed with craisins, apples, and raisins and served with yogurt. Someone looking to give ol' Mo a run for her money, eh?

Glen's Dinette
The scene: Old-school diner.

The future: In Babylon Village, people flock to this place, so it must be decent if appearances are deceiving. But honestly, I don't think I'll be trying it. It's really basic, and they use supermarket ingredients and boast about it, like Pepperidge Farm bread. I mean, really?

JT's Corner Cafe
The scene: Ugly strip mall. However, the menu shows promise of redeeming this dubious setting.

The future: Almond Pear French Toast, anyone? Grilled pears and warm pear syrup. A long list of Benedicts also follow, although the pancake list is lacking.

So ... that's my list so far of places to tackle in my search for a Chicago-style brunch on Long Island. I let some of the standards off this because a) now I'm tired of typing and b) some places suck ass. Wish me luck, or a visit back to the Windy City soon to scratch this itch that has been plaguing me since my taste in July -- because I'm very seriously contemplating going there again for a weekend, just to brunch it up.

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