I have a confession to make: I hate brunch buffets, those all you-can-eat affairs where, faced with a selection as long as a football field, you promptly lose your mind and pile your plate to the point you're confronting far more than you can realistically consume or appreciate. And some people don't stop there.
I think the moment I swore off such extravagances was a Sunday morning at the Rainbow Room in New York. The buffet there is famous for the view, and for the fact that the buffet spread slowly revolves like a turntable. I watched that morning as a woman grabbed a large piece of salmon and lifted it to her mouth while she was still loading her plate.
But if you're talking brunch as the weekend meal halfway between breakfast and lunch, ordered from a menu, and enjoyed in a leisurely manner, then I'm definitely in. Who doesn't love fresh-baked coffeecake, a perfectly poached egg and some smoked fish or thick-cut bacon?
The good news is that some of our best restaurants are delving into brunch. Saturday or Sunday morning and early afternoon are ideal times to catch up with friends without feeling rushed. The bonus is that the tariff is generally a lot less than for dinner. It's also a good way to try out a restaurant before committing to dinner.
On an abbreviated brunch crawl over the last couple of months, I tried to hit the highlights; it would have taken months more to check out every interesting brunch out there. For the record, these were the rules: no buffets and no hotel restaurants.
Here are my favorites, in alphabetical order:
AMMO. Chef Dan Mattern and his wife, pastry chef Roxana Jullapat, have brought new life to Ammo with their soulful contemporary American cooking. Now they're taking on Sunday brunch, and theirs is a doozy. Start with a fine white peach Bellini, a fragrant elderflower mimosa or a spicy heirloom tomato Bloody Mary designed by general manager Benny Bohm. Then maybe ease into brunch with an order of cheddar buttermilk biscuits or some tender beignets with a plum or strawberry dipping sauce. Jullapat is quite the wizard with dough and shows off with a wild-spinach pocket pie wrapped in a flaky crust. For something more substantial, consider the North African-inspired eggs fried in olive oil and served with chickpeas, yogurt and a dab of fiery harissa. There's a terrific fried egg sandwich with American prosciutto, arugula and a smear of aioli. These are all too good not to share. I'm saving the brown butter crepes with sautéed fresh peaches and the brioche French toast with cherry compote for next time.
I'd be tempted to spend the day in the neighborhood and come back for the phenomenal Sunday roast supper (a different menu each week), but how to spend the time between? That's when Aron's Records would have come in handy, if it hadn't, sadly, gone out of business.
Ammo, 1155 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 467-3293; http://www.ammocafe.com. Brunch, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Brunch items, $9 to $17.
BOUCHON. Can't get a reservation at Bouchon for weeks? Don't get huffy: Go to weekend brunch when you'll have the cool, spacious dining room practically to yourself. At least that was my experience a few weekends ago. Your order will have the chef's full attention. If you're feeling flush, start with a glass of vintage Champagne, then an order of brandade croquettes. One standout on the brunch menu is oeuf poché royale, a soft-poached egg on a cushion of house-baked English muffin, along with sliced smoked salmon, crispy fried capers and the silkiest of hollandaise sauces. Pain perdu (or "lost bread," what we call French toast) arrives in thick, tender slices perfumed with vanilla and garnished with finely diced Fuji apple compote and a dreamy applesauce. My favorite, though, is a special, dubbed "eggs and bacon" — two pristine poached eggs in a copper chafing dish with a glorious slab of braised pork belly that cuts like butter as the "bacon" in the equation. If, by chance, you're still peckish, there's always dessert, namely "bouchons," those deep dark chocolate cakes shaped like fat wine corks.
Bouchon, 235 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 271-9910; http://www.bouchonbistro.com. Brunch, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Brunch items, $9.50 to $34.50.
CANELÉ. Stop by the Sunday farmers market in Atwater, and you're likely to see people lined up in front of Canelé across the street, their shopping bags at their feet. Brunch time. I like to sit in the sunny window at the communal table where, likely as not, you may end up sharing breakfast with three generations of the same family. Open four years, Canelé has become a neighborhood institution and a favorite for chef-owner Corina Weibel's Mediterranean take on brunch. She's got a chickpea pancake topped with a fried egg, some feta and a house-made harissa, for example. But you can get eggs en cocotte too, or a plate of bland soft-scrambled eggs. One Sunday she was featuring a chilled gazpacho with tall slabs of grilled bread crowned with a halved hard-boiled egg and anchovy, refreshing on a hot day. And she's got sandwiches — fried chicken with pickled green tomatoes and mayonnaise on a toasted bun or a fried egg and bacon sandwich with braised leeks and Catalan romesco on toasted baguette. Even just plain toasted baguette and jam, if you like.
There are some misses too, notably a dull duck hash with fried duck egg and a baked pancake with lemon curd that's far too sweet. The house-cured bacon wouldn't win any beauty prize or taste contests. Cinnamon buns hadn't emerged from the oven by 10:30 so we dawdled a bit, but when they did show up, it was worth the wait for these sticky beauties.
Canelé, 3219 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles;(323) 666-7133; http://www.canele-la.com. Brunch, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Brunch items, $2.50 to $13.50.
GJELINA. Showing up for weekend brunch without a reservation at Gjelina, as I did recently, usually means a long wait. But no matter, I just left my name at the door and strolled up Abbot Kinney Boulevard to Tortoise to browse the store's Japanese ceramics and cookware. Half an hour later, I was back and my table on the patio under a striped umbrella was ready, as promised.
Chef Travis Lett skips the predictable in favor of rustic Mediterranean dishes. We can't resist the rich, crumbly date scones laced with bacon bits. Wow. Coffee is good and strong, and just $3. Buckwheat pancakes with curds of ricotta in the dough are lavished with fat, wild blueberries. Ricotta gnocchi are dense and delicious, tossed in brown butter and drizzled with truffle honey. I'm crazy about the poached egg on soft polenta with long-braised Tuscan cabbage and bacon too. And the crispy fried egg with beautiful rosy prosciutto, a slash of vivid romesco sauce and a lemon-bright arugula salad. Lett makes every dish taste alive. Plus, there's a full complement of salads, pizzas and other plates from the regular menu available. And listen up, lazy late-risers, brunch here is served until 3 p.m.
Gjelina, 1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 450-1429; http://www.gjelina.com. Brunch, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Brunch items, $7 to $16.
HUNGRY CAT. That first sip of Hungry Cat's "Schnockered Bloody Mary" should prod any sleepyheads awake. Made with Plymouth gin and garnished with house-pickled vegetables, it's full of veggie goodness and spicy as all get out. For something cool and sophisticated, try a glass of sparkling Cava with muddled grapes.
Tempted by everything on the weekend brunch menu, four of us take awhile to negotiate our order. The frittata of the day arrives in a cast-iron skillet loaded with lump crabmeat, baby shiitake mushrooms and slender asparagus. It's still a bit runny, the way it's done in Italy, and it's wonderful. Tweety's herb scramble is soft curds of egg mixed with fines herbes, Jack cheese, shallots and crème fraîche, a combination that makes delicious sense. Crab cake Benedict with black kale, house-smoked bacon and hollandaise is rich and satisfying. Seafood fritters are excellent too, served with nectarines, arugula and aioli for dipping. You can always have a splendid chilled seafood platter or the signature "pug burger." And for dessert, Suzanne Goin's chocolate bread and butter pudding.
Hungry Cat, 1535 Vine St., Hollywood; (323) 462-2155; http://www.thehungrycat.com. Brunch, from 11 a.m. Sunday. Also in Santa Barbara at 1134 Chapala St.; (805) 884-4701. Brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Brunch items, $12 to $23.
LA MILL. On the weekend, LA Mill coffee boutique opens early, at 8 a.m., and even at 9, it is hardly crowded. The neighborhood evidently doesn't get up too early, so you can breeze in, get your coffee fix and something to eat, and then work it off walking around the reservoir.
First of all, LA Mill has great coffee, also tea, as the inclination strikes you. Or now that it has a beer and wine license, you can start things off with a glass of tea Champagne made with Imperial Palace brut and LA Mill organic tea, or a Black & Black. That's North Coast Old Rasputin stout beer and iced LA Mill Coffee, which is weirdly good. As for eats, I love the house-made brioche doughnut holes with a side of Madagascar vanilla cream. Go ahead, order a dozen for the table. And after that, maybe one of the egg dishes baked in an earthenware cocotte, such as the version with wild mushrooms and applewood-smoked bacon lardons. If doughnut holes or eggs don't sound fetching enough, get a sandwich of fine pink jambon de Paris ham and salted Vermont butter on a baguette. Except for the extraordinary coffee, you'll think you're in Paris at some particularly hip cafe. And for dessert — how many times did you say you'd walk around Silver Lake? — maybe a Valrhona chocolate liquid-center lollipop. Also to note: Breakfast is served till 3 p.m.
LA Mill Coffee Boutique, 1636 Silver Lake Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 663-4441; wwwlamillcoffee.com. Brunch essentially every day; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Brunch items, $6.50 to $14.
SALT'S CURE. When I called to see if the long-awaited and brand-new Salt's Cure in West Hollywood took reservations for weekend brunch, the answer was, "No, we're not that together yet," which was refreshingly honest. I took my chances and dropped by anyway, and got a table right away. And in fact, the friendly crew seemed very much together when I went. OK, maybe the poached eggs were a touch overcooked, but everything else was spot on, even more impressive considering the restaurant was just a week old at the time. It's a small space with maybe 30 seats and the menu chalked on a big board at the back.
The concept is cafe and butcher, so it makes its own bacon and sausages, and from a small butcher's case, sells some cuts of beef, lamb and pork as well. That bacon, incidentally, is thick-cut and salty sweet, and so good I kept stealing bites off my companion's plate. Start with fresh-squeezed orange or grapefruit juice and coffee. "2 + 2 + 2" is the best deal, two poached eggs with two slices of house-cured bacon and two small patties of lean, beautifully spiced house-made chorizo. The plate is garnished with red and green cherry tomatoes and a lovely pale biscuit. Black cod, lightly smoked in-house, is served on the rare side in thick slices with handmade crackers, crème fraîche and pickled shallots. The sweet stuff is set on the counter — dainty strawberry tartlets, blueberry scones, plum crisp. But I can't resist the classic coffeecake, a tall slice laced with walnuts, sugar and cinnamon.
Salt's Cure, 7494 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 850-7528; http://www.saltscure.com. Brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Brunch items, $9 to $15.
The beautiful thing is that after a couple of month's worth of brunches, I'm more of a fan than ever. I got to spend some quality time with friends I usually never get to see. I ate well and didn't leave overstuffed. And I still had the entire day ahead of me by the time I finished. Maybe there's more to this brunch thing than I thought … as long as you avoid all-you-can-eat buffets and choose a restaurant that's trying to give the meal some respect.
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