The Brilliance of Good Menu Art (aka the “Always Delightful Brunching at Isa” post)

Nothing sets the tone of a meal like what’s placed on the table upon seating — the humble menu.

The table setting, the restaurant decor, the waitstaff, the restaurant’s general ambiance — they’re clues to the dining experience to which the menu is the key. Menu in hand, all of the pieces fall into place. Menus tell a restaurant’s story on paper, an introduction to the chapters that will be devoured on the plates that are yet to come.

There are menus — and then there is menu art. Which brings me to Isa, a laid back, rustic-chic restaurant appropriately located in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, serving up fresh, loosely “Mediterranean” fare for which the wood burning oven is the through line.

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November 2015 menus at Isa in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Elegant, refined, classy — Isa’s menus are not. But they are by no means an afterthought (one of the worst things a restaurant can do is not give proper consideration to the design of their menu, IMHO). A riotous mashup of color, collage, equal parts whimsy and cheeky, Isa’s menus always elicit a smile (and perhaps an arched eyebrow). Their menus change often and live on for perpetuity on their Tumblr blog. Without a doubt, their current cocktail menu, pictured above right, is one of my all-time favorites. YES, I want whatever he’s having! Let’s hang out and then go catch a wave! Oh, right … it’s November in New York.

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Brunch at Isa, clockwise from top: Breakfast pizza, Clawhammer Farms bacon, wood-fired chicken, wood-oven baked eggs.

The undisputed star of Isa’s brunch menu is their breakfast pizza, which is topped with eggs, Fontina cheese, coppa and a caper herb vinaigrette. Someone at the table has to get it and inevitably shares with the table whatever portion they’re incapable of finishing. And while the brunch menu does feature variations of egg dishes, breakfast sandwiches and other brunch staples, the offerings are overall thoughtful, original, clever and delicious — four adjectives you could also use to describe Isa’s menus. Delicious? A paper menu?

I’m not advising you to eat the menu — only to devour with your eyes.

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The Breslin’s English Breakfast Splurge (aka the “Must Add Pork Fat Beans!” Post)

For someone who can be so utterly particular about foods “touching” on her plate at this adult age — let’s just call it “a heightened sensitivity to plating” with dismissive hand wave (kidding!) — I should love, love, love The Breslin‘s full English breakfast ($21), which comes sans the traditional brekkie beans and, by extension, the tomato-y bean sauce that pools underneath everything.

I should love that there are no dry toast slices staring me down, begging me to sop up the mingling fatty-yolky-saucy drippings, right before I lick my fingers (possibly not kidding). The Breslin’s rendition is so clean it’s … a sensitive-to-plating foodie’s dream.

… Well except, this time, I sort of want the mess. I love the mess. How the first cut into an over-easy egg sends yellow yolk running into the bean sauce, which has by now commandeered the plate. And the fried tomato? Forget about it. Seeds and juice everywhere. Mmm, mmm, mmm.

By no means is this observation a slight toward the cooks, or the presentation. The execution of every component on this April Bloomfield gold-star dish is the picture of perfection: the browned casing of the breakfast sausage crackles with each bite; perfectly crisped (American-style) bacon; a grilled baby portobello, so succulent. The baked beans in pork fat, get outta here.

But for anyone who wants a truly sloppy English Breakfast, an already pricey meal goes over the top when you add a couple of slices of toast ($1.50/slice) and split a side of the (messy! soppy! delicious!) baked beans ($7). In sum, your English breakfast will cost you $27.50.

Or, I noticed, $2.50 more per person than it would cost to share the smoked pork belly with mashed potatoes at dinner, which is $50 and meant for two.

When I pointed this out to our waiter, he tried to justify the cost by (and I paraphrase): Well, sure, but to really round out the pork belly dinner, you’d probably start with an appetizer and you’d want to order a vegetable side, like the cabbage. And you’d want to balance it with something sparkly, like prosecco, which — did you know? — sparkling wines are the best to help you digest really fatty foods.

Damn that sounds like a gorgeous meal. Until then, you can find me in the bar, where I’ll be sipping on the house cask ale and nibbling on some bar snacks, which look scrumdiddlyumptious.

The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, 16 W. 29th Street, at Broadway, 212.679.1939

Saturday: The Bigger, The Better, The Boozier (aka the “Birthday Brunch at Essex” Post)

photo-11While other cities around the world have their own weekend-daytime drinking cultures, I think New York owns the boozy brunch.

No one eats that breakfast-lunch hybrid meal later on weekends than New Yorkers — brunch here often extends until 3 p.m., or later. A restaurant recently opened in the East Village entirely pegged to New Yorkers’ adoration of this meal. (It’s aptly called Permanent Brunch.)

So, Saturday. Possibly the one thing that I could love more than a boozy brunch at Essex restaurant — a great Lower East Side scene of a restaurant attached to the Essex Street Market — is a boozy brunch here at 12:45 pm on Saturday for a party upwards of 15.

The planner deserves both some props for their patience and their ultimate faith in the fact that the aforementioned brunch for the aforementioned party of 15+ will actually happen — in a reasonable amount of time. (Parties of 4 regularly wait for 45 minutes to get a table.)

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Well, it did, and I’m happy to report that it generally went off without a hitch. And once we started roping in other wait staff to refill our drinks — the whole premise of Essex Street’s boozy brunch is that brunch includes three mimosas, screwdrivers or bloody marys, but you hope that they stop counting after a while — done.

The first time I came to brunch at Essex Street I was a little too excited about the caliber of the menu, which extends far beyond the egg scrambles and pancake stacks of some of the more ordinary brunch suspects in the area. (You can see the full menu here.)

photo-12Slowly but surely I’ve worked my way through some prospects, and today I went out on a limb — crispy potato pancakes with sauteed apples and honey-cream sauce and spinach-shiitake-black bean hash.

Yeah, they don’t look so pretty. Although it tasted delicious, I found myself wishing for a couple of strips of bacon, and the part where the sweet, buttery apples and the savory, spinach-y, mushroom-y, black bean hash — I don’t like mixing.

… Well, unless it’s one of Essex’s excellent bloody marys. The more mixing, the merrier. My recommendation: Don’t overlook the Mexican Matzo Brei — scrambled eggs with tortilla chips, Monterey Jack cheese, avocado and pico de gallo (and no matzo) — still the standing favorite.

Essex, 120 Essex St., at Rivington Street, 212-533-9616.

The Portland, ME Edition: So Cheap, So Good (aka the “First Impressions” Post)

This is Portland: Home to just more than 60,000 residents, Maine’s photo-10largest city is the same size as the coastal San Diego County town where I grew up when I left it 10 years ago. And we called that a suburb.

Salty and seafaring, and at the same time off-hand-ish bohemian, Portland is an amiable mix of “Mainers” who are in agreement about a few things: Tattoos (everyone’s got one). Excellent beer, at ridiculously low PPP (price per pint). Food that is impressively sustainable and local, without really trying (Earth happy and recession-friendly).

What a great food culture. When I left Portland I cried, just a little bit. Here’s just a few reasons why:

photo-2Gnocchi for breakfast? Yes, please! The lightly-browned, pillow-y potato packets are a brilliant alternative to the usual, often oily, previously-frozen-then-fried breakfast potatoes (e.g. hash browns or home fries).

At the Front Room, Chef Harding Smith’s neighborhood spot in the East End, my order of breakfast gnocchi shared the plate with sautéed spinach, thick-cut strips of the house’s “amazing bacon”* and two poached eggs — all of which was a little too generously doused in a citrus-y hollandaise sauce. Next time I’d probably order the sauce on the side, so as to moderate the application. Still, total decadence for a mere $8.

photo-7photo-15Working fish market! Uneven, wet and slippery floors! I know I’m giving myself away here, but I thoroughly enjoyed the sights and smells inside the Harbor Fish Market in the Old Port, just one example of a seafood vendor that does brisk wholesale business and is also open to the public.

Maine oysters ($1.19 ea.), steamer clams ($2.69/lb), live lobsters starting at $3.99/lb., and on, and on: I was heartened to discover that seafood isn’t just a New England export, it’s a way of life. On a whim I picked up an 8 oz. container of fresh crabmeat ($10), packaged by Wood’s Seafood of Bucksport, ME. So sweet and succulent, the crabmeat ended up the centerpiece of dinner for three a little later…

photo-13photo-12Really good, cheap beer: The cost of a pint of pretty much tops out at $4 at (the somewhat misleadingly-named) $3 Dewey’s, which has 36 beers on draft, mostly regional microbrews, including 7-10 seasonally-rotating taps. I was more than pleased with my choice of: Geary’s Summer Ale, Shipyard Export and an Allagash White (a classic). The free popcorn’s not a bad gig, either — buttery, salty and fresh-popped (I saw it), I polished off a couple of baskets’ worth all by myself. (Just don’t look too closely at the flavor-crusted exterior of the popping pan.)

*Being editor-types, my friend and I picked up on the fact that the B.L.T. sandwich description lists “amazing bacon” an ingredient. We were dubious of this so-called “amazing” bacon, that is, until a side of bacon arrived. Four beautifully-cured, thick-cut, not-too-fatty strips of bacon … price? $2. It’s amazing, I’ll vouch for it.


Sunday: What Took Me So Long? (aka the “Made it to Prune, Finally (and Then Had To Wait Some More” Post)

Prune. I’m not really a fan of the shriveled, deep purple-colored, giant raisin(ish) fruit that also happens to be sort of a gross metaphor for wrinkly, wet skin.

photo-1On the other hand, I am unapologetically pro-Prune, the tiny, food-centric restaurant just west of the street grid nexus that is First Avenue and First Street. I first became smitten with Prune back in August, 2007, when the restaurant cameoed on the season 3, “New York” episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Travel Channel show, “No Reservations.” (Admittedly, I am a bit of a Bourdain groupie.)

But that was just the beginning. Every time Prune has crossed my radar since, it just gets better and better. You could say: j’ai été lèche-vitrine — French for “I have been window-shopping,” although I prefer the literal translation, which is, “I have been licking [Prune’s] windows” — for some years now.

So why did it take me until August 16, 2009, to get inside that door?

photo-5Not for fear of price point. Brunch entrees range from $13-$19, with some interesting a la carte items, such as a toasted caraway seed omelette with sour cream, under $10. You’re paying a couple of bucks more than most downtown brunch spots, but then again you’re not going to find a dish like the butter-crumbed eggs with spicy stewed chickpeas, preserved lemons and warm flatbread ($14) anywhere else in the city. Fresh, tomato-y, buttery: this is just an impeccably thought-out dish, a true testament of Gabrielle Hamilton‘s ability to look to the world’s kitchens for inspiration and transform them into her own.

photo-4The huevos rancheros— eggs baked in a light sauce of tomatoes, garlic and chilis, finished off with melting cheese and sidled up onto a plate with black beans, a giant hunk of avocado and a handful of homemade tortilla chips ($15) — is a Mexican breakfast that my mother, a dietician, could get behind (and delicious, too). Instead of satiating my curiosity, this first meal at Prune actually stoked my curiosity. I want to find out more.

photo-2So what took me so long? Well, no pun intended, Prune is tiny, popular and doesn’t take reservations, which means it always, always has a wait. On this day, my friend and I were told it’d be about 40 minutes — tolerable, in the right circumstances — and in actuality we waited about one hour, 10 minutes. We stopped in for coffee at Simon Sips down the block, and stood around in the summer sun, chatting as women do, which was fine.

But I am rarely in the mood to put my patience to this test for dinner on any given night, let alone brunch on a weekend morning. And even though I gave Prune what I consider to be one of the highest compliments a restaurant can receive (the bit above about “instead of satiating my curiosity…), I can’t think of when I’ll be back.

photo-3Sigh. I wish the restaurant didn’t use the tiny bar as designated “seating.” If I could wait it out at the bar, working my way through Prune’s fascinating list of specialty bloody marys ($9/ea.) — the Chicago Matchbox (left), which is made with homemade lemon vodka, has a veritable garden of pickled vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, baby white turnips, caperberries, green beens and radishes – I could promise to be back a lot sooner.

TIP: Might help to try a late lunch-brunch. By about 3 pm, a half-hour before the restaurant stops serving brunch, the wait had all but disappeared.

Sunday: Pancakes. Giant, Blueberry-Saturated Pancakes. (the “2x a Year Pancake Craving” Post)

Pancakes. Giant, blueberry-saturated pancakes. That was my first conscious thought this morning — so weird, but not entirely surprising. It happens a couple times a year. And because it’s so rare, I am immediately inspired to go on a pancake quest.

photo(2)photoSo I hear that Clinton Street Baking Co. has really excellent ones, but it was a little too far away in today’s torrential downpour — the summer equivalent of winter’s occasional, intense snowstorm — both of which have the same effect on pedestrian traffic (it disappears).

The Sullivan Diner was suggested, and I bit: Closer? Definitely. Dutch pancakes, what?! I’ve never had them:  Dutch lemon, Dutch bacon, Dutch Nutella …

And they’re going to have to remain a cliff-hanger. I got a little intimidated by the Dutch pancakes, which came alone. Instead, I ordered the Classic Pancake Breakfast ($13): Pancakes, two eggs, potatoes, bacon or sausage, coffee or tea. $1 more to substitute blueberry banana pancakes.

In terms of a balanced, pancake breakfast, this option hit the spot. Two fluffy, fruit-laden pancakes smeared with butter and sopped in syrup were about all I could handle. Plus, the bites of syrup-y sweetness were tempered with bites of the other good stuff, which was protein-rich and filling.

Dutch pancakes, I’ll take a rain check.