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.)

photo-13photo-14

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.

Advertisements

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.

Lunch: So, So Glad I Didn’t Accidentally Walk Past Otafuku One More Time

I don’t even want to know how many times I’ve walked down this particular block of E. 9th Street in the East Village and not noticed Otafuku, the sliver of a restaurant most recognizable by the pair of long, colorful, Japanese flags hanging out front.

photo-1photo-2

This East Village via Tokyo portal serves only heaping hot plates of three kinds of items, and combinations thereof: takoyaki, deep-fried wheat-flour balls with bits of octopus inside (think Japanese falafel); yakisoba, pan-fried soba noodles with squid, shrimp and all kinds of veggies; and okonomiyaki, fat, griddle-cooked, savory pancakes of chopped vegetables (primarily cabbage, scallions), batter and your choice of pork, beef, shrimp, squid or corn. 

I chose Combination A ($7), one okonomiyaki pancake with shrimp (buried under the bonito flakes on the left) and a half-order of yakisoba (right), thinking I’d be going home with a light sampling of two-thirds of the menu. What I was sent home with was this: 

photo-4Oh, my. It’s a giant clamshell full of some of Japanese-style g-r-u-b. So much food. And so cheap! (The most expensive combination meal tops out at $9.) 

I said yes to all the extras, which means the pancake was topped with a sweet, soy-based sauce (my guess) and thin zig-zags of mayonnaise, both out of a squeeze bottle, dried bonito flakes and seaweed powder. A stoner’s delight; no wonder this gem has been around sort of forever (plus five years).

TIP: If you’re on foot, Otafuku might be easier to spot if you watch for the magical, vine-draped, cloister-looking alley that I always stare at, and which is probably responsible for me not noticing Otafuku before, but that I’ve never actually eaten at, either. It’s next to that. (Incidentially, I didn’t know the name of the neighbor when I wrote that sentence. I did a little recon and found out it’s called Cloister’s Cafe. Well put.)

Dinner: Drunken Noodles Still The Champ (the “Go to Thailand Cafe” Post)

Thailand Cafe was a stumbled-upon find a few months ago, photoand I’m happy to report that the Drunken Noodles were exactly as I remembered them: Broad noodles in a lightly-sweet soy sauce that finishes with a creeping heat from the red chilies. Really, one of the most perfect Thai noodle dishes I’ve ever had.

The Drunken Noodles were the hit of the table last time, and took the crown again this time, and both times the noodle dishes as a whole were the winners. Thailand Cafe has since stopped serving beer by the pitcher, which is unfortunate for groups, but the entire list of eight or 10 bottles of wine are all $24/bottle — an ridiculously low price-point, even by East Village standards.

All in all, Thailand Cafe remains a fantastic East Village option for reasonably-priced food and wine, and stand-out noodle dishes.

Dinner: Tuesday, May 12, 2009

photo-9If I didn’t feel compelled to eat something so that I could blog about dinner — purely so I could say that I have somehow (miraculously) actually accomplished everything I had to do today — I would have skipped dinner and tumbled into bed exhausted. Well, except that there’s a mound of crap on my bed; I’m in the midst of moving.

So instead, whether to avoid the aforementioned pile or to stoke my ego, I’m eating a hot sausage from Papaya Dog (sauerkraut, relish, ketchup and spicy mustard) and nibbling at a few fries 10 minutes until midnight.

Which means I’m not going to bed anytime soon, because food in the stomach is the worst way to fall asleep. I guess I’ll try to get a jump start on tomorrow, which, if anything, is an even more impossible day…

Dinner: Thursday, May 7, 2009

photo-10A (beer) sampler, a half a Buffalo chicken sandwich (which means it’s battered and smothered in hot sauce plus blue cheese or ranch dressing), most of a basket of fried pickles, good company — now that’s what I call a good Thursday night. 

I can’t really remember the last time I ordered a chicken sandwich, actually, but this one was good in terms of portion of fried breast and quality of bread. I really liked the bread — two nice, thick slices cut from fresh, cibatta-style roll in the back. Could have used at least a token leaf of lettuce or tomato/red onion slices, but then again, I did have an excess of pickles, which, yes, I did slice into thinner bits and layer in between the chicken and the bottom bun. 

photo-8I don’t know if it’s because I’m from Cali or what, but I need something extra to a sandwich besides bread and protein. Pickles sufficed. 

Best thing the Village Tavern has going for it? Wide open airy seating and a outstanding list of craft beers, which they rotate out as the kegs kick. They have Green Flash IPA here from Vista, Ca., literally minutes from where I grew up. 

Go ahead, I dare you: Just try to pick two beers in a row that they have listed but don’t actually have to pour, because the keg kicked. I did.