Thursday, December 15, 2011

Brunch | brunch bunch of Fall 2011

Instead of doing three separate blog post reviews on three brunch spots I've gone to recently, I decided to combine the three in one comparative post -- a "brunch bunch" for the winding fall season. So over three consecutive weekends, I made stops at Jane in SoHo, Calle Ocho inside The Excelsior Hotel of the Upper West Side, and Tea & Sympathy in the West Village.

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Esha, a good friend resulting from funny and fortunate happenstance, invited me out to brunch a few Sundays ago over at Jane -- a place we both hadn't been before. I got there a little early, only to be met with the usual throng of people outside the restaurant's door. I was relieved to know we had a reservation for noon so we didn't have to wistfully wait for a table.

Inside Jane's packed dining room.

Yummy bread basket with strawberry butter!

Our complimentary cocktails with our brunch main courses: mine -- white peach bellini -- and Esha's -- the Best Bloody Mary, as boasted by the menu itself. The cocktails were well-balanced and nicely concocted -- the right amount of alcohol matched with the right amount of "mixer."

I went with the grilled flat iron steak and eggs, poached, with home fries. I think I've had steak and eggs on the mind since the brunch I had over at Essex, where Marcus had one that was amazing. This one fell short of the one at Essex (steak was more in the medium-well range than medium/medium-rare), but the eggs were beautifully poached, just with enough runniness to sweep up with the steak and potatoes.

Esha had the salmon scramble, which had scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, chives, and imported Italian mascarpone cheese. She reported this to be very good -- a good salmon-to-egg ratio, finished with a nice creaminess from the mascarpone. We also liked the presentation too -- not just a scrambled bunch of eggs lopped together with cut up pieces of fish, but a nice cylindrical construction of egg and smoked salmon.

Esha and I also shared a side of vanilla bean french toast made using brioche bread and crème brûlèe batter, served with Vermont maple syrup. Man, the brioche was nice and thick with a rich and fluffy texture in every bite. As you can tell after having our main brunch courses and finishing it with a dessert-like french toast, we were stuffed to capacity. Let's just say we had to walk it off, over to the West Village area.

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When Krystal, Mimi, and Ariana came to visit over Thanksgiving weekend, I made sure we had a fun-filled brunch planned on Saturday afternoon over at Calle Ocho. I had been meaning to go there for the longest time, but whenever I find the chance to go, reservations are all booked up, and I'm back at square one. Fortunately, I called early enough (three weeks ahead!) to get a table for 2:15 PM (a bit of a letdown in timing, but hey, it still means a table for us)!

Gratuitous bread basket -- more muffin-textured than bread driven, though!

Inside Calle Ocho.

As a prelude to the restaurant's (in)famous "unlimited" sangria bar (consisting of eight different variations of the beverage), the menu sets the "House Rules" for its patrons by which to abide. One glass at a time, eh? we thought. Better drink quickly!

We started off with a mix of three different sangrias. I went with the tropical sangria -- a sangria blanca with mango, pineapple, lemongrass, passion fruit and rum. Mimi and Krystal had the fresas sangria -- a sangria roja with raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and raspberry vodka. Ariana kept it simple with the classic blanca sangria -- fresh fruit and a splash of spirits. Mine was very nectary and sweet, making it very easily drinkable. The fresas sangria was very berry driven, resulting in a tart yet refreshing taste, while Ariana's was simple and refreshing. Round two, we "traded" flavors because we enjoyed them that much, so we didn't have the chance to try the menu's other offerings.

For my main course, I had the vaca frita -- a Cuban skirt steak with Latin fried rice, tomato escabeche, avocado, and fried eggs. I guess the steak-and-eggs craving came with me to Calle Ocho, too! The skirt steak was very tender and flavorful -- not at all chewy or tough. It went well with the runniness of the egg yolks mixed in with the fried rice and bites of avocado. I liked this Latin American take on the American classic, where the former delivers with bolder spices and ingredients.

Mimi had the ensalada of mixed field greens, grilled chicken breast, bacon, cabrales cheese, and avocado with a sherry vinaigrette, which she enjoyed very much. Sherry vinaigrette is always a winner in my book, and you can never have too many avocados in any salad!

Krystal ordered the tortilla española -- Spanish frittata with asparagus, potatoes, piquillo peppers and wild mushrooms over a crab enchilado. A very authentic breakfast here! From what I recall, Krystal had nothing but good things to say about this dish!

Krystal and Ariana with their first round of sangria!

Mimi and me with our first round of sangria!

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The first week of December was welcomed by a visit from Angela, all the way from DC! Being the Anglophile that Angela is, I remembered Ariana had told me about this little tea place in the Greenwich Village that embraces all things British. For that very reason, I knew we had to stop there for brunch.

The quaint and humble restaurant/café, Tea & Sympathy, is "the quintessential corner of England in the heart of Greenwich Village."

It even has a hackney carriage (i.e., those black cabs found in London) parked out front with the restaurant's name/logo and address on the side door!

Inside Tea & Sympathy. Love all the trinkets, both big and small, scattered throughout this cozy little restaurant that boast British pride. The rear wall of the restaurant houses a wide array of eclectic tea pots for its guests to brew some loose leaf, English tea. As you can also see, it is a very intimately sized restaurant. Try to avoid bringing too much with you if you decide to come here. Not much space to spare other than for you to be snugly seated!

In true British fashion, I started out with a pot of tea -- look at those cute cupcakes on its porcelain surface! Gotta love the delicate and feminine features of English drinkware.

I like how the tea brewing inside the tea pot is not just using loose leaves, but they're freely swimming and floating around inside while the hot water catches its bitter yet refreshing essence. You just had to pour the brewed tea from the tea pot into a cup and saucer with this nifty stainless steel, mesh tea strainer, that rests right on top of the cup, to catch the free-flowing leaves. I really need to get myself one of these!

Included with our brunch orders (more on that shortly) was a glass of orange juice each. Very pulpy -- my favorite thing about orange juice -- because it was freshly squeezed!

Angela had a great cup of coffee in lieu of tea, which our waitress said is Bay Ridge Colombian (if I recall correctly) coffee.

Along with our brunch orders, Angela and I felt it was necessary to order Tea & Sympathy's traditional scones served with clotted cream and strawberry jam -- everyone raves about them! Clotted cream is essentially thick cream made by indirectly heating full-cream cow's milk using steam or a water bath, then leaving it in shallow pans to cool slowly. During this time, the cream content rises to the surface and forms "clots," thus yielding clotted cream.

Absolutely delicious! The scones almost had a dinner biscuit texture -- dense, buttery, and soft. The clotted cream topped with strawberry jam was a heavenly bonus -- creamy, tart yet sweet -- balancing out the richness of the scone. Please be sure to order this at Tea & Sympathy. Otherwise, you'll be seriously missing out.

I had the Full Monty breakfast (which included a glass of fresh orange juice, your choice of coffee or a pot of tea as well as your choice of white or 7-grain toast), consisting of scrambled egg with English bacon, a banger (i.e., a sausage), grilled tomato, and my choice of 7-grain toast. The phrase "full monty" is pretty much the equivalent of the American phrase, "the works." I will have to say that this was one of the best classic-style breakfasts I've had in a while. It is nothing fancy, yet that is the best part about it. Tea & Sympathy nailed every part of this hearty breakfast down to a t. The eggs were soft and fluffy. The English bacon (also known as "back bacon") is more lean than American bacon, as it is prepared from the center-cut of boneless pork loin, and unlike other bacon, it is not brined, cured, boiled, or smoked. Its flavor comes solely from the cut of meat. With that being said, the bacon here was both crispy and juicy, having more "substance" than say American bacon. The banger was meaty, well-salted, and nicely seasoned -- like any ol' link sausage. It was also lovely to have a cooked tomato with breakfast, instead of a raw one. All of these things on top of my slices of toast? One solid brunch and one full and happy stomach coming my way!

Angela got the same thing (the Full Monty breakfast), only with a side of beans (Heinz baked beans, to be exact) -- now this is truly a full English breakfast. You must be thinking, Beans?! Really? For breakfast?! Well, I must admit I was asking those same questions, being very hesitant at first. Angela urged me to try a little bit, just to see if I liked it. I had a tiny grimace on my face, but tried it anyway. Man, I'm glad I did! Essentially, these baked beans are stewed in a tomato and sugar sauce, most commonly used (unsurprisngly) in the United Kingdom. In fact, in the UK, baked beans refers almost exclusively to canned beans in a tomato sauce. They are surprisingly delicious with a subtle amount of sweetness to coat the softly stewed beans -- a pleasant complement to the rest of the items included in the Full Monty breakfast. I'm dying to return to Tea & Sympathy now for those baked beans!

An added bonus of going to Tea & Sympathy is the affiliated takeaway shop next door, Carry On, offering tea paraphernalia, all the goodies an expat from the UK or an Anglophila may crave "across the pond," and other little trinkets. Funny enough, "carry on" is a popular British idiom that means "to be noisy and rude which is not what one associates with tea time, especially British high tea." Very clever! Anyway, Angela and I stopped by after our delightful brunch at the restaurant, to find a treasure trove of all things British -- Heinz canned baked beans and Angela's favorite English gelatinous candies, jelly babies! All in all, a great day for Anglophiles!

Findings: These three brunch spots -- Jane, Calle Ocho, and Tea & Sympathy -- were all pretty enjoyable. I will have to say that I enjoyed Calle Ocho and Tea & Sympathy more for two reasons -- the first being that you get more "bang" for your buck and the second being that the the food at these two spots yielded more favorably in the areas of taste and enjoyment for me. For roughly the same price across all three spots, included with a main course, Calle Ocho offers an (pretty much) unlimited access to the diverse sangria bar while Tea & Sympathy offers a glass of fresh orange juice, a choice of coffee or pot of tea, and the option of baked beans for a couple dollars more. While Jane serves a wide-ranged brunch selection, a brunch main course only includes one complimentary cocktail. As far as cuisine, menu, and enjoyment, I preferred the menu items from Calle Ocho (Latin American-influenced) and Tea & Sympathy (UK-driven) over the usual offerings at Jane. The unconventional courses I had at both of these restaurants really impressed me, so much that I would go back to either in a heartbeat. My current cravings are a result of these meals of brunch -- steak & eggs, avocados, baked beans from the UK, and back bacon.

So if you're the adventurous sort and a lover of brunch, do try Calle Ocho and Tea & Sympathy. If you're a classic brunch endorser, then Jane will be more your style.

Also, thanks to Esha, Krystal, Mimi, Ariana, and Angela for being my brunch companions! Let's grab brunch again really soon :D!

Price point: Jane -- $15-17 for each main course, which includes a complimentary cocktail; Calle Ocho -- $14-18 for each main course, which includes unlimited drinks from the "sangria bar"; Tea & Sympathy -- $14.50 for a Full Monty breakfast, additional ~$2.50 with beans (available Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 AM to 1:30 PM), $6.25 for traditional scones.

--November 20, 2011; November 26, 2011; and December 3, 2011

100 West Houston Street
New York, NY 10012

Calle Ocho
The Excelsior Hotel
45 West 81st Street
New York, NY 10024

Tea & Sympathy
108 Greenwich Avenue
New York, NY 10011

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