Garden State chefs are finding ways to inject new style, variety, and value into an old standby.
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On Saturday nights, even in winter, Avenue in Long Branch brims with fashionably dressed patrons enjoying a top-drawer, top-dollar culinary adventure in the swank bar and dining room. But at midday on weekends, the atmosphere at this beachfront restaurant is positively serene. It’s easy to get a seat by the tall windows and take your coffee or latte with a vista of ocean and sky. Best of all, the tab is about a third what it is at dinner.
If you hanker for traditional breakfast comfort foods, you can’t beat Avenue’s fluffy scrambled eggs served with crisp bacon and a buttermilk biscuit delicately flecked with rosemary and onion. If you have grown leery of cliches like quiche after pushing aside too many lifeless wedges, hasten to chef Antonio Mora’s enticing quiche of the day, beautifully reinvented as a tall, silky custard square on filo.
And if all the usual menu suspects leave you cold, feast your senses on grand platters of oysters and littleneck clams glistening on ice, or brasserie-style hanger steak served with a heap of crisp frites. There are coffee and espresso, eight kinds of herbal tea, and stronger beverages ranging from the usual mimosa or Bloody Mary to Avenue’s signature Bellini, espresso martini, or Casablanca (champagne, Stoli Oranj, Amaretto, and orange juice). Low cal, low fat? It’s up to you. Low stress? Absolutely, at no extra charge.
Welcome to the new brunch—a growing phenomenon at some of New Jersey’s best restaurants. This is not to be confused with the standard bacon and eggs in chafing dishes. The art of the grand buffet is still practiced at a handful of leading hotels and event places around the state, such as the Hilton Short Hills. But the new trend embraces à la carte menus, creative riffs on classic dishes, and cross-border raids into the savory land of dinner.
“The benefit of à la carte is that you’re making a dish that has more integrity,” explains chef Charles Tutino, co-owner with his wife, Jane Witkin, of Verjus, the fine French/New American restaurant in Maplewood. Tutino’s brunch bestseller is fresh-sautéed jumbo lump crab cakes served with organic lettuces and wasabi mayonnaise. Other choices include caramelized apple pancakes with pure maple syrup and a fresh pasta that changes each week. The prix fixe is $25, including freshly squeezed orange juice, an appetizer, and coffee or tea. A Normandy fizz (lightly alcoholic French sparkling apple cider, bitters, and sugar cubes) is $7. Desserts, including molten-chocolate almond-truffle cake and French apple tarte tatin, are $5.95.
These days, when few people have the time or inclination to prepare the traditional drawn-out Sunday dinner, brunch can bridge the gap while offering an oasis of peace and affordable luxury. Extra bonus: Instead of paying a babysitter, you can bring the kids.
Restaurateurs say brunch has become an increasingly popular family experience. “Sometimes we have all eight of our booster seats out on a Sunday,” says Joyce Flynn, co-owner of Amanda’s in Hoboken.
At Swanky Bubbles, a lounge and restaurant in Cherry Hill known for its fancy cocktails and pan-Asian cuisine, chef Gregg Mirigliani caters to families on Sundays by offering pancakes with a hint of fall spice, but not going off the deep end with esoteric innovations. “We’re in the suburbs, so we get a lot of moms and dads with kids.”
Jeanne Cretella, one of the owners of the upscale Liberty House in Jersey City, agrees that, while Saturday night dinner runs long and late—not usually comfortable for children—Sunday is different. “It’s family day and more relaxed. Families love our outdoor area because we’re right in Liberty Park, and we have a garden and chess set and places to walk or ride bikes along the river afterwards.”
Where did this hybrid meal come from?
At the country estates of Victorian England, grand spreads of sweet and savory delicacies awaited those who had just returned from, say, a morning fox hunt. The origin of the word brunch, an amalgam of breakfast and lunch, is usually traced to “Brunch: A Plea,” an essay that appeared in an 1895 British hunting journal. The author—one Guy Beringer—advocated an end to traditional early Sunday dinners consisting of heavy meats and pies. Instead, he called for a gentler meal that would start at noon with coffee, tea, marmalade, and breakfast items, then move on to more substantial fare. Brunch, he kindly reasoned, would allow people to sleep late, shaking off, if need be, any carousing the night before.
“Brunch is cheerful, sociable, and inciting,” Beringer wrote. “It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”
Brunch has come a long way since Beringer. It became far more democratic when it crossed the ocean. It’s for families, not just fox hunters, for friends and lovers of all economic stripes, not just aristocrats. It’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner rolled into one. It’s a Sunday ritual, but increasingly it’s becoming a Saturday repast. The time window is expanding. You can brunch early and head off to your day’s events, or you can make brunch the centerpiece of a leisurely afternoon.
One reason brunch is growing is that, well, chefs want your business. After more than two decades of economic and dining expansion, the current crunch has increased competition among restaurateurs. Brunch is a good way to get more people through the door. That warm greeting you get? They really are glad to see you.
Chefs are striving to outdo one another in updating the same old same old. Take French toast. White bread soaked in beaten egg is so twentieth century. Even replacing white bread with challah is old toque. Some chefs are focusing on tweaking the fine points. At Verjus, Tutino bakes his own brioche (most restaurants order theirs from bakeries). At Arthur’s Landing in Weehawken, executive chef Michael Haimowitz soaks his brioche extra long in a mixture of eggs, cream, sugar, and spice, fries it, then finishes it in the oven so that the effect is almost a bread pudding.
Haimowitz also stuffs French toast with cinnamon cream cheese and tops it with bourbon-apple-and-raisin compote—then sends it out to the dining room, where patrons take in a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline and a mimosa, if you please.
At Amanda’s in Hoboken, you’ll find French toast made with croissants. At Joe Bartoni’s in Montclair (an Italian-American restaurant and deli named for founders Joe, Barbara, and Tony—though Joe and Tony have moved on), French toast is made from slices of pannetone, the raisin-and-candied-orange-peel celebration bread of Milan.
The venerable, inevitable egg also gets a fresh look. Eggs challenge any chef preparing them in volume because they so easily dry out. A welcome trend in à la carte cookery is toward scrambles, which mix all kinds of combinations of vegetables, cheeses, and meats. At the casual and homey Sweet Basil’s Café in West Orange, a popular scramble features chorizo, potatoes, cheddar, and tomatoes, and is served with salsa. Joe Bartoni’s serves its signature eggs al forno baked on a bed of ratatouille and potatoes. (If you are in a mood for something simpler, Bartoni’s fries up homemade doughnuts to order.)
Eggs benedict lends itself to riffs such as a bed of potatoes instead of an English muffin, and fresh or smoked salmon instead of Canadian bacon. Chef Mark Valenza of Za in Pennington (brunch Monday through Saturday—not Sunday, when supper is served from 2 to 7 pm) makes it a code of honor to serve his with only the very best silky hollandaise made each day; “The real thing,” he calls it, not the packaged versions many restaurants use. The key is keeping the hollandaise at proper temperature after it is made; he stores his in a thermos.
Liquor may be the most notable migrant in brunch’s borrowing from the dining pleasures of evening. “Some people love the freedom of starting Sunday with a drink,” says Haimowitz. “Every other day of the week, having a drink is a no-no in the morning. But for brunch, it’s okay. It helps people relax.”
Because New Jersey is a quilt of ethnic communities, some of the most interesting brunches sway to a world beat. French-born husband and wife Mattias Gustafsson and Alice Troietto opened their intimate and adorable Madame Claude Café in Jersey City six years ago, modeling it on the neighborhood bistros they loved in Paris. Though brunch is not a traditional French meal, the cafe offers a combination of beloved French breakfast and lunch dishes on Saturday and Sunday. Most popular are their omelets, sweet and savory crépes, and croque madame (toasted French bread, ham, cheese, and fried egg).
Francophiles will be hard-pressed to resist Madame Claude’s classic croissant or tartine (baguette with butter and jam), to be dunked in a big bowl of café au lait. “We serve so many cafés au lait, I can’t tell you,” says Gustafsson, who notes that these days many of his guests come from beyond Jersey City (there is free parking across the street).
A few blocks away, Andrea and Phil Barraza have created their own neighborhood shrine to authentic culture. The setting is captivating and funky, a basement with 30 seats, brightly colored walls, and lots of 1970s memorabilia. Frustrated by the lack of true Mexican food in their adopted Jersey City, they opened Taqueria Downtown a couple of years ago. Their goal: turn out tacos and other dishes true to Andrea’s memory of her native Mexico City.
Don’t even imagine sour cream in this joint or a flour tortilla beneath your huevos rancheros. “Ours is the real thing—a fried egg over a lightly oiled corn tortilla,” says Andrea. “It’s topped with salsa ranchera, which is tomato sauce, onions, and hot peppers. It’s very simple. We serve it with potatoes. Half of our customers are Mexican, and I’m very proud of this.” Huevos rancheros is Sunday’s most popular dish (number two is huevos con machaca, eggs with shredded beef imported from Mexico).
Under the tent of the new brunch you’ll also find dim sum—things like taro turnovers, shrimp shumai, and pork buns. This granddad of small-plates cuisines is available at many spots around the state, including Dim Sum Dynasty in Ridgewood and Wonder Seafood in Edison. Despite its name, the highly regarded Hunan Cottage in Fairfield serves no Hunan food at all. But it does serve dim sum brunch in the Taiwan and Shanghai styles, including soup dumplings (a gush of broth and a bit of meat inside each packet), fried savory crullers, toasted sesame cakes, and scallion pancakes with a fried egg on top.
At DeAnna’s in Lambertville, specialty sandwiches and Bellinis are popular choices. The latter—sometimes made with pomegranate—are served at the bar, where a selection of newspapers and magazines invite adult, rather than family, lounging.
How, then, to reconcile the multiplicities of this meal—urban and suburban, special occasion and casual, romantic and family friendly, classic and nouveau and ethnic? Perhaps brunch is best understood as a state of mind. The key ingredient is the luxury, not of crystal chandeliers and expensive caviar, but of relaxation and leisure. Indeed, it’s brunch’s very rule-breaking that helps create that democratic sense of freedom.
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