Best Brunch Ever

My trip to Philly this past weekend had me reminiscing about my favorite brunch spots.  Now, I’m all about the Sunday Funday so, as much as I’m not a certifiable expert when it comes to cuisine, I do have years of experience drinking champagne on weekend mornings — oh, and the requisite dining that comes with it.

When I’m home in Newport Beach, I love Sabatino’s.  It’s a casual Italian restaurant over by the dry dock that serves the best cheese-stuffed sausage.  Brunch is plated (which I prefer) but there is a small buffet of fresh fruit, sausage gravy and cinnamon rolls.  Before it was popular, we used to lounge around for hours, snacking and drinking, all for about $20 per person.  Now it costs a few dollars more, the champagne doesn’t flow as freely and I think they even instituted an “end time” (sorry, but I’m pretty sure we had something to do with that decision).  But, because it is out of the way, you still can avoid the tourists and be guaranteed a great meal for the price.  The service is lazy (aka inattentive) but at least you don’t feel rushed!  And, where else can you go if you want pepperoni pizza for breakfast?

Now that I’ve expanded my culinary adventures to the East Coast for awhile, I’m having more difficulty — brunch isn’t celebrated with near enough fervor here.  It’s like everyone is worried about work on Monday morning.  ???  There have been a few misses in my quest for the perfect brunch (Mango Mike’s — for the masses, not for me) but I’ve already found two go-to places when I am in need of “a fix.”  Lauriol Plaza, between Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle, doesn’t serve the traditional brunch menu but they do offer great Mexican food, it’s open at 11:30am and the pitchers of margaritas remind me of home.  For real brunch, Liberty Tavern.  The value/price ratio falls in favor of the customer and the food here is consistently great.  Not to mention, they serve pizza too (are you noticing a theme here?)  Oh, and it’s the best pizza in town.  Only downside:  Bill Clinton had a publicized lunch there the other day so it is no longer a local find:  everyone knows about it now.

An honorable mention for the Kennedy Center:  it’s overpriced and I wasn’t overly impressed but some people might like the layout (food stations are located within the kitchen) and the view is great for out-of-towners.  Still, I don’t understand brunch without never-ending champagne…I never will…but if you’re a sober tourist, you might want to check it out.

This all leads to the real purpose of this post:  the Best Brunch evah!  While I was suffering through Sunday morning asparagus panna cotta and scallop sausage at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, I tried to mentally transport myself to brunch at Al Qasr in Dubai.  Where are all of those technological revolutions the Jetsons promised???  There I was, sitting at what was supposed to be the best brunch in Philadelphia, and all I could think about was how much everyone on staff needed to visit Al Qasr on a hoppin’ Friday morning (their Sunday Funday) and learn how brunch *should* be.

I know…it’s a little out of the way.  But, if you do find yourself in the UAE, you must make a reservation.  When I made my first plate, I didn’t understand what the big deal was about.  Pasta, sushi, some meat dishes, yeah, okay.  Then I remembered reading about their mojitos so I ordered one from my server.  Oh…he can’t bring me a mojito…I have to go the mojito station.  Huh?  He said, “Do you want me to show you?”  Uh, yeah!  That’s when the oceans parted and the mountains rose up…because he took me to room after room of every type of food that could satisfy any craving…american classics, seafood, spanish tapas, indian food, mexican fajitas, a raw bar, a burger bar (with kobe and wagyu beef), etc.  Oh, and in addition to the mojito station, there was a gin station, a vodka station, a cognac station, etc.  Talk about neverending!  At that point, I was just upset that I had even bothered with pasta!  And, it was good pasta.

Memo to all East Coast restaurateurs:  There *is* a market for brunch…a real brunch…I’m sure of it.  Now, go to Al Qasr, educate yourself, and bring the gold home.  Please.  I implore you.

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Filed under Beyond the Border, East Coast Eats, Gold Star Goodies, Sunday Funday, West Coast Winners

Philly – Take One

You know what they say about the best laid plans…

This past weekend was our postponed Mother’s Day and we spent it in Philadelphia.  We had third row tickets for Elton John and Billy Joel’s show at Citizens Bank Park and I coordinated our meals around the concert.

First stop:  tapas at Amada.  I was excited about sampling Jose Garces’ little plates — so excited that we left home before 8am so we could grab an early lunch of crab stuffed peppers and lamb meatballs with shaved manchego.  But, in spite of the 11:30am opening time posted on the website, we were turned away at 11:40 because they “weren’t open for another 20 minutes.”  Harumph.

Then we planned dinner at Little Fish.  Our sight-seeing activities ran long and I had to cancel.  Instead, we grabbed apps at the Capital Grille en route to the concert.  Mom was happy but it was not the local haunt I intended.

I hoped to find redemption in Sunday morning brunch at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse.  NOT.  Complacent staff, clumsy service and, although a creative buffet with a few gems (gnocchi, mushrooms and the dessert table), too many dishes were bland.  The broken/empty salt grinder at the table didn’t help.  It was one of those meals where you feel like you just threw a few c-notes in the garbage disposal.

The lone winner of the weekend was the unplanned, not-researched Triumph Brewery on Chestnut in the historic district.  We ordered grilled haloumi cheese, steak frites, a veggie burger and sweet potato fries.  Mom is a convert — I warned her the cheese would be spongy but, one bite in and she was asking where we could buy it locally.  She said the steak frites was perfect.  I had to believe her because I thought the same of the veggie burger.  Service wasn’t impeccable but, hey, it’s a brewery.  A great find, it reminded me why it’s sometimes best to veer off the culinary beaten path and experiment with the unknown.  Kudos to the peeps at Triumph…thanks for saving the weekend!

I’ll be back through Philly in two weeks on the first stop of our 10-day East Coast road trip.  If I’m lucky, we’ll get hungry when we are near Independence Hall and now I’ll know where to go.

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Top Ten Dining Experiences

The Zagat.com discussion boards are alive with a debate about top ten dining experiences so I just had to share my own.  Here’s the fine dining list.  Soon to come:  the list for everyday dining.

1. The Edge, Dubai, UAE – Dubai is all flash and no substance. Well-known chefs lend their brands to restaurants in the city but only step into the kitchens there a couple of times a year. It makes fine dining a real hit-or-miss experience. Except at The Edge. What used to be a private invitation-only dining room for financial tycoons is now open to the public (on a reservations-only basis, and only for the first 30 who can get a seat) so that the Slovakian genius who runs the kitchen can showcase his work. It’s the anti-Dubai restaurant and the only place in town worth spending $400+ to eat. Which is a steal and the reason the owner is more of a generous benefactor because he “didn’t open the doors to turn a profit.” Only in Dubai…

2. Extebarri, Axpe, Spain – This little haven nestled into the hills south of Bilbao has garnered considerable attention since Anthony Bourdain hailed it as one of the 13 places to eat before you die. Well, I think it is one of 2 places to eat before you die. My meal consisted of baby eels and baby octopus and prawns and oysters — all prepared better than I had ever experienced before. Near the end, a steak arrived from the kitchen that was lightly dusted with sea salt and cut to reveal a perfectly red center. It was unbelievable. For a restaurant known for inventive grilling techniques, the biggest surprise was dessert — a most unbelievable ice cream that I am still thinking about a year later. Axpe is out of the way — a 120 euro cab fare from San Sebastian or a 50 euro cab fare from Bilbao — and you better hope your driver has GPS. But, no matter the logistical hurdles it takes to travel off the beaten path, it is worth every hour and every dollar.

3. Arzak, San Sebastian, Spain – The crown jewel of northern Spain, Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena prove why this destination restaurant put their charming coastal town on the foodie map. Course after course, they deliver culinary excellence, including the most amazing poached egg dish imaginable. Furthermore, they are gracious hosts, greeting guests and visiting each table during the evening as if you are a visitor in their own home.  Then again, you are. 

4. Enoteca Pinchiorri, Florence, Italy – I was concerned about mixed reviews online but, by the third course, I realized that the negative comments were a result of reluctant tourists who denied themselves by ordering from the ala carte menu. Don’t be crazy…spend the extra cash and experience the talent that emerges from the kitchen course after course. The service is charming and they completed my evening by sending me home with a box of muffins for the next morning’s breakfast (as if I was planning to eat within the next 24 hours!), which would be an accomplishment after dinner at EP. Also of note, their wine pairings (and pricings) are fabulous — take full advantage! 

5. The Kitchen, Sacramento, CA — I never see this little restaurant on lists, which surprises me because most of the clientele are vacationing foodies who are traveling through on their way to or from Napa. I haven’t been there in almost 4 years but I’m still reminiscing about the octopus bacon from my last visit. The remarkable thing about this restaurant that seats 50 people per night for their “demonstration dinner” is that they live by the mantra “no rules.” Roam the back kitchen, hang in the cellar, take your plate to the outdoor patio (where they serve a sushi/sashimi course midway through the evening) — they don’t even have a closing time! Also truly unique, when you finish with the last course, you are welcome to have second, third, fourth helpings of any of the dishes. Not that I could even attempt but, it’s a great sentiment. Oh, and the night is capped with your own custom tea blend. Very nice.

6. Marche Moderne, Orange County, CA – Thank goodness for Amelia and Florent Marneau! This restaurant is in a mall — a MALL! — and I still included it!!! Because the food transcends its retail location. Forget the drive to LA, or embrace the drive from LA, because this is the best french food in southern California. I get the east coast vs. west coast rivalry but the Marneaus give the Pacific one heck of a boost in that argument. 

7. Basilic, Balboa Island, CA – I hate to divulge this spot because I feel like Basilic is the best kept secret even though it consistently rates among the best restaurants in the area. Also in Southern California, this tony establishment on the island’s main street only seats about 28 per night and, thankfully, doesn’t require a month’s advance for reservations. But, it should. The swiss french cuisine prepared by Bernard Althaus is divine and the service is attentive but not cumbersome. The very definition of “intimate,” it is frequently, thankfully, overlooked by tourists and therefore home to the more discriminating locals. 

8. Le Bernardin, New York – After a trip which also included dinner at Gordon Ramsay and at The Modern, Le Bernardin emerged as the best restaurant for food. NOT the best for service. It was snobbish and unwelcoming and really detracted from what would otherwise have been the most delicately prepared seafood. I still included it because Eric Ripert’s genius should be mentioned but I do hope they reconsider their approach to service. Maybe the new economy will force them to appreciate their customers more…

9. St. Elmo’s, Indianapolis, IN – Great steak but the shrimp cocktail, on fire with a daring horseradish/cocktail sauce ratio, is a must-have. 

10. Pierre Gagnaire, Paris, France – I debated including Pierre Gagnaire. In fact, I noticed that it fell a considerable number of slots in this past year’s Restaurant Magazine’s Top 50 and I wasn’t surprised. Although it wasn’t the most amazing meal I’ve eaten, it did rank among the most memorable. I mean, who can forget oyster ice cream? No matter how badly I want to! Still, M. Gagnaire did challenge my palate and introduce me to radical flavors that gave me a new appreciation (and slight fear) for molecular gastronomy. I walked away thinking “over-rated” but I am still talking about it. And, there’s something to be said for that.

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