Brunch is any restaurant's most telling meal. Chefs and line cooks drag, and hangovers plague the staff like a runaway virus somebody inevitably calls in, uh, sick. The only delivery is likely to be bread, so if a chef hasn't nailed down ordering, things start to run out. And at the end of Saturday night, dining rooms are trashed, which means the reek of funky floor mats behind a bar can haunt Sunday mornings like the guilt that comes from dissing your mom's weekend phone call.
When a restaurant gets brunch right, it says something about the way the whole place operates. Which makes a brunch find a pleasure far beyond finding a good omelet. At two East Bay places where brunch ranks right up there with the most brilliant meals of the week, the food casts a warm, buttery glow on everything the restaurants touch.
Take the fried chicken at Luka's Taproom in Oakland, part of its year-old Sunday Soul Brunch. Everything about it reflects on the kitchen's good instincts and solid skills. Sous-chef Jack Funderburg says the chicken starts on Friday, when pieces of free-range bird begin to pick up flavor from a sweet buttermilk brine. By Sunday morning, the meat has absorbed the brine's flavors like a Swiffer: Under a brittle crust of browned, seasoned flour, the meat is juicy and salted all the way through, with a delicate tang of sour milk. It has just the right quality of fresh for Sunday afternoon.
What I love about Luka's is how Funderburg and chef Jacob Alioto infuse tavern food with fine-dining sensibilities, making it all seem as casual as the restaurant's bar-like vibe. Perfect example: the collard greens that came with the chicken, a compact, cream-enriched gratin sprinkled with breadcrumbs and baked in its own dish. Invisible bits of smoked ham hock lurked among the cooked-down collards. Like, really smoked. The flavor suffused the greens with a dark, resinous burr, saving their delicate texture from seeming elegant or fussy. It glowed with the essence of good barbecue.
With braised oxtail, Yukon gold, and sweet-potato hash, the kitchen turned super-earthy materials into a treasure. Forget the idea of hash turned crispy in the pan. This was a soft, refined stew, heaped up under a couple of shaggy-looking poached eggs, a mound of sweet flavors surrounded by a pool of savory oxtail jus.
Make sure you order beignets, either with your meal or as a nibble with coffee while you're studying the menu. Deep-fried and tossed in sugar, the Chiclet-shaped nuggets come heaped in a cone of deli wrap. Think firm doughnut holes, with a ramekin of syrupy blackberry coulis for dipping.
An individual-sized frittata radiated the metallic-sweet taste of shrimp. Browned and gnarly-looking from flash-searing in the pan, the flat omelet contained hunks of potato and tiny, wilted leaves of wild arugula. More wild arugula tossed with cherry tomatoes provided some salady relief. But Luka's salad of tender young lettuces couldn't redeem a ramekin of fresh corn and chèvre spoonbread. The sugary white corn kernels, chives, and tangy goat cheese were a nice combination, but they'd all baked too long in the spoonbread. Instead of tender and soufflé-like, it ended up bready and dry.
Never mind. With a DJ dropping juicy soul beats, crispy cornmeal catfish gracing the eggs and grits, and balsamic-laced bloody Marys, you can forgive an off dish or two.
When the sleek Berkeley barbecue bistro T-Rex opened late last year, it was more than just a couple of off dishes that left some critics less than enthusiastic. With a high-style, high-profile location looking out over busy Gilman Street, and a lot of advance buzz, T-Rex struck some as premature. Chef Anthony Paone, who also oversees Sea Salt, seemed to be sweating the concept. You could almost feel him fussing over a barbecue sauce that tasted excessively tomatoey, and wrangling with a complex industrial smoker that dominates the long open kitchen like a room-size supercomputer.
Nine months later, Paone seems to be getting it right, especially at brunch. Since May, T-Rex has been serving up weekend food that's original, with occasional flashes of real inspiration.
Duck confit and potato hash is inspired like that, a sauté of tender meat strands, caramelized onion, and perfectly diced Yukon gold potatoes. So is the frittata of sausage, Gypsy peppers, and Parmesan. Moister than the frittata at Luka's, it served as a vehicle for tender, fennel-scented pork sausage from Fra' Mani, Paul Bertolli's wholesale sausage and salumi company that's just a block away.
I'm impressed by Paone's commitment to rethink absolutely everything here, from bacon to the hot sauce that sits on every table. Even when the results fail, it's still impressive. That bacon, for instance, is completely unlike the sweet-smoky bacon we all love, and completely wrong: spongy, pregnant with fat that oozed out with every bite, and suffused with a campfire smokiness that flirted with acrid. It would work better as a rustic dinner entrée, smoked pork belly served with braised lentils.
Paone deconstructs Hangtown fry, a local classic. Look to San Francisco's Tadich Grill for the traditional flat omelet studded with oysters and squares of bacon. Here, it was a pillow of wonderfully moist, wonderfully buttery scrambled eggs, a luscious platform for fried, cornmeal-dusted oysters and slices of that archetype-shattering house bacon.
If you can face big plates of barbecued meats so soon after leaving your bed, go for it. The smoked long-cut beef short rib is brilliant, better now than when I first tasted it. A thick confection of moist, tender meat fibers, it had the fruity, tannic, and slightly irritating perfume of hardwood smoke, like a cold barbecue grate coated with resin and carbonized fat. The flat bone was as long as the oval plate, its ends blackened like some enormous, flattened fatty stubbed out at both ends. It was magically, dangerously paleolithic. And that controversial sauce has relaxed into something completely original, more like cumin-spiked Mexican adobo than any moppin' sauce cooked up in the American South.
Oddly enough, the most comforting brunch dish at T-Rex may be something whose roots stretch deep down into haute cuisine. Maple sugar beignets with espresso custard are a homey spin on the French Laundry's witty and refined take on coffee and doughnuts. Here, they're warm, yeast-scented dough balls rolled in finely powdered maple sugar, served with a demitasse of coffee sabayon all billowy with whipped cream. Not an easy thing to do, tweaking a famous dish and making it feel completely at home in new surroundings. Especially on a Sunday morning.