What's not to like about brunch? Any meal designed solely for weekends is a meal that knows how to have a good time. Brunch means lots of conversation, lots of company, lots and lots of eating stretched out over the hours -- enough hours that, ideally, brunch starts sometime in the late morning and doesn't wind down until midafternoon. Laying claim to both your a.m. and your p.m., brunch dictates the rhythm of the rest of your day; brunch knows how important brunch is. You can't help but sleep in before going to brunch; brunch practically demands late rising. Awaken at a normal hour and you'll find yourself famished long before mealtime. (And if you're one of those people who always gets up in the wee hours, who sets an alarm even on days that begin with "S" and who therefore often arrives at brunch with a jokey mention of how you've already had breakfast -- let's just say that's a defining character flaw and drop the issue.)
Brunch is the lazy weekender's prize banquet, an abundant affair that feels almost regal. At brunch everybody gets to play the fat and jolly king. Brunch tailor-fits itself to all appetites, whether you like to gorge on pancakes, fruit, pastries, salad -- heck, even carb-cutters can pig out on eggs and bacon. Brunch means a bottomless coffee cup. Brunch means hair of the dog, bloody marys and mimosas.
Brunch also has a cosmopolitan air about it. It's chatty, dishy, gossipy. (My favorite part of Sex and the City was always the four gals gabbing away their mornings-after. It always felt so true.) Which is why I really like that, in recent months, three local dining establishments have added brunch to their repertoires. Because frankly, this city could stand to feel a bit more urbane, couldn't it?
I like the brunch at Nadoz Café, one of the newish eateries in the Coronado building on Lindell Boulevard near Saint Louis University, because I like the sound of "20 items for 20 bucks," which is how they teased their Sunday spread. Then recently they upped it to 30 items, which sounds even better. I'm all for gluttony come brunch time, and I love it when a really opulent layout allows you to do all your eating for the day at one sitting. You can do precisely that here, and I did -- if you're willing to overlook the string cheese and cookie I scarfed at about 9 p.m.
Start with breakfast items like eggs Benedict, bacon, and bagels topped with cream cheese, yellow tomato or red onion (your choice). Then move on to later-day fare like a yummy grilled chicken with Gorgonzola, pecan-crusted tilapia (somewhat bland, but then tilapia is a pretty boring fish), roasted red potatoes and bowtie pasta. Pace yourself with some salad -- red tomato, yellow tomato, leafy greens or fruit -- then go for the kill with a two-pronged attack on the breakfast pastry table and the dessert counter, the standouts of Nadoz's spread.
Nadoz is part of the Steven Becker Fine Dining conglomerate, which includes Lazy Susan Catering and the Coronado Ballroom in the same building; every single confection and baked good is made on-site, including the bagels. Actually, Nadoz goes a little nutso with the sweets, to the point where the kitchen is turning out delectables that don't even make complete sense -- not that it matters, because an informal meal like brunch lends itself to whimsy, even a little culinary messiness. The chocolate sour cream muffin, for example, is a rectangular mini-loaf that's airier than a true muffin, more like a Bundt cake, while the triple-chocolate scone is square rather than triangular, resembling a brownie in consistency and flavor. There's also a blackberry scone (which actually looks like a scone), fruit tarts, various petits fours, tiramisu wrapped in a thin layer of chocolate, and cream puffs made to look like little swans, with necks, heads and beaks fashioned out of chocolate.
Twenty bucks gets you all this, plus made-to-order omelets and Belgian waffles at a chef's station. Plus unlimited coffee, fruit juice (pulp-free and thick, almost nectary) or well-calibrated mimosas. You can also buy bloody marys à la carte.
I wanted to like the brunch at 609 more than I did, but when I went in there with a friend about a month ago around noon on a Sunday, we were their only customers -- a buzzkill when enterWing most any restaurant for most any meal to begin with, but all the more when it's a meal meant to be as bustling as brunch. Perhaps this goes some way toward explaining why 609's management tells me (at press time) that they're putting their brunch on hiatus for a few weeks. It felt to me like it could use a little tweaking. With the metallic chairs, straight-backed booths and so-cool-it-almost-feels-cold aesthetic, 609 is at its best late on a Saturday night when the DJ is laying down club beats. In the light of day, the vibe doesn't quite translate. 609 is nocturnal, like a batcave. To sit down there for brunch is to be reminded of the sins committed there the night before.
That said, the food was quite solid, and that's not a knock against the kitchen, because a solid repertoire is pretty much what you're looking for at brunch. If somewhat predictable, it's also quite plentiful: The $18 price of admission yielded a choice of entrée -- smoked-salmon eggs Benedict or a house-named breakfast sandwich, for instance -- a mimosa or bloody mary and coffee. And, oh yeah, unlimited trips to the buffet table, which was stocked with the usual suspects: scrambled eggs, bacon, green salad, pineapple slices, etc. Plus a single dessert item, which was a simple pound cake the day I visited.
All well and good. But again, the ambiance felt a bit off. The buffet was a catering-hall table, complete with a white skirt around it, carted into the room just for brunch. It really clashed with the décor. I wish the whole affair felt less forced. Brunch should never make one feel gauche.
I really like the brunch at La Dolce Via. Because frankly, I love this little bakery, nestled on a tree-canopied corner in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, so the more reasons I can come up with to visit the place, the better. I also have a bit of a professional crush on Ramon Cuffie, who made magic by bringing enthusiastic diners by the dozens to the ungentrified area when he was head chef at JaBoni's (around the corner) during its first year of business. A longtime pal of La Dolce Via's mother-daughter co-owners Marcia Sindel and Carly Issitt -- he made use of their breads and desserts at JaBoni's -- Cuffie inaugurated the bakery's brunch service in May. The menu is small (pancakes, an egg sandwich on scone, sausage gravy, coffee cakes and cinnamon rolls) and strictly à la carte -- no buffet, no all-you-can-eat, no alcohol -- but I'd come back in a heartbeat. Thanks to Cuffie's sleight-of-hand culinary touches, a little goes a long way here. Like the fact that he mixes sour cream into his pancake batter (which, he told me later, is actually a recipe from Sindel's father); the flavor stays the same, but the texture becomes velvety smooth and easy like Sunday morning. There's also a berries-and-cream bowl that blew my socks off. These were the biggest blueberries, strawberries, blackberries and raspberries I can ever recall seeing, like, science-fiction big.
Most of all, I like knowing that the list of places to recommend for brunch in this town is no longer a short list. Perennial faves like Marty's Baking, MoKaBe's and Duff's now have some worthy company.