A trio of weekend treats
by M. B. Lewis
From the March, 2011 issue
What are you writing about next?
Oooo, I love going out to brunch!
What restaurants do you go to most?
Hmmm, lemme think a minute ... I guess actually I haven't gone in a while. Um, we used to go to ...
After several exchanges like this, I began to think people like the idea of brunch more than they like brunch itself. Weekends get busy, and the same old restaurants seem same old. So perhaps it's time to try some other places.
None of these has a song written about it, or offers a lavish buffet that would put a visitor from the developing world into shock. They range from in size from pretty big to cozy. But all boast involved owners and good food--which, depending on where you go, could be a pedigreed corned beef hash, an inspired version of eggs benedict with lemony-yummy hollandaise, or just a thick wedge of rich pumpkin coffee cake swirled with chocolate.
You will remember them, I believe, if someone asks where you like to go.
At Zingerman's Roadhouse, little map collages on the walls trace the nationwide sources for their cheeses, oysters, meats, and more. It might sound precious, but actually it's intriguing because you can taste the distinction in offerings like Nueske's applewood-smoked bacon from Wisconsin or Grafton Village sharp cheddar from Vermont. And where else around here can you get real southern grits, with a texture just chewy enough to be interesting, in a buttery porridge served with your choice of cheese or Michigan maple syrup?
A server ranked "Georgia Grits and Bits Waffles" as most popular on the menu, and they proved sturdy and pleasing, with flickers of bacon and Vermont cheddar boosting flavor and texture. The green chile salsa accompanying huevos rancheros was runny, but a side of thick bright-orange hot sauce (bottled Frank's brand mixed with butter, our server said, just like for buffalo chicken wings) made for a colorful fiesta on the plate. Amazing sour cherry and berry
preserves make you want to order more toast as a vehicle. The "famous" hash comes in card-deck-sized portions, light on potatoes but full of big and big-flavored chunks of tender corned beef. There were a few small gobs of fatty gristle in there too, but that's how it goes with real food. We said that again as we picked seeds out of pint glasses of sweet and pulpy fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Fortified by strong rich coffee, I couldn't resist ordering biscuits with chocolate-bacon gravy. They proved notable mainly as a novelty, since the biscuits stayed dry under a viscous gravy that was neither chocolate-y or bacon-y enough to be truly exciting. Yet I could imagine a ten-year-old going gonzo over it.
The same extensive Roadhouse brunch and lunch menu is available from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, giving you two days of enjoyment--augmented, if you wish, by cocktails and a raw bar. A very full breakfast is now offered daily from 7 to 11 a.m. as well.
The kids' menu features silver dollar-sized pancakes. A very efficient waitstaff manages to be friendly without pandering. The bartender responds with a smile to my crossword puzzle query about an odd tequila drink, then gets back to work. Each table has its own cute little pot of jam: peach, strawberry, or grape. Brunch offerings are both traditional and creative, ranging from banana almond pancakes to top-notch huevos rancheros with thick red salsa and very tasty vegetarian refried beans.
Doesn't sound like the stereotypical gay bar, does it?
Yes, there are eye-catching Robert Mapplethorpe photos on the walls of the Aut Bar, along with gay-related posters, literature, and community awards. But the welcoming affirmations on the front windows of the little house in Braun Court exclude no one, as in "aut-of the ordinary, aut-standing, aut-landish." And as for the food: How about a half-dozen kinds of breakfast potatoes, some with brown sugar and caramelized onions, some with sour cream and broiled cheese? How about New Orleans-inspired specials, like two eggs benedict towers layered with fried eggplant and buttery braised spinach? Every entree comes with a fresh fruit garnish, like pineapple and orange, something sweet I like in a brunch.
An omelet that combined turkey and Gouda sounded odd, but it tasted pretty good. A homemade square poppyseed muffin was dry, and the coffee was not memorable. But there was enough goodwill and good food emanating from two floors of this tight-quartered salon to outweigh my quibbles. I see why many grad students and locals of all persuasions are fans of this brunch, which is now served on both Sundays and (with a shorter menu and hours) on Saturdays. It takes you to somewhere lively and different--a Provincetown bistro, say?
The Old West Side's picturesque Jefferson Market and Cakery is in my neighborhood. I've bought the odd quart of milk or pack of gum there for decades--even back in the scary days when it earned the nickname "inconvenience store" because it had plenty of dusty merchandise and gray chocolate but never what you needed. At the turn of this century, it had a legendary gourmet hipster phase. Then, three years ago, Saline wedding cake artist Mary Rasmussen re-created it again as a pastry shop, with custom cakes and pies for order, excellent locally roasted coffee, and sandwiches and soups to go.
During the week, that is. On Sundays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. the Jeff shines with a cooked-to-order breakfast. Two monthly specials--in March, "spring voodoo" berry pancakes and portobello mushrooms stuffed with sage sausage and Parmesan cheese--join a short roster of offerings with clever historical names. Chocolate chips and/or dried cherries can be mixed into your Liberty Pancakes, which get topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit. Order the French Toast Revolution and you'll get thick slices of Ed's Bread cinnamon raisin transformed by a vanilla-spice egg mixture and powdered sugar. The McJefferson egg sandwich with lettuce and tomato is what an Egg McMuffin should be, and the Expedition Burrito has a fresh tasting mix of cooked and fresh veggies wrapped in dry Flatout flatbread, with strips of bacon inside giving it a smoky flair. The eggs and other savory dishes come with fresh melon or other fruit slices.
If you're feeling indulgent, finish with a cookie or cake bonbon from the pastry case. The caramel dark-chocolate shortbread is probably one of my favorite treats in town, but a warm lemon-blueberry scone ranks nearly as high. I like it with buttery-sweet "coffee grog." Or, if you're really brave, try "dirty chai"--tea with a shot of espresso.
This brunch is Sundays-only, and winter months have folks packed in pretty tightly at this tiny storefront. (The two-layered glass tables are the places to sit if you want to read a book or newspaper below your plate.) Like the Roadhouse and the Aut Bar, it will offer outdoor seating as soon as this endless winter finally ends. That's a reason to celebrate, if you need more.
Zingerman's Roadhouse, 2501 Jackson (Westgate). 663-3663. Brunch 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat. & Sun.
Aut Bar, 315 Braun. 994-3677. Brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat. & 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun.
Jefferson Market & Cakery, 609 W. Jefferson. 665-6666. Brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.
Roadhouse and Aut Bar are wheelchair friendly
[Originally published in March, 2011.]