In their semi-regular hunt for something, anything, to enliven that most conventional meal service of the week, chefs and restaurateurs are increasingly turning to our old friend the doughnut to tart up their dowdy brunch menus. House-made rounds of fried dough can be found on numerous weekend menus around the area.
Naturally, these homemade doughnuts tend to follow wider trends in gastronomy: They can be chef-driven (a brioche dough, for example, rather than a traditional yeasted dough), seasonal (raspberry glazes are now in vogue) or even influenced by flavors far removed from the Kingdom of Krispy Kreme (like the Asian five-spice rounds at Lyon Hall).
Doughnuts can be tricky to pull off during busy brunches, when the kitchen is slammed and fryers are already toiling under the weight of all those fries — the skillet kind or otherwise — to accompany those countless orders of eggs and the many burger plates. The chefs I contacted said they fried doughnuts to order, but sometimes their finished rounds betrayed them; their doughnuts could be dry (particularly the cake versions) or the glaze hardened into something resembling dried wax.
“One of the difficulties of using a brioche dough is keeping the doughnuts at the right level of proof all morning long,” e-mailed Neighborhood Restaurant Group executive pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac, who arguably produces the area’s most decadent doughnut with her toffee rounds topped with bacon crumbles at Birch & Barley’s Sunday brunch.
“We are continuously having to roll out and proof the dough because of this,” she continues. “It is a challenge, but I think it’s worth it. To me, brioche are the best of both worlds. Light and fluffy but still filling because they have some density to them.”
Like MacIsaac, pastry chef Ashley Soto at Pearl Dive Oyster Bar on 14th Street NW has a fryer dedicated to making doughnuts during the brunch service. Pearl Dive has two fryers working during the week, one for french fries and the other for all other items, but on Sunday, the restaurant ditches all fried bites save for the fries, leaving the second fryer to use for doughnuts. The kitchen changes the canola oil, of course, says owner Jeff Black, to eliminate any savory aromas.
“It’s easy for one fryer to handle it,” Black says.
Except that on a busy Sunday brunch at Pearl Dive, Soto’s best efforts could sit on the kitchen pass, awaiting a trip to your table. Not only did my order of three doughnuts arrive cold, for example, but the dual black-and-white glaze on one round cracked off, like the chocolate coating on a DQ hand-dipped cone. In this case, the kitchen had betrayed its own pastry chef.
A similar problem affected the cake doughnuts at Lyon Hall in Arlington (see photo at top), where the aforementioned Asian five-spice was crumbled, dry and arid, despite executive pastry chef Rob Valencia’s mastery at balancing sweet with heat. (The doughnut had a lingering spice burn that tickled the tongue, simultaneously dominating the sugar while forcing the palate to search for those soothing pockets of sweetness.) Valencia’s yeasted doughnuts, by contrast, were warm, soft, light and worth punching your best friend for the last bite.
Pastry chef Carolyn Crow has introduced doughnuts to the brunch menu at Jackie’s in Silver Spring, where you can select two of the three flavors available: raspberry, chocolate and dulce de leche. Generously glazed and embedded with confetti sprinkles, Crow’s doughnuts have perhaps a more homemade appearance than those produced by her peers. But don’t let looks fool you: These are full-flavored rounds, particularly the raspberry doughnut, which is tart and sweet and delicious.
Finally, as I noted last month, Hollywood East Cafe serves miniature doughnuts to accompany its weekend dim sum service in Wheaton. The non-Chinese crowd (like me) loves the crisp, lightly sweetened doughnuts. The traditional Chinese crowd is sort of befuddled by them.
So where else can you get doughnuts during your weekend brunch? Let us know.