All I can think of as I make my way through the dim sum menu at
is: I wish its talented chef would open a Chinese restaurant in the city.
Scott Drewno’s soft bao buns cradling crackling duck slices, cool cucumber and intense hoisin sauce deserve a wider audience. The chef’s crisp chive dumplings excited by Chinese mustard ought to be served beyond the glass walls of Wolfgang Puck’s sleek gift to Penn Quarter. What look like English Christmas crackers — golden spring rolls with thin ties of blanched chives — snap open to show off pearly centers of mousselike shrimp and lobster. The snacks need no adornment, but they blossom after a dip in spiced honey sauce. If only they were served other than just Saturday at the Source!
Not every little dish — carried, rather than ferried on a cart — fulfills dim sum’s translation of “heart’s delight.” The fragrance preceding the arrival of the chicken wings is better than the actual eating. And although I admire the curry lilt in an order of Shanghai noodles, the noodles are pasty. Those laggards are outnumbered by the kitchen’s many winners, including glassy mung bean noodles topped with garlicky clams, and tiny shrimp dumplings dressed with XO sauce and fried basil. (A splash of Sprite in the wok makes them crisp but keeps their color, the chef shares.)
The bar raises the bar for drinks, too. Its Shanghai Mary leaves everyone else’s bloody mary in the dust, fueled as it is by fresh lime juice and chili paste in the glass and garnished with a skewer of olives and red Thai chilies. Go-o-o-o-d morning.
You might know
for its Greek wine happy hours (the first Monday of every month) or its Sunday lobster specials or its weekday business lunch that delivers three courses for less than $25. Let me introduce you to yet another of this seafood specialist’s charms: brunch on Saturday and Sunday. If there’s a more civilized but unstuffy place to ease into or out of the weekend, I have yet to discover it.
The dining room’s wood floors gleam. Pools of space surround linen-draped tables. The background music and the letters stenciled on the borders of the ceiling gently place you in Athens. Of course there’s a hint of mint in the hollandaise draped over the poached eggs and smoked salmon.
There are two ways to play in this New York import. One is to order a la carte; the other is to choose an entree with free-flowing champagne or mimosas for $24.95, a tab that includes a basket of pastries.
Our waiter has bad news to share the morning friends and I drop in: “We’re out of lamb burgers and octopus.” Apparently, there’s still lamb in other forms, just not as a patty. I briefly contemplate following Jack Nicholson’s lead in the “Five Easy Pieces” diner scene. I settle instead for tender lamb chops, rounded out with big potato wedges that pick up flavor from chicken stock, oregano and Parmesan. A companion’s seafood sampler displays big shrimp and soft squid, both smoky from the grill and dressed with little more than lemon juice and olive oil.
That’s another reason I enjoy opening my eyes here. The menu considers a lot of appetites. So the member of the party who wants French toast can get it. Kellari’s version rises high off its plate and sports a fine crunch. The dish is prettier for its garden of berries and light, clove-scented honey syrup. There’s an omelet, too, streaked with spinach and feta; it’s runny.
The only dessert I need after the entrees have been cleared is waiting for me, gratis, in a basket near the door: Greek cookies.
Like a lot of hospitality providers, brothers Derek and Tom Brown tend to work long hours and most of the week. When the owners of the scruffy
and its intimate bar-within-a-bar, Columbia Room, decided to open for brunch last year, Derek Brown says, they asked each other this question: “What’s the latest we can get up” on Sunday and have time to set up for service?
The siblings agreed that 1 p.m. had a nice ring to it and that 2 p.m. was when they would open the doors of the Passenger. Their Hangover Brunch tends to attract fellow industry types and concentrates on fatty or spicy dishes that might cure what ails them (or anybody else who had a late Saturday night).
Chef Javier Duran, an alumnus of Cork Wine Bar who typically turns out kimchi hot dogs, oyster po’ boys and nachos for dinner, focuses on a mere five brunch treatments. They include a bowl of peppery gravy with lumps of pork sausage that all but obscure the tasty biscuit in its center, and a waffle sandwich packed with fluffy, chive-freckled scrambled eggs plus bacon and cheese. The edible architecture of the latter is flanked by syrup and a few bites of fruit salad. Duran’s most original dish is one his mother fed him back home in California: fried tortilla strips tossed with a tomato salsa that’s fueled with two kinds of chilies. The zippy heap (go, Mom!) is topped with queso fresco and a fried egg and finished with a fan of avocado. French toast and corned beef hash round out the possibilities, which can be ordered up to . . . 11 p.m.
The service is as informal as the scarred walls of the dark interior, and it comes with a side of chumminess. Our waitress encouraged us to get both the biscuits-and-gravy and Duran’s childhood memory and mix the two dishes together to make something “crunchy, salty, creamy, spicy.” (It doesn’t look nice, but she’s right.)
As you might expect of an operation watched over by one of the city’s preeminent cocktail authorities (that would be Derek Brown), the liquid part of the brunch equation, “Hair of the Dog,” is every bit as interesting as the cooking. The traditionalist in me gravitates to sparkling wine splashed with a choice of fresh orange or grapefruit juice (or peaches, in season), but the bad boy in me sends me to a Red-Eye: spicy tomato juice made fizzy with beer.