Beyond Pancakes: Brunch Menus Worth Getting Up For

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By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Weekend brunch is a leisurely meal, unlike any other during the week. It's not quite breakfast and not quite lunch. It's a way to celebrate birthdays and welcome out-of-towners.

The late morning-early afternoon meal is only about a century old, first served just before the turn of the 20th century either to afford members of the British upper class a dignified way to recover from Saturday nights of imbibing, or as the perfect ending to early morning hunts. Food historians disagree over its exact origin. The hybrid meal didn't become popular in the United States until the 1930s.

Brunch still connotes a certain kind of luxury: of having time to while away midday Saturday or Sunday over bloody marys and mimosas, eggs Benedict and quiche Lorraine, as others inch along in weekend traffic jams around shopping centers and sports complexes.

Arlington County and Alexandria have dozens of restaurants for indulging in brunch, from those in big-name hotels to neighborhood places. These are a few that offer something just a little different on the menu, don't make you commit to an expensive buffet and provide the ambiance and decibel level suitable for conversation.

On the Half Shell

Oysters are a bright, clean way to begin brunch, and some of the best can be found behind the blue facade of Hank's Oyster Bar on King Street in Alexandria. You might not recognize the names of the featured oyster varieties listed on the blackboard, but your server can steer you toward the size and taste you prefer. I like mine small and briny, and the Calm Cove oysters were exactly that. Served with lemon, cocktail sauce and a proper mignonette sauce (red wine vinegar and shallots), I could close my eyes and pretend I was in Paris.

Hank's brunch menu, like its daily fare, focuses on seafood. The lobster bisque is rich and satisfying. The restaurant's version of eggs Benedict features a crab cake on an English muffin topped by two perfectly poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. The ceviche, or citrus-marinated fish, is a combination of shellfish and whitefish, but quite bland. The sourdough French toast is hearty and almost sweet enough for dessert. Other brunch offerings include a lobster roll, fried oysters, fried clams and an oyster po' boy with cole slaw.

The brick walls, hardwood floors, wooden banquette and bare tables offer little to dampen sound in the narrow rooms of this old townhouse, but there were no problems hearing our dining companions.

Hank's Oyster Bar 1026 King St., Alexandria, 703-739-4265. No reservations accepted, but you can call ahead to place your name on a waiting list. Brunch appetizers, $3 to $14, main courses, $7 to $17. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. http://www.hanksrestaurants.com. Not wheelchair-accessible.

A French Twist

Nestled next to the railroad tracks at the north end of Alexandria's Old Town, Bastille has the feel of a French country inn, and a three-course brunch on Sunday costs $19. Bastille is in a cozy, wedge-shaped space, with a long banquette along one wall, a bar along the back wall and a window into the small kitchen. A large patio offers additional seating during warm weather.

Starters, which can be ordered a la carte, include a soup (parsnip on the day we visited), a Caesar salad with marinated white anchovies, a frisee and goat cheese salad and the restaurant's signature shrimp and calamari beignets. Scrambled eggs on a fresh croissant were cooked the Parisian way, over low heat, and yielded fluffy, soft and creamy curds. The eggs Benedict substitutes smoked salmon for the usual Canadian bacon and has hints of orange and tarragon in the hollandaise sauce. A bistro steak ($4 supplemental charge) was flavorful and napped with an intense shallot-red wine reduction and accented with crispy french fries.

Desserts change frequently but often include a miniature tarte Tatin (apple tart) with creme fraiche, a light but flavorful bread pudding and a small pineapple upside down cake with roasted macadamia nuts.

Bastille 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria, 703-519-3776, reservations recommended. Three-course menu, $19, appetizers, $7, entrees, $12, desserts, $6. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday. http://www.bastillerestaurant.com.


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