Smorgasbord, a Better Brunch
Wednesday, December 24, 2008; Page F01
I've always thought that brunch is a lot like a first date. It has enormous promise, but it rarely pans out: Those tempting gingerbread pancakes turn out stodgy. The eggs are overcooked, and the hollandaise can be described only as bland. Like that perfect-on-paper setup, brunch usually leaves me cold.
I'm not the only one. "Fabulous prep time interrupted by eggs" is the way local chef Gillian Clark describes brunch. A "punishment block for the B-team cooks, or where the farm team of recent dishwashers learn their chops," Anthony Bourdain wrote in "Kitchen Confidential." New York chef Marcus Samuelsson says brunch is one of America's great contributions to culinary culture, yet he adds that "ultimately, it's one of those meals that should be eaten at home."
I called Samuelsson because the brunch at his Swedish restaurant, Aquavit, is one of the few I actually crave. When I visited, it offered a traditional smorgasbord of hot and cold, sweet and savory dishes such as tandoori-smoked salmon, artichoke tart, cheeses, hams and a bowl of fragrant wild strawberries. It is unusual enough to be interesting but not so out there to be off-putting. Sort of like that dream date.
To understand why the smorgasbord and brunch belong together, you first have to know why brunch so often stumbles. Bourdain is right: Restaurants hate brunch, and it's not only because the chefs don't want to wake up early on Sunday. Brunch manages to be simultaneously creatively uninspiring and hard to do well.
Take eggs. Everybody orders them. And they get cold, and therefore unappetizing, very quickly. Chris Mickey, general manager at Tallula in Arlington, estimates that his servers have 30 seconds to get eggs from the kitchen to the table. That means if brunch is busy, Mickey needs a lot of staff. But as almost no one makes brunch reservations, there's no telling if the restaurant will be slammed or slow.
Diners also are very particular about their eggs. While many are not confident enough to criticize the duck with pumpkin cakes, they're not shy about their definition of "over easy." Try to steer them away from their weekly indulgence, and they're not happy, either. Eggs Benedict with fried green tomatoes instead of English muffins? Okay. Bagel with avocado, pancetta and burrata? Not so much. "When the chef tries to be innovative, it can be a failure. Brunch is not a place to take risks," Mickey says.
Brunch at home can disappoint, too. Home cooks have the same egg problem that restaurant chefs do, plus they probably would rather spend time with their guests than play short-order cook. Bagels and cream cheese are a cliche and, around Washington, underwhelming. "If you're not cooking eggs to order, leave them out," says chef Clark, who plans to offer a no-eggs, all-waffle brunch at the General Store, her new restaurant slated to open this month. "If you're not in New York, don't bother with bagels."
By definition, a Swedish smorgasbord dodges most of brunch's pitfalls. Traditionally, guests make multiple trips to the buffet table to avoid piling sweet, savory and pickled on one plate. So the classic dishes -- herring, cured salmon, cheeses, meats, salads, glogg (a Swedish mulled wine spiked with vodka), even the famous meatballs -- are designed to keep well. Better, everything can be made in advance and served at the same time.
Some Swedish staples, such as herring, may break the nothing-too-challenging-before-noon-rule. (My advice: Try them; you'll like them.)
The remaining dishes fall into that unusual-but-still-appealing category. In addition to the expected gravlax, I've added Samuelsson's elegant cured beef tenderloin to my holiday smorgasbord. Rubbed with black pepper, star anise, orange, ginger and mint, then sliced ultra-thin, it's a kind of Swedish carpaccio. For seafood, Jenny Lovblom of Washington-based Swedish Caterers provided a recipe for smorgastarta, a layered sandwich cake of bread, shrimp and salmon salads and dill. Normally, it's covered with a savory "frosting" of mayonnaise and sour cream, then garnished with cucumber and lemon. But I thought the colorful layers were beautiful unfrosted. (And who needs more sour cream and mayonnaise at this time of year?) Also on the table: Jansson's Temptation, a traditional creamy potato casserole with onion and marinated sprats; pickled cucumbers; and warm homemade saffron buns filled with almond paste. Bake them right before guests arrive, and the house will smell wonderful.
The only thing missing: eggs. A classic smorgasbord does sometimes include hard-cooked eggs with a dab of salmon roe; a modern one could offer a winter quiche. Or just leave them out. You need to save something for the second date, anyway.
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