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The Brunch Club 

A little luxury in the a.m., worshiping oysters, smoked salmon, and eggs, eggs, eggs!

Wednesday, May 30 2007
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Holly Brubach recently wrote in the New York Times Sunday magazine, T, that she thought nearly every dish would be improved by adding a poached egg. I know what she means, though in my case the egg in question could just as soon be a fried one.

And there's no better time, I think, to consume one's eggs, whether poached, fried, scrambled, or omeletted, than at brunch, a nice, leisurely, luxurious, indulgent meal. It was briefly fashionable to poke fun at brunch, but I find nothing to laugh about when delicious food is on the table at any time of day. At a number of serious restaurants, the meal is treated with just as much respect as any other.

Not that such is always the case. I'd always been intrigued by the inevitable lineup at Ella's, and I joined it one weekend morning with my 5-year-old nephew Ben in tow. I was taking him to see the Pickle Circus at the Jewish Community Center across the street, and Ella's couldn't have been more convenient.

Or so I thought, getting nervous as our estimated 40-minute wait stretched closer to an hour. But I needn't have worried: No sooner had we ordered than thick, manhole-cover-sized, cool and leathery pancakes were slapped down in front of us, obviously not prepared to order. My football-shaped and -sized lump of underseasoned, bland chicken hash took a bit longer to reach the table, accompanied by poached eggs overcooked to nearly hard-boiled. I sent the eggs back, since for me the glory of a poached egg is its saucy, liquid yolk. And now when I drive past Ella's patiently waiting hordes, I'm perplexed, rather than intrigued.

I prefer, as any sane person would, a place where my table is waiting for me, rather than my pancakes. At three recent meals, I was reminded just how delightful a morning collation could be. For Janice and Adam, ex-Bay Area residents and serious eaters now living in Seattle, I wanted someplace chic, cutting-edge, and new to them. And with a kitchen philosophy that didn't just repeat the inevitable fresh, local, and seasonal mantra, but offered something unique.

I'd been so happy with Maverick's New American cuisine at two dinners that I longed to sample their take on brunch. My friends remembered when the two snug rooms had housed Limon and they liked the simple but stylish and Dwell magazine-worthy woody new décor. And we all reacted the same way to the morning menu: There were lots of things we wanted to try, including a Cajun scramble, eggs with andouille sausage and scallions sided with cheesy grits; Texan migas, eggs scrambled with tortilla strips, tomato, roasted chilis, queso fresco, pico de gallo, black beans, and avocado; and "The Carlos" torta especial, a bacon, eggs, home fries, and jack cheese sandwich.

But then we ordered three other dishes. I had biscuits and gravy, two light and airy baking powder biscuits sopped with a good milky gravy satisfyingly thick with crumbled pork sausage, and served with two eggs, scrambled soft as requested. Adam's oyster po' boy (slicked with remoulade, Tabasco on the side) was notable for the crispness of its plump bivalves. But Janice's hash was the best: a luxurious collection of chunks of silky duck confit, slippery oyster mushrooms, and sautéed potatoes, all lubricated with a rich mushroom cream sauce, and topped with two poached eggs.

We lingered over five sweet little hot doughnut holes, dusted with cinnamon and sugar, and good strong coffee.

Janice and Adam requested a copy of the dinner menu, to remind them to return on their next trip.

When ex-San Franciscan Nate returned to S.F. on assignment, he was surprised to see my phone number still stored on his cell. He was even more surprised when, as a reward for dialing 10 little digits, I treated him (and myself) to a late-morning meal at Foreign Cinema.

Not only is Foreign Cinema's large interior patio a perfect setting for daylight dining, its married chefs Gayle Pirie and John Clark show their affection for my favorite brunch ingredient by devoting their first cookbook, City Egg, Country Egg, to it.

We started by splitting a "mini mer" platter of shellfish: The five oysters, many clams (extra, we were told by our excellent server, because they were out of mussels — I like clams better, anyway), two crab legs, two poached shrimp, and an exotic scattering of cockles looked pretty maxi to me. They came with lemon, cocktail sauce, mignonette, and an exceptionally good aioli. We were surprised when Nate's plate of smoked salmon, beautifully decorated with sliced cucumber and potato rondels, oiled with citrus vinaigrette, and scattered with fronds of fresh dill, arrived on its own rather than at the same time as my eggs, but it turned out that we enjoyed turning two courses into three. And our server was so surprised to see the nearly finished salmon when she turned up with my peppered duck breast and poached eggs set on a salad of mixed chicories in a sherry vinaigrette, garnished with currants and big oily croutons, that she turned our three courses into four by treating us to a bowl of raspberries and strawberries elevated by the addition of fromage blanc, mint, and a drizzle of winy saba.

Two excellent brunches became three when I took my parents and Lee to Absinthe on a Sunday morning when culture beckoned: the last day of a modernism photography show plus Vivienne Westwood at the de Young for Lee, and a chamber-music concert devoted to Bay Area composer Elly Armer at the Old First Church for us. To our amazement, there was ample parking on Hayes: We suddenly realized that the street had just reopened after Bay to Breakers.

Our luck held. Well, almost: My mother's Dungeness crab, sautéed with parsley and garlic, was sweet and silky and rather luscious. Lee's omelet, stuffed with big woodsy morels, English peas, a whiff of sage, and the genius touch of fresh white corn, was cooked just the way she liked it. My father enjoyed his smoked salmon, squiggled with pernod-dill cream, though he thought that its capers, rather than being fried, "should come straight from the pickling jar as nature intended." I was the only loser: My eggs, scrambled with an inexplicably dull combination of boiled navy beans, mushy artichoke ragout, and too-wispy, too-infrequent strands of Toscano salame, paled, especially since I'd chosen them over an Absinthe burger, corned beef hash with poached eggs, or grilled flat iron steak.

But Absinthe rallied with a superb trio of tarts (chocolate-banana, cheesecake, and almond-raspberry), and a seductive assortment of cookies and confections, notably a bonbon filled with basil ganache and tiny pistachio-cherry muffins. We all wished we'd seen the cheese menu earlier: One of us would have certainly had the lavish cheese plate, five carefully garnished cheeses for $25, as our main dish. Next time, we agreed. Because brunch is, even at otherwise pricy places, an affordable luxury.

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Meredith Brody

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