The citizenry of Alameda have cause to celebrate.
With the opening of Neptune’s, the island now has a place for brunch that rivals those in any other East Bay town or city. To paraphrase Roxy Music, brunch is the drug and they totally scored. It’s been open less than a month, and word has already spread. On a recent Saturday morning, the classic American restaurant filled to capacity shortly after 9 a.m.
Small groups of hungry customers waited in the shade under what used to be a Fosters Freeze awning. Inside, the ocean-blue walls and nautical kitsch — including three polished brass diver’s helmets — have erased all traces of the ice cream palace that once was. It’s disappeared into the past as if someone’s balanced food pyramid had finally broken a sugary, high-calorie curse.
The chef who managed that conversion is Naomi Elze-Harris. The ravenous (or mournful) expressions that waiting patrons sported rapidly changed to delight when her gorgeous plates arrived on the pristine tabletops. The menu, a hodgepodge of international and regional American dishes, covers a lot of ground familiar to Californians, including fried oysters, Spam musubi, and two kinds of lumpia. On paper, the lack of a dominant theme seemed problematic. As executed, each beautiful dish rebuked any initial concern or sense of doubt.
Something as simple as a side of toast ($7) is composed with the formal elegance of a Dutch still-life painting. But the chef accomplishes more than making food look Instagram-ready. The toast’s description listed only house ricotta and seasonal jam, but artfully arranged on top were slivered almonds and cress greens, along with orange, vermilion, and purple flower petals. And the bread was neither soggy nor dry, an indication that her sense of ingredient proportionality is just right.
The Hollandaise for the Biscuit Benedict ($13, plus $3 for a side of bacon) is made fresh every day. The biscuits were slightly sweet but not overly so. A green salad, also adorned with petals, lightened what often ends up as a saucy, leaden mess. It was the Farmer’s Scramble ($13), though, that really delivered exceptional flavors.
The waitress explained that it would be served “Persian-style” that day. By this, she meant round and open-faced like a kuku, or herb frittata. My Iranian aunts used to serve this dish when we’d visit them, and as a boy, I found it way too herb-centric: My undeveloped palate couldn’t handle such an intense concentration of dill and other unidentifiable greens. (I like it now as a consenting adult). Here, the ratio favored the eggs. Bright al dente spring peas and mushrooms were cooked inside the scramble. On top lay a stack of crunchy fennel (currently the most ubiquitous Bay Area garnish) and radish sliced mandolin-thin, then tossed with lemon and feta crumbs. Perfection.
Then the waitress brought out the waffle. For lunch, you can try the fried chicken and waffles ($16), but for breakfast, it’s limited to sweet ($13) or savory ($12). We went for the sweet. I was so pleasantly surprised by the toppings, a combination of house ricotta and local honey, that I didn’t miss the usual butter and syrup for a nanosecond. The two together, along with the crepe-like consistency of the ironed batter, lifted the waffle up and away from heaviness and into the heavens.
One small ramekin contained the jewel in the crown: homemade jam. What a pretty, vibrant punch of color and flavor from just lemon, sugar, pectin and strawberries. It unified and punctuated the entire aesthetic experience of eating at Neptune’s. The mighty sea god himself, underneath the crashing waves offshore, must surely be raising his trident in a congratulatory salute.
Neptune’s, 630 Central Ave., Alameda, 510-263-9438 or neptunesalameda.com