Joy in the morning

The fragrance of cinnamon fills the air as you wait in a patient line for Sunday brunch. Long past noon, customers are asking for coffee refills as they mop up the last of their "International Scrambles" or "Breakfast of Champions." Diners at Berkley's Breakfast Café [as the Berkley Bistro was known when this review came out] have clearly decided to reward themselves for a week of toil with a no-holds-barred breakfast the old-fashioned way.

That would include four-egg omelets made with Italian sausage, sausage gravy, or chili and cheddar cheese. It would include French toast stuffed with strawberries and mango-infused cream cheese. The "Breakfasts of Champions" are not Wheaties but "welterweight," "middleweight," and "heavyweight" versions of traditional egg-and-meat platters, culminating in the $12 VIP with a 10-ounce New York strip.

Befitting the portion sizes, prices are fairly hefty for breakfast, though not out of line with other, more refined establishments. The decor here is Howard Johnsonesque: booths, pretend plants spilling out of wall-hung baskets, paper placemats, tiny plastic packets of grape jelly. We had real flowers on our table for breakfast, though, indicating some aspirations to greater things. The long menu runs the gamut from such traditional dishes as Eggs Florentine and Benedict, through five kinds of French toast to omelets and scrambles made with everything from crab, asparagus, portobellos or roasted tomato sauce to chorizo or "gyro meat."

I tried a version of Eggs Benedict with crab cake instead of ham. The three poached eggs stood up tall and saluted as they ought to. My companion ate the Norwegian scramble with salmon, asparagus, dill and Monterey jack, and he scarfed it approvingly; the salmon taste was uppermost.

My favorite side was corned beef hash: What a superb mix of flavors and textures. The onions were soft and sweet, the corned beef chewy, tangy and salty, held together by potatoes that added their own mellow blandness. There's something about the texture of certain shredded foods that's a comfort; each of those little twigs exposes a maximum number of surfaces to the frying pan and then to the tongue.

Hash browns were less successful precisely because they had not been fried sufficiently. (Each entrée comes with hash browns or "cheesy grits.") This is a matter of taste, of course, but I like my browns browner, even with a crust attained by prolonged resting in one position, no tossing.

At my house, we use the more dignified term "cheese grits" and we mix the cheddar into the grain. At Berkley's, the cheddar is a crust on top of a small serving of very soft grits, which tastes just fine, but I would advocate a firmer outcome. In matters of breakfast, especially, what you learned at your mother's elbow will color your preferences for life.

The café opened last February just for breakfast and lunch, and a few months ago executive chef Eric McDade and owner Luciano Pierobon decided to expand into dinner, with McDade as chef. The menu is ambitious, promising delights found elsewhere at much higher prices: lamb chops for $12.95; pork tenderloin sautéed with Fuji apples in a Jack Daniels cream sauce for $13.95; beef tenderloin with a port demi-glace and ragoût of portobellos, onions and cherry tomatoes for $15.95.

However, all the dinner dishes I sampled (except some olives and the butter pecan ice cream) had one thing in common: Nothing tasted like itself. Sauces did sometimes taste like something recognizable, but often not what was advertised.

Lobster bisque, for example, tasted mostly of alcohol, though the lobster taste was there in the background. It was served with a packet of saltines. In a tightly packed "French onion meat loaf" one could taste neither meat nor the visible mushrooms, only the cognac sauce.

A Southwestern bean and corn soup tasted of neither but simply like chili, i.e., cumin. For my "BBQ duck breast" sprinkled with walnut halves — and the "BBQ" should have given it away — the only flavor was the ketchup-y sauce. A very soft and soupy peach cobbler tasted as peach cobbler often does around here — just of cinnamon, no fruit.

Calamari were very tender, but it was the crust you were enjoying under the sweet-hot marinara, not the sea critter. These were served with some good briny olives that did manage to make themselves known as olives.

Patrons were sparse when we visited at 8 on a weekend night — and service was quick, as the staff made no secret of their desire to be gone on the dot of quitting time. It may be that I'm not the only one who finds breakfast more successful than lunch at Berkley's Breakfast. Dinner needs a major rethink: Perhaps stick with simpler dishes and trust the ingredients rather than piling on mysterious sauces.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

About The Author

Jane Slaughter

When she's not reviewing restaurants, Jane Slaughter also writes about labor affairs, having co-founding the labor magazine Labor Notes. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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