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May 20, 2005

Get a Life - May 20, 2005

An article I read in The New York Times two Sundays ago seriously offended me. The piece, called "Hangovers and Leftovers," addressed the perception that, as a cultural institution, brunch is so passé. The author, Bob Morris, explains, "Many insist that it's not an authentic meal. Who, for example, ever heard of a power brunch? And has anyone ever broken up over brunch? No. The food is too soft and squishy, the atmosphere one of pleasantries."

And that, Mr. Morris, is exactly why I love the meal. Brunch cannot be threatening. It is cozy. It is fattening. It is long. You can't count calories at a meal that revolves around Hollandaise sauce and entrees that may as well be desserts.

I am a serious bruncher. It is really a wonder that I don't smell of Eau du Eggs Benedict. I go to brunch at least once a week, and I am proud to proclaim a personal record of three times in four days. I like to mix it up, try new places: Toast, Orange, MOD, Bistro 110, RL, Milk & Honey Café, Hearty Boys, Ann Sathers, and Salpicon, along with the more classic hotel buffet. On my Thursday outing this week, though, I couldn't pass on a repeat of Sunday's locale—Bongo Room.

The food is unreal. Judging by the projected hour-long wait at 9:30 on Sunday morning, everybody agrees. I suggest deliberating over the menu before sitting down in one of the sunflower-patterned, wooden booths that line the walls. It's hard to choose, but as far as I can tell, there is no wrong answer.

Two of my friends had been hyping this place to me for a few weeks before I had a chance to go. One recited the menu to me verbatim and showed me pictures he had taken of the meal. I assured him that, yes, the chocolate tower French toast was photo-worthy. The other explained his ordering tactic: Order one of the savory dishes and then eat off of someone else's overwhelming mound of pancakes.

Despite brunch's reputation as a prissy meal, the portions are not for sissies. The pancakes—though surprisingly light—are stacked with decadent toppings. Banana flapjacks are topped with layers of crumbled Heath Bar and sliced bananas and then covered with a syrupy toffee-praline sauce. Graham cracker and banana pancakes are drenched in an airy cream cheese sauce and loaded with fresh strawberries and bananas and topped with strawberry coulis. Other savory options are just as massive. The hamburger-hearty vegetarian croissant sandwich is paired with enough perfect hash browns to fill an entire plate, and the various renditions of eggs Benedict (with lump crabmeat, roasted red peppers, and feta, for example) are deliciously filling. Experience has taught me to split one sweet and one salty dish. You get the best of both worlds while limiting your sugar high and reducing your egg consumption to just shy of a dozen.

The mis-matched lighting and exposed brick wall of the place are welcoming, and so are the waiters who are more than willing to offer their suggestions. The whole atmosphere lends itself to lingering, including the cocktail list with creative departures from the basic mimosa. To enjoy brunch, you have to give it time. Le Brunch is catching on in Paris, and its laid-back sensibility has grown in popularity in Chicago as well. The slow pace on a Sunday (or Monday, or Tuesday) morning is what makes this meal so great, and the journalist behind "Hangovers and Leftovers" should understand the beauty of this. After all, what goes better with a rich helping of Cherries Jubilee French toast than the weighty comfort of the Sunday New York Times?

Bongo Room

Address: 1470 North Milwaukee Avenue

Phone: 773.489.0690

Directions:

Via CTA: CTA bus #55 Garfield Westbound to the Red Line. Take the Red Line to Division/Clark. Transfer to CTA bus #70 Division Westbound to Division/Wolcott. Walk north on Wolcott to intersection with Milwaukee Avenue. Turn left on Milwaukee. 1470 North Milwaukee Avenue is on the right.

Via car: 90/94 West. Exit at North Avenue. Turn right onto North Avenue. Make a sharp left onto Milwaukee Avenue. The Bongo Room is on the right.