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April 7, 2008

The Weary Epicurean—April 8, 2008

There is no meal dearer to the heart of the typical college student than Sunday brunch. Whether it’s a pancake flight at Orange or a sausage-and-cheese omelet at Valois, there’s something about 10 a.m. on the day of rest that begs for unnecessary amounts of pork fat—and maybe fruit compote on the side.

This is particularly the case in Chicago, which has developed something of a “brunch scene,” especially in its many young urban professional neighborhoods like Wicker Park and the South Loop. Dozens flock to fashionable spots like Bistro 110 on the Magnificent Mile or Wishbone in the West Loop. In New York they have “the ladies that lunch”; in Chicago I guess we have yuppies that brunch.

One surprising aspect of this gourmet brunch scene is that you can experience it without paying through the nose. Some friends of mine brought me to a wonderful—and quite reasonable—Saturday brunch in the South Loop at a restaurant called the Bongo Room. I was blown away both by the wide variety of flavor offerings and the attention to detail. For example, the banana toffee pancakes contained chocolate Heath-bar flakes and were made from a dry wheat batter, while the graham-cracker pancakes were cornmeal-based. The potato sides were flavored nicely with rosemary and were happily unsullied by any more than perhaps a tablespoon of olive oil. Also, the coffee was strong, and its grounds were clearly fresh-roasted. I suspect the influence of Intelligentsia Coffee may have been at work.

The original Bongo Room is in Wicker Park. I haven’t been there, but it’s definitely on my list. The South Wabash location, however, is far more accessible from Hyde Park: It’s just a short ride on the Red Line to the Roosevelt stop, which is literally a block from the restaurant. There is also usually parking in that particular stretch of Loop on the weekends.

This isn’t to say that you can’t tuck into a good brunch in Hyde Park. I am extremely fond of the Denver omelet at Valois, and I’m certain to run into a friend or classmate at Salonica. The Medici, to my mind, serves a brunch that is actually too greasy to keep down, but even there you’ve got good hot chocolate and eggs espresso to work with (I always get it with mushrooms on dry whole-wheat toast). The point, though, is less the food than the company—and, now that the weather’s changed, the walk there and back is an attraction as well.

One must always be wary, however, of the brunch at any restaurant that does not attempt to build most of its reputation on brunch. At unscrupulous establishments, it’s mostly an excuse to palm off poor-quality and rather old ingredients on the unsuspecting public. “Seafood omelets” in particular are to be avoided if you value your life. In fact, any “special” omelet is likely to contain samples of the week’s detritus, hastily softened in butter and over-seasoned with salt. Let’s just say that if a server ever tries to push a brunch menu item on you without provocation, a giant red flag should be raised.

So perhaps the best brunches are homemade. Certainly the coziest are, and most brunch items are fun to cook. I love frying breakfast-cut pork chops at 10 a.m. in my own kitchen, wearing my blue plaid kimono and humming along to Paul Simon. My favorite dish to cook is probably apple fritters, which my mother insists we eat for every Thanksgiving breakfast. You core the apples, peel them, and slice them about a half-inch thick. Then dip the rings in egg, dredge them in flower and fry them in half butter, half oil. Serve them with something else that’s salty and meaty and with some jellies for condiment—it’s heavy, but succulent.

If you want to serve an impressive brunch—for visiting ’rents, say, or a significant other—crepes or anything involving poached eggs are definitely the way to go. Crepes are always better if the batter is made in advance, which is handy, since it gives you one less thing to worry about in the bleary morning. To poach eggs easily, add a little vinegar to the water, and make a little vortex in it by stirring with a spoon. Crack the egg into the vortex, and the spinning motion will keep the white fairly neat. Some people can’t ever seem to get the knack of this. If that’s the case for you, you can almost always just soft-boil them, or make them in the oven in a little buttered ramekin. Or put the eggs in cold water, bring it to a boil, take off the heat, and leave them for exactly three minutes—a perfect substitute for poached eggs, I think. Also: Don’t overcook them. Nearly everyone does—and if you do, you might just as well not have bothered, don’t you think?