Breakfast, Meet Lunch

Jeffrey Steen |
Food And Dining

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, brunch first entered the culinary world as a  delicious panacea for headache-plagued, Saturday-night carousers in the Queen’s not-so-well-mannered England. That was back in 1895. Stateside sources, on the other hand, have attributed the mid-morning portmanteau to harried newspaper reporters desperate for a meal. Whoever inspired morning risers to merge savory and sweet was nothing short of genius—and we owe them a great debt of gratitude.

On the culinary plains of our very own Chicago in 2014, we find that brunch is as absolute a fixture as the river that runs through her. At the same time, it’s not all one-dimensional pancakes and bacon. No, the City of Big (Pork) Shoulders has taken this time-honored meal and made it elegant and elaborate—with a bit of inventive whimsy thrown in.

One of the classic Windy City brunch staples, Yolk {multiple locations; eatyolk.com} is giving people what they want at a price point that’s comfortable—atop specialty riffs that make diners swoon. “One of our signatures is a Red Velvet French Toast—decadent and indulgent. We also offer a Pot Roast Benedict that’s amazing,” gushes Owner Taki Kastanis.

But it starts with the classics, ones that will forever rest on Yolk’s long-sung menu: Meat and Two Eggs never go stale, particularly when they come with an order of Americana in the form of a shortstack. Truth be told, Kastanis has made a name for himself by walking the fine line between flourish and foundation.

Because, you see, at the foundation, brunch is a creature of habit. So paints Owner Guy Nickson of Wishbone north {3300 North Lincoln Avenue; 773.549.2663}. For this veteran of the restaurant world, brunch is simply a meeting of breakfast and lunch, with a bit of creative liberty thrown in for good measure. “We have biscuits and gravy, French toast, pancakes. But we make them unique—like coating the French toast in cornflakes before pan-frying, or adding corn cakes to the more regular line of buttermilk, buckwheat, and fruit pancakes.” That would be Wishbone’s rendition of the Johnny cake—a surprising savory seduction with sweet red pepper sauce, scallions, and fresh corn.

Still, Nickson says, the tradition remains true and tasty. “Whatever people try to do with brunch, the truth is that people stick to traditional fare for breakfast. It’s not really a time to be experimental. That’s for dinner.”

Dig into a heaping helping of Chicken and Waffles at Local Root {601 North McClurg Court; 312.643.1145} and you might say the same thing. Not only do we crave the classics, but why switch them up when they’re oh-so-good? At the root of these Chicken and Waffles is what you might expect: fried chicken, a Belgian waffle, and syrup. But take a closer look and relish what Owner Isaac Welivér has done to update the old: organic Amish chicken, housemade waffles, and a specially-concocted spicy syrup. Familiar enough to crave, different enough to excite.

“For me, what’s important is working with ideas that play on tradition,” Welivér says. “Have fun but keep it classic.” Classic like Green Eggs and Ham? Well, sort of. Welivér started with simple and delicious sautéed eggs, then added in pesto and spinach for colorful intrigue and paired the creation with two ham steaks. Give it the childhood charm of a Dr. Seuss novel, and you’ve got new egg dish devotees. Another guilty indulgence that updates the old: Local Root’s Benedict with Earth Farm’s Beef Brisket and barbecue sauce.

Owner Gus Katsafaros of aptly-named Marmalade {1969 West Montrose Avenue; 773.883.9000} gets the “tweak on classics” mantra, but has separated himself from the crowd with a weightier focus on ingredients.

“I use top-of-the-line products. All of our marmalades, fruit reductions, whipped cream, brioche, pancakes—they’re all made from scratch, in-house. We even whip our own butter.” That kind of commitment is understandably rare in the breakfast-brunch realm, owing to the cost and effort it demands. But Katsafaros, along with Chef Efrain De Paz, is determined to keep it up.

When the produce comes in, De Paz has a field day. Lately, his Texan Benny—pulled pork slow-cooked in-house, a base of homemade cornbread, poached eggs, and a pineapple chutney with chipotle hollandaise—is stealing the show. It’s not so off-the-charts you can’t call it a Benedict, but it’s also not the mundane muffin-ham-egg formula of decades past.

Then there are those diner-rooted stops that dish whatever your heart desires, morning to night. Nookies {multiple locations; nookieschicago.com}, a Chicago staple helmed by Chef Jacob Smith, has the incomprehensible job of pleasing palates from sunrise to sunset

with breakfast, breakfast, breakfast. Okay, so there’s a little more variety to it: “Brunch at Nookies tends to walk the line between breakfast and lunch—a lot more sandwiches, soups, and salads to go with classics like two eggs with bacon and hash browns.”

Smith, much like Nickson, sees breakfast-brunch as a canvas for the classics. “One of our top sellers is a plate with two eggs, sausage, and pancakes. Nothing crazy, nothing funky. That’s what people crave. For breakfast, people don’t branch out and get adventurous. They want something specific.”

Still, Smith allows for some inventive energy. “What goes over really well here is when we take a classic and elevate it. But it still stays true to a brunch feeling. Like our Paris Benedict—grilled brioche, Gruyère, asparagus, cherrywood-smoked bacon, truffle cream sauce, and a poached egg.”

Over on Taylor Street, Spiro Tsaldaris’ STAX CAFE {1401 West Taylor Street; 312.416.9399} similarly delivers brunch with pride, but not exotic embellishment. Back in the kitchen, the griddle sizzles with standards like French Toast, touched with culinary flair—bananas mingling with pecans, blue corn dancing with bacon. Some of Stax’s choicest offerings are the omelettes, dolled up with lots of meat (ham, sausage, bacon, and chicken sausage), or a simple blend of cheese and veggies.

And between updates to the menu, Tsaldaris’s crew focuses on simplicity and quality above all else. “We’re not here to reinvent breakfast. We’re just here to do it right,” he says. “Don’t expect deconstructed French toast or breakfast wontons at Stax. We serve the breakfast classics and we do them simply and perfectly, the way that they’re meant to be.” To that point, customers rave about the classics more than anything else—specifically the egg dishes (any of them) and the menu’s classic Pain Perdu.

But while tradition holds sway with food, many morning eateries are turning the bulk of their creative attention to cocktail programs. At Local Root, the bar is shaking up intoxicating treats like the Corpse Reviver #2—a chilling name with delicious personality. “It’s a combination of gin, lemon juice, Lillet Blanc, and Leopold Brothers Orange Liqueur,” Welivér says. “It’s the first hair of the dog you have when you’re hungover.” Couple that with the city’s love of bottomless mimosas, and you have a new dimension to a meal that once adored mostly coffee and orange juice.

Surely, though, Chicago’s top toques are conspiring to undo the status quo with some amazing new feats of brunch. What about the trends toward house-smoked bacon, salty and sweet, or gourmet doughnuts that serve as everything from sweet tooth-pleasers to Benedict bases?

It’s all possible, but if current menus are any foreshadowing, the classics will hold sway for a while longer. “It used to be that crazy ingredients and really dynamic menus caught people’s attention,” Smith says. “Now you’re looking at simpler items that are locally-sourced and neighborhood-driven. We’re going back to the foods of yesteryear.”

Yesteryear, eh? If the rabble-rousing Brits have anything to do with it, we may find ourselves craving a pre-noon savory pie. Mincemeat and stewed tomatoes, anyone?

 

Did You Know?

Omelette

The word may stumble back to the 16th century in Paris, but the concept is much older. References were made to amelettes in culinary tomes as far back as 1393. Records weren’t set until much later, however, when the largest omelette was introduced to the world in 1994—1,383 square feet in size, containing a whopping 160,000 eggs. Thanks are due to some seriously over-worked chickens.

Pancake

There are quite a few varieties of this brunch classic, some crazy enough to showcase sesame seeds and cheese. For our taste, however, the original Greek version does us right: wheat flour, olive oil, honey, and curdled milk. We’re also gluttonous fans of the apple-filled Danish aebleskiver drowned in powdered sugar.

Benedict

The true history of this early morning treat is somewhat inglorious. As the history books tell us, retired stock broker Lemuel Benedict wandered into the Waldorf sometime in 1894 with a splitting headache and an unhappy liver. To cure his discomfort, he ordered “buttered toast, poached eggs, crisp bacon, and a hooker of Hollandaise.” Today, we toast the man whose drunken stupor brought us the next best thing in brunch.

French Toast

Also known as “eggy bread” or “gypsy toast,” this simple, sweet indulgence was born in the fifth century. Over the years, however, it has traveled the European continent wearing everything from butter and honey to game bird meat and ketchup. If you’re particularly adventurous, smear your pain perdu with mayonnaise and thick country gravy.