A year or so ago, not long before chef Ryan McCaskey opened Acadia in the South Loop, he began thinking about what his soon-to-be restaurant might serve at brunch. A lifelong Deadhead, he was traveling around the country, following what remains of the Grateful Dead, eating far more breakfasts and brunches than he typically does as a workaday Chicago chef: "I guess I had never thought much about how regional breakfast can be — how in the South, you'll find lots of sweets, biscuits in the morning, then in San Francisco, things get ultra-handmade and inventive, lots of pastries. I ate this blueberry muffin that probably weighed like 2 pounds."
He also noticed: Breakfast is hard, "this impossible balance" between eye-popping and comforting, new and familiar. I told him that for someone who merely likes to eat breakfast, that tightrope is no less perilous. For instance, the first time I sat for breakfast at Little Goat Diner on Randolph, I flinched: The menu reminded me of that rule about not dressing ostentatiously — stand with your back to a mirror, spin around and the first piece of bling to catch your eye, remove. The problem was, I hadn't eaten yet and if I did the spin-remove thing with a menu this blingy, Stephanie Izard's hipster diner would look like a real diner. In Dutch-Amish country.
I couldn't order a breakfast burrito here, I could only order a "parathas burrito," Indian flatbread replacing the tortilla and egg and "avocado-bean salad" replacing the standard, oh, egg and rice. I also couldn't just order French toast and drink coffee in peace, allowing the world to be a simpler place for a half-hour; I had to be offered an option of chorizo maple syrup. At 8 a.m. Which made me wonder if I ordered wrong. Should I have had — and I quote — the "Kimchi & Bacon & Eggs & Pancakes Asian Style Breakfast Tasty Thing"?
Instead I ordered the French toast: onion brioche, fried, with a broken egg in the middle and bits of sliced gooseberry and fried chicken across the top. As for the maple syrup — made with a touch of BBQ sauce.
I just woke up.
Now I wanted to lie down.
On the other hand:
No.1: I went with the BBQ-maple syrup. No. 2: As much as I am bellyaching, the dish was perfectly fine, surprisingly satisfying, somewhat a tasty thing (and I hate chicken). And No. 3: I feel karma at play here.
Because, self-centered as this sounds, this is all my fault, my vague, unmoored consumerist hopes coming to fruition much the way Frankenstein's monster rose from its slab. The next time you're at bellyQ (which just added brunch) and can't decide between the nori waffle with sake maple syrup or the tea-smoked duck Benedict with Thai-curry hollandaise, please blame me. I have brought this creative-brunch scourge, now working its way through Chicago — finally working its way through Chicago after years of the tediously familiar — upon us. For ages I have moaned to anyone who would listen that the most conservative, lazily designed meal in this town was breakfast and brunch — house-made granola, eggs Benedict with prosciutto, mascarpone-stuffed challah French toast, something with an egg, and boom, a restaurant has a new revenue stream.
But lately, now that more chef-driven restaurants are stepping out on a limb in the morning, eager for a piece of the insatiable brunch crowd, I don't know anymore. I find myself reneging on my dreams and hoping for, in a way that I wouldn't at dinner, a degree of familiarity in that bowl of creativity. Lately I disproportionately find myself reading brunch menus and drawing from that well-worn bank of "This Is Spinal Tap" references. And to paraphrase David St. Hubbins, "It is such a fine line between stupid and clever."
Especially at breakfast.
A decade ago, the outer limits of Chicago-brunch inventiveness seemed to be the (bad) orange-flavored coffee at Orange, the (good) "pancake orgy" at Toast and (so-so) chocolate on the French toast everywhere else. Michael Sheerin, co-executive chef and co-owner (with brother Patrick) of Trenchermen in Wicker Park, said he felt "limits of creativity being pushed a little at brunch by what Jam was doing" when the restaurant opened four years ago on Damen (it's since moved to Logan Boulevard).
And certainly, Jam was the first place I was offered pink peppercorns on my malted-custard sous-vide French toast. But, for sheer ambitiousness before noon, Sheerin, a veteran of Blackbird, Everest and Wylie Dufresne's wd˜50 in New York, may have it beat: Sitting down to Sunday brunch at Trenchermen recently, I was asked to choose between, oh, the popcorn grits in XO sauce and the Greek yogurt panna cotta with salted almonds. When I told Sheerin a menu like this in the morning makes me feel like a philistine — admiring of the effort but eager for the certainty of simple buttermilk pancakes — he sighed and said:
"I think what we are doing sometimes at breakfast doesn't translate from our heads to the words on the menu. You don't necessarily know how good or satisfying a dish is by the description. We were doing this French toast with raisin puree, maple crystals and a scoop of waffle ice cream, and some weeks we could sell it, and some weeks we couldn't give it away. Which makes me wonder if the menu wording was right."
I've had it, it's wonderful — ice cream in the morning, like pizza in the morning, is an underrated impulse.
But it's not the wording.
Or necessarily the food.
It's the idea of having to work in the morning, of being uncertain of what you're going to get, of losing those comforting rituals of weekend mornings. As obvious as it may sound to a casual restaurantgoer, and as boorish as it may seem to a food-industry obsessive, it's not trivial. Indeed, Sheerin said that he sells far more (relatively) traditional dishes such as a chicken confit hash and a "potato basket" (with mole breakfast sausages and a poached farm egg), than he sells pretzel cinnamon rolls and kimchi mortadella baos.
Which would go without saying.
On the other hand, Jason Vincent, the chef at Nightwood in Pilsen (and just named to Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs list), told me, "We offer two egg dishes at brunch, and we definitely sell less of those than we do the funkier stuff." When I asked where he falls on the clever-stupid scale, he said: "We've been doing brunch about three years, and we've developed this thing of basically making it with what we have left. We start with zero at the beginning of the week and work to Sunday. For example, we're doing pigeon at dinner, we're making the breast, which leaves us all these legs and things, so one of the cooks started making this crazy pigeon mole. Which means we'll do that mole on top of a cornmeal pancake at brunch."
He added, "We play to our clientele, which is an adventurous crowd, and that translates to brunch easily."
What's the difference?
Brunch at Nightwood is cozy, not fussy — pigeon mole or no pigeon mole. The place always has that smell of a wood-burning stove on a cold morning. Plus, butter-fried cornbread spaetzle with kale over the top suggests comfort and tradition, even if spaetzle at breakfast is unusual. Again, a fine line. You could argue geography matters: Trenchermen is in a busy neighborhood, and a visit to Nightwood, on a quiet strip, is a destination — you go expecting to be pushed, if slightly. And so nothing is nearby to second-guess you.
That said, the Carriage House on Division Street and Three Aces on Taylor Street, in well-traveled food neighborhoods, slightly push at (local) brunch conventions and manage nicely. But a sweet-corn waffle at Three Aces is grounded in the comfort of sweet corn, just as the entire menu at Carriage House — pickled shrimps and johnnycakes and such — is rooted in South Carolina low country cooking.
McCaskey, whose Arcadia begins brunch April 28, ultimately decided on a conservative menu, more in line with his upscale South Loopers and the restaurant's fine-dining aura. Plus, he told me, "I kept getting warned, 'OK, I know you want to do fun stuff, but at the end of the day, in the morning, it's not who we are.'"