Food & Drink

Paying More and Loving It

When Is a Plate of French Toast Worth $12?

Paying More and Loving It

Jennifer Richard

Monsoon

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Fancy brunch in Seattle used to involve quality water views accompanied by quantity all-you-can-eat buffets, a feast for the eyes and a perhaps unhealthy sense of obligation for the stomach. I won't cast aspersions on Salty's (1936 Harbor Ave SW, 937-1600)—I've never been there, and surely it is a fine place to take your great-aunt*—but let us note that brunch there costs $38.95 per person.

When it comes to upscale brunch where no view and no endless crab legs are required, a new category is available: Some of the city's most forward-thinking, interesting restaurants are now open for your midday weekend fine dining. Maybe these places noticed the brunch crowds at Peso's or Coastal Kitchen and thought, for a few dollars more, we can give a taste of what we do at dinner (which involves trusting a well-trained staff; the star chefs likely won't be cooking). Maybe it's to make a little (or a lot) of money when the restaurant would otherwise stand empty. But if you're going to pay $12 for a plate of French toast—lavender-scented, served with citrus and whipped mascarpone, whatever—you want to feel the love. Which of these brunches have their heart in the right place?

Thanks to gauzy window coverings, the all-white interior of Veil (555 Aloha St, 216-0600) feels cool rather than bright during the day. It's like eating brunch inside a bowl of cream, but with a surreal L.A. edge. On this Saturday, a tense, clicking electronic soundtrack plays. One couple argues in the lowest possible voices, while another holds up their hands, staring at them as if they're new. Look too close, and daylight here shows scuff marks, including dingy chair-seats; a touch-up's in order, conjuring an image of a giant bottle of Wite-Out. Still, a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice has never had a better setting; it glows. The food does not. Thirteen-dollar ricotta pancakes should be floating up off the plate into the air, but they're leaden, and a pool of blueberry-anise compote cannot redeem them. In a schmancy hash ($16), intensely sweet caramelized onions overwhelm the duck confit (and any other flavor), while the potatoes have hard edges and skin, like they've been cruelly pre- and then recooked. Chicken-apple sausage ($5): strangely tasteless, blank. This is not a brunch that recommends dinner at Veil, nor eating in general.

Elsewhere on Lower Queen Anne, Moxie (530 First Ave N, 283-6614) is a popular new-American bistro, doing the upscale/natural/organic thing. On this visit, it's underpopulated; the dining room is darkened and empty, with brunch occurring at close-set tables in the bar. Two servers tag-team with an excess of moxie, pushing $9 drink specials, making excessive conversation, and hovering in order to ask how everyone's doing when everyone's coffee cup is visibly empty. Potato pancakes ($13) don't want for grease, warming up the pretty smoked salmon draped over them. Corned beef hash ($13), made with tender slow-cooked brisket and Yukon gold potatoes, is tasty but also greasy. A side of bacon ($3, from "the kitchen!" jokes the server; it's from Zoe's in San Francisco) is served on a mod rectangle of white porcelain in a pool of its own grease. When picked up, it drips. It's sorrowing.

Brunch seems a smart way to sample Tilth (1411 N 45th St, 633-0801) in Wallingford, anointed last month as one of 10 U.S. "Restaurants That Count" by the New York Times. Tilth's bungalow feels cozy and conspiratorial at night, like you're at a super dinner party; by day, airiness and lemon-chiffon-colored walls serve as mood elevators, as do superthick, heirloom-tomato bloody marys ($7). Every ingredient on the current brunch menu is organic except the duck (in the much-lauded mini duck burgers, a price outlier at $18). On a prior visit, truffled scrambled eggs ($12) were terrific: not too truffley, arranged in a crown atop superlative potatoes, with then-in-season tomatoes as confetti. On this visit, French toast ($12, a Grand Marnier/bing-cherry-compote version) is nice and boozy, but very dense, made with chewy egg bread. An asparagus, feta, and mint omelet ($12) is creamy inside and very fine, though accompanying simple roasted Yukons try to steal the show. Smoked pulled chicken in cream gravy over cheddar biscuits with fried eggs ($15) tastes salty. Overall, it's good, but not inspired, and it takes a long time.

Over on Eastlake at renowned Sitka & Spruce (2238 Eastlake Ave E, 324-0662), brunch departs from the mere elevation of typical American breakfast. Today the chalkboard says "SATURDAY FOOD $17," with only two dishes to choose between. Dish one: couscous with spicy chicken and hard-boiled egg. The sauce has dates, pine nuts, and North African richness, while the couscous is unbelievably fluffy, hand-rolled on the premises. I don't know how you hand-roll couscous, but everyone should do it all the time; it's a new thing at Sitka & Spruce, and if you went to dinner now, it might be on that menu, too. Dish two: endive and Treviso—roasted until floppy, sweet and sharp—lightly sauced with artichoke cream, poached egg on top. It's unusual but not overcomplicated, and it's delicious: Sitka & Spruce in a bowl. Your $17 also gets you as much as you care to eat of a Euro-style buffet, the opposite of Salty's peel-and-eat shrimp and liquid-chocolate fountain: olives, cured meats, biscuits with kumquat marmalade, fresh citrus, and several salads (like faro and nettle with herbs). By day, Sitka & Spruce is entirely unassuming—it's just a tiny cafe with split-pea walls, a hodgepodge of stuff on some shelves, and truly wonderful food (making you both full and full of wonder).

Monsoon (615 19th Ave E, 325-2111) on Capitol Hill has the French-toast upgrade (brioche/caramelized pineapple, $10) and other "colonial" dishes with worthwhile twists: oil-poached organic eggs with grilled Asian eggplant ($7.50), Wagyu flank steak and eggs ($14). But it's hard to get past the "modern Vietnam" section of the brunch menu. Here's the best pho in town—oxtail with Wagyu beef ($9.50). The broth alone is practically worth it. Braised oxtail congee ($8) is a superlative version of the filling, savory rice porridge. The banh xeo ($9.50) is less greasy than most (but not greaseless; no one wants that) and stuffed with bean sprouts, shrimp, and Berkshire pork belly (of which they should add a bit more). There's a short list of dim sum ($14 for six pieces); it's some of the best in town, with three items made with special ingredients by the masters at Jade Garden in the ID. Monsoon's been doing brunch for a while, and the price point skews lower: For what you'd spend on brunch at any sit-down place, you can sit down in this lovely, sleek room and have something different and great. The neighborhood's finally caught on—you'll likely have to wait.

A very honorable mention also goes to Boat Street Cafe and Kitchen at the north edge of Belltown (3131 Western Ave, 632-4602), covered here last spring. The glorification of brunch is carried out admirably there, with the understanding that for, say, $12.50, you want something "BETTER THAN PANCAKES," which is what one dish that's got cornmeal cake, custard, bananas, and a big sausage is called (and is). Also, of all these places, Boat Street alone has sweet, quiet outdoor seating for brunchtime sunshine.

*My great-aunt likes that huge restaurant with the indoor tidal pools that I can never remember the name of (oh: Palisade, 2601 W Marina Place, 285-1000, Sunday only, $28 per person). In this vein, there's also the two Ivar's (Pier 54, 624-6852, $21.95; 401 NE Northlake Way, 632-0767, $23.95) and Six Seven at the Edgewater (Pier 67, 269-4575, Sunday only, $35.95). Waterfront (Pier 70, 956-9171) has a similarly priced à la carte Sunday-brunch-with-view, too.

bethany@thestranger.com

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