Friday, February 20, 2009

At Belcourt Culinary Justice is Served

Despite having previously vilified the implicit superficiality of brunch as an overall concept, I have actually come to very much enjoy eating a late breakfast, or what is in my mind, an early lunch designed for those of us who like the option of eating something breakfast-like in minutes approaching high noon. In fact, I'm beginning to realize that instead of self-righteously dwelling on its snooty social connotations and supposed culinary shortfalls, I should revel in Brunch's astounding flexibility as perhaps our most accommodating, albeit man-made, meals of the day.

Why, in the name of the Lord, did I ever lament the likability of this hybridized meal that before Noon, affords me the option to either pony up to a bib-worthy burger, or attack an artful plate of perfectly cooked eggs accompanied by the usual cured meats and other sweet and savory accoutrement? For a guy like me, whose specific culinary wants and needs are unscrupulously independent of the time of day, Brunch has been waving the white the flag in front of my face for a quite a while now, and I've simply failed to see it. Obviously, this popular meal comes in peace - presenting itself as friend, not foe.

That said, I strongly believe the initial ruse that may have spurred the entire idea of brunch (cosmeticized, if not complicated versions of traditional breakfast food offered at lofty prices), has been all but completely eradicated by our city's astute and endlessly demanding culinary community that will no longer stand for such gastronomic guise. As this culinary coup d'etat runs its course, "Brunch" as a fixture in our weekly routine, has undergone a marked rebirth which has rendered a meal once revered for its majesty, a more accessible, down-to-earth, yet still other wordly version of its old self. This is a transformation in the right direction - progression and not regression it seems.

Given its transition from haute to humble, brunch is working its way toward grabbing the title of most exciting, or most satisfying meal of the day, thanks to an increasing number of restaurants, both established and up and coming, looking to showcase their fare through more far-reaching, conductive mediums to which today's culinary society enjoy carte blanch access. As food of all varieties, exotic and otherwise, achieves unprecedented levels of accessibility across all ranks of society, a period of "prandial proliferation" has clearly taken shape. Brunch menus across the city are growing up fast, reinventing themselves by doing away with the fusty, hackneyed, hand-me downs of generations prior, like Eggs Benedict and Quiche Lorraine, for a more germane gallimaufry of gastronomic goodies that are light, locally-borne, and in more and more cases, made from scratch...the right way.

Easily the most pointed exemplar of this growing trend is the East Village's soft-spoken Belcourt, whose simple, succinct, fresh-centric food makes for a Brunch experience that falls in my top 3 of all time.

Bold statement indeed, but it's the truth.

Stationed at the corner of 4th street and 2nd avenue, Belcourt's sea green signage adds much needed color to a somewhat transitional section of the southwestern East Village that generally speaking, feels more "proudly unemployed Lower East Side", than "Daddy pays my Rent" East Village - (you can head north to St. Marks Place for that).

Much like the wrought-iron street-side window treatments, an acoustically imperfect, micro-tiled, sun-drenched dining room full of commingled tables and chairs, together create an element of gritty intrigue and comfort that immediately bodes well for things to come. Thanks to floor-to-ceiling french doors, the room is rife with natural light, which helps highlight the beautiful marble counter near the entrance, on which vibrant bowls of fresh citrus and other fruits stand at the ready. Just going on looks, Belcourt passes with flying colors, managing to aesthetically please without seeming disingenuous. A great start to say the least.

On the flip side, and what's most telling about this fairly young spot, is amidst this backdrop of regalia and Iberian instinct, is a young, insightful approach to food that could not be more refreshing.

Remarkably, Belcourt's brunch offerings comprise an artfully even-keeled collection of traditional favorites, rich classics, and ethnic standouts that emphasizes farm-fresh quality without sacrificing variety. The menu is high-end without being haughty, smart without being smarmy, and most of all, accommodating without being patronizing. Whether you crave the Saturday morning simplicity of Eggs your Way with a side of Sausage, seek the subtle sweet and salty symbiosis of a classically prepared Croque Madame with house-cured lamb and Mornay Sauce, or need to enjoy the opulence of Oysters with Shallot Mignonette, Belcourt manages to covers all its culinary bases - and well at that.

Impossible to miss about this impressive fare is the fact that the term "house-made" pops up almost on every line of the menu, from the trio of sausage, to the ricotta, to just about everything else. It is always a treat to experience food made the old-fashioned way - with love and pride - when it's at its best.

After equivocating for far too long, I made the difficult decision to pass on the burger (which boasts zucchini pickles, spicy ketchup, and a home-made bun - in and of itself a reason to return), and instead, elected to go with eggs, specifically the shirred eggs - a wise decision to say the least.

Officially referred to as "shirred", which is culinary parlance for the process of baking eggs until set, Belcourt's creation arrives as a sort of casserole-like concoction of mapled-cured bacon, earthy mushrooms, and fresh spinach, bound together by a trio of sunny-side up unshelled eggs cooked until almost fully set, and dressed with a last-minute showering of finely shaved tangy Manchego cheese (Below). The perfectly cooked eggs give each bite an element of yolky, runny goodness, that is counteracted by the semi-firm set whites that contribute form and structure to the dish. Obviously for those last few bites, the accompanying slice of crunchy grilled bread is the perfect solution for sopping up any remaining deliciousness at the bottom of the still-warm ramekin. This was simply exquisite.

Curiously complementary to my eggs, given its more savory ways, was the duo of house-made pork sausage patties served with tart, tingly, winy Dijon mustard for dipping. Char-grilled and sporting the cross-marks to prove it, the coarsely ground , loosely assembled pork patties are slider-like in shape and gladly crumble into toothsome tender morsels of well-seasoned pork, fat, and various other spices that are used minimally.

The puckering tartness gained from a healthy dunk in the Dijon is a nice way to handle the meatiness of the fresh pork, a flavor combination that smacks violently of the kind of German comfort food you wish you ate more often. At least that's how I feel. These patties are the exact reason why I love house-made sausage, or anything pork-related for that matter, showing themselves as thoroughly artisanal, incongruous, oblong discs of damned deliciousness. It's actually criminal that all this flavor and texture comes with a mere $5 price tag. I can't say I was ever a huge fan of this type of pork with mustard (no...Hot Dogs obviously don't count), but this sort of coupling of texture and flavor, of salt and tart, is the kind I would look to enjoy in the confines of my own kitchen- it's that good.

On the sweeter side, and just as satisfying, were the buttermilk biscuits, which arrive as bumpy, freakishly fibrotic still-oven-warm morsels of crusty dough topped with a restrained (let's call it skimpy) dollop of house-made ricotta cheese and blueberry preserves. These unusually airy biscuits were exceptional on all fronts except for one...quantity. We literally almost fought over the few remaining crumbs wallowing in the semi-sweet mix of preserves and ricotta. Unlike so many versions out there today, Belcourt's are super buttery without being so flaky that they completely disintegrate to the touch and thus become impossible to eat without looking like an idiot.

Brunch at Belcourt is undoubtedly akin to the way we should all live our lives. It is an eating experience that revolves around food that asserts the importance of being as genuine, true-to-form, and honest on the inside as on the outside. Between fresh ingredients, proper execution, and an undeniable love for quality food, Belcourt's culinary contribution spans well beyond the confines of our finicky food world, teaching us a valuable lesson:

Not only shall food be indulgent and decadent without being indiscriminate, but so shall our lives.

Belcourt (map it)
84 E 4th St, New York, NY
(212) 979-2034

Food: A
Ambiance: A
Service: A
In a thought: "Brunch as I had always imagined it would be."

1 comment:

Meghan said...

Good read although I completely disagree with your comment that the East Village is "daddy pays my rent" territory. Do we go to the same EV? Do you wear blinders? I'm assuming you are referring to a few of the NYU students but really now... you can't say that about the EV.

I did love the food there and would rank it up there with Brown Cafe.