Brunch is the best of two worlds–not quite breakfast and not quite lunch, but the best of both. It’s a leisurely weekend repast which makes you feel you’re getting away with something, as if you’re defying your mom’s mandate not to have dessert before the main entree. The feeling that you’re getting away with something delightfully illicit is reenforced as you lap up mimosas and Bloody Marys as fast as the wait staff can bring them to you. Brunch even allows you to get away with laziness at least once a year when you have the excuse to drag mom to a restaurant where she and countless other moms can be pampered on their special day.
Americans have loved brunch since the 1930s when, according to culinary historians, passengers on transcontinental train rides would disembark in Chicago for a late morning meal in between trains. It wasn’t until after the second war to end all wars that brunch became popular on Sundays. Apparently the promises made in foxholes (where there are no atheists) were quickly forgotten because after World War II, there was a precipitous decline in the number of churchgoers across the fruited plain. Instead, Americans began to sleep in late on Sundays as they recovered from Saturday night hang-overs. After reading the funnies and lolling around the house for a while, they went out for brunch. All the cool people were doing it.
The term brunch, a portmanteau of “breakfast” and “lunch” is believed to have originated in Britain in the late 19th century. The phrase was coined in 1896 by Guy Beringer, in of all places, the long defunct Hunter’s Weekly. He exalted the concept of brunch because it allowed staying up later and getting drunker on Saturday night then not being expected to wake up early for breakfast.
Alas, not everyone has a high opinion of brunch. In his terrific tome Kitchen Confidential, fellow sybarite Tony Bourdain blew the lid off brunch, explaining that “brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights” adding that “you can dress brunch up with all the focaccia, smoked salmon, and caviar in the world, but it’s still breakfast.”
New York Times columnist and writer Mark Bittman calls brunch “a huge fat-bomb,” no doubt a recognition that Americans will eschew fresh fruit and veggie frittatas to swill a few Bloody Marys with their heavy on the Hollandaise eggs benedict. In his defense, Bittman’s recent foray into Michelle Obama inspired healthy food activism has probably starved his thought processes of the clarity made possible only with a diet replete with processed foods and animal products.
Some brunches offer sumptuous all-you-can-choke-down buffets with gleaming silver trays overfilled with fried, gloppy, saucy, sweet, savory and otherwise not-good-for-you options sure to be a big hit among caloric overachievers. This is the arena in which ordinary Americans do their best to emulate the behavior of gurgitators, the competitive eaters who can eat more in one seating than most of us can eat in a week. It’s where belts are loosened, fabric is stretched and civility (especially table manners) goes out the window.
Albuquerque has its share of bounteous buffet brunches, the magnetically appealing, calorie-laden Vegas-style all-you-can-eat Bacchanalian feasts, but it also has the type of high-quality, off-the-menu brunch offerings that have lessened the frequency of my trips to Santa Fe on Sunday. Restaurants such as the Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro, Lucia, the Gold Street Caffe, Sophia’s Place and a spate of others serve up brunch that’s worth climbing out from under the covers to indulge in.
Add the Cafe Green to the list of terrific brunch purveyors. If the “Green” portion of the restaurant’s name evokes unappetizing thoughts of getting out of bed for a menu of dandelion salads and leafy vegetables, you’ll be happy to hear this charming cafe just a few blocks south of Old Route 66 on Fifth Street isn’t solely about raw foods. Nor does the “Green” on the marquee necessarily perpetuate the concepts of the broad-based environmental “green” movement sweeping America. For Sunday brunch, the restaurant offers a plethora of palate-pleasing, putting on the pounds entrees that defy any preconceptions you might have based on its name.
If you’re still not convinced this is not the type of healthful restaurant you avoid like the plague, perhaps the fact that there are only four salads on the menu will sway you. One of those salads is a tarragon crab salad featuring fresh blue crab with butter lettuce topped with spring peas, radishes and creamy tarragon dressing. A diet with a few salads like that hardly sounds torturous.
The restaurant’s Web site describes Cafe Green’s cuisine as “down-home, American style cooking offering only the freshest and best ingredients with great wine and excellent service.” House specialties include seared scallops, gnocchi potato dumplings and chorizo ravioli, the last of the three being next on my list. Sides include truffle fries, fried green beans, sweet potato fries, potato salad, side salad or seasonal fruit. There are six sandwiches on the menu, perhaps the most intriguing being a blackened Tilapia Po’Boy (pan-seared tilapia filet with cilantro cabbage slaw and piquillo aioli on a French roll). Surprises abound throughout the menu.
But it was brunch that first drew us to this converted home on Fifth Street, the promise of a new place to sate Sunday’s cravings for the sweet and savory melange of flavors that typify a succulent Sunday morning soiree featuring crepes, frittatas, quiche, pancakes, French toast, eggs and crab Benedict. Now, that’s what you want to wake up for on a Sunday though Cafe Green does offer a few brunch salads for the die-hards.
Don’t dare call the restaurant’s La Croque Madame a French hot ham and cheese sandwich. It’s not only more sophisticated than its American counterpart, it’s several orders of magnitude better. Cafe Green’s version is crafted with grilled ham and Fontina cheese with a béchamel sauce and a fried egg on top. The béchamel, an ultra-rich sauce that incorporates the calorific trio of butter, milk and cheese, covers even the fried egg, the flavor of which blends magnificently with the rich sauce. As my friend Bill Resnik would say, it should come standard with a side of angioplasty.
Equally diet-devastatingly decadent is Cafe Green’s Crab Benedict, two house-made crab cakes topped with poached egg and tarragon hollandaise on an English muffin base. This is a pretty traditional interpretation of the classic breakfast and brunch dish first created in New York City’s Waldorf Astoria more than a century ago. This being New Mexico, I’ve long contended it should be a state law that all Eggs or Crab Benedict dish be embellished with green chile. Since Cafe Green doesn’t subscribe to that notion, a ramekin of green chile did the trick, ameliorating the otherwise delicious, but wholly traditional dish, with piquancy and pizzazz.
Cafe Green’s brunch menu includes both savory (a spinach and ham crepe as well as a veggie crepe) and dessert crepes. The star of the latter is a banana cajeta crepe, caramelized bananas and goats-milk “caramel” with vanilla ice cream. Though not a caramel in the true sense of the word, cajeta is cooked very slowly with sugar to form a complex and rich thick syrup much like a caramel. In combination with vanilla ice cream and ripe bananas, it is fabulous–again, something that will make you feel you’re getting away with something sinfully delightful.
The Duke City has a few anointed restaurants on most people’s brunch circuit. Cafe Green is off-the-beaten-path and perhaps off-the-radar for some, but it’s a restaurant which just might win you over, especially on those dreary, grey Sundays in which a late morning repast is in order.
319 5th Street, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 28 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Crab Benedict, La Croque Madame, Banana Cajeta Crepe, Bacon