For a meal that once seemed to epitomize urban living, weekend brunch brings out the basest parts of our nature. Look at the crowd outside every known brunch spot from the Bay to the Breakers. Half are the overachievers, who've biked 40 miles or mopped the house before heading out for waffles; slightly manic-eyed, they sway on the ledge above a blood-sugar crater. The other half are the drooping refugees from last night's parties, pondering whether to cling tighter to last night's screw or their dignity.
If the crowds are lucky, they have been given mugs of weak coffee to nurse in lieu of the blood of innocents, but most of them lurk around the doorway, empty-handed, staring down the diners on the other side of the window who are already plugging their craws with pancakes. Through this crowd of the ravenous and the resentful wades the host, as bold an adventurer as Hernán Cortés or David Livingstone, who shields herself from the savages with a magic clipboard. Every name she calls heightens the incendiary mood of lethargy and rage. Yet we line up for brunch, over and over again.
Well, not me. After one last murder-minded, queasy two-hour wait a few years back, I vowed to either show up in line fresh-faced and pre-fed, or to make a reservation. Over the past month, I found several brunches with no line, whether because they were new, newly expanded, or, well, I'm not quite sure. Some of these late-morning meals offered anticlimax, others its opposite — fresh doughnuts.
1. Orson. The clubbiness of Orson, Elizabeth Falkner's SOMA restaurant, doesn't work against it in the daytime. Sunlight exposes its raw edges, definitely, but also the epic height of the pitched ceiling and the mezzanine. Sitting next to the window, I felt so far away from the U-shaped bar at the other side of the room that I wondered why the bottomless-mimosa refillers weren't riding Segways.
Orson began serving weekend brunch this spring, and Falkner's menu offers some of the playfulness of dinner and all of its heartiness. Her take on the upscale brunch centers on upping the scale: A side of cheddar grits ($13), ringed in chile oil, was served in an entrée-sized soup bowl, and I watched another table collectively blanch at the girth of the French toast ($11) they'd ordered just to have something sweet on the table.
The egg dishes didn't quite come together. Scrambled eggs, creamy and untouched by salt, were rolled in a mat of finely shredded "rosti" potatoes ($12); just a few drops of curry vinaigrette around the plate were charged with flavoring the bland, carbtastic ensemble. The once–puffy and crisp walls of a Dutch baby (identified as Betty's pancake on the menu, $11) slumped and softened by the time it was hefted all the way from the kitchen.
Not surprisingly given Falkner's background, the dishes that depended on a pastry chef's skill were the ones I'd order again. Like our appetizer, brown-butter doughnuts ($8) the size and weight of ping-pong balls, their nutty flavor spiked by a swirl through a saucer containing half rhubarb jam, half sugar glaze. And thanks in large part to a butter-laden brioche bun, a sandwich of house-smoked tongue, Gruyère, and a sunny-side egg ($12) whose yolk coated the (sliced) tongue, enriching the whole-grain mustard spread on it, was spectacular. Because buttery brioche, eggs, and smoked meat seemed a little Puritan for the chefs, they garnished the plate with fistfuls of fries cooked in duck fat. I occasionally paused to wonder whether Hansel and Gretel had eaten so well, then lowered my head to the plate, too sleepy and swollen to resist.
2. Uva Enoteca. Saturday brunch at this two-year-old Italian restaurant in the Lower Haight has been successful enough for general manager Boris Nemchenok and chef Ben Hetzel to add Sundays recently — not a bad gamble, since the low food costs and quicker turnaround of a successful brunch can generate enough profits to subsidize legs of prosciutto and extra prep cooks. As at Orson, there are more than enough tables for the clientele, and like Orson, the restaurant offers a bottomless brunch drink, this one a bellini. (I'm still mystified by the economics behind the bottomless mimosa/bellini, which every upscale brunch place pushes these days. Do that many of us punk out before we drink our money's worth? Since any whiff of alcohol before five renders me comatose, I've never dived into a bottomless bellini to see how deep it really is.)
Uva's brunch dishes straddle breakfast and lunch, a mix of pizzas, open-faced panini, and traditional breakfasty things, priced not much more steeply than Pork Store or Home Plate. There were a few good dishes — a thin, puffy slice of fontina-mushroom frittata ($8) served with finely diced, fried potatoes and a green salad, vividly dressed; an open-faced panino ($8) tiled over in crisp, thin slices of pancetta; avocado wedges; and a fried egg, with feathery shavings of pickled onion on the side. But French toast with pistachios and chunks of pear ($8) had clearly been made several hours before service and half-heartedly reheated, and the pizza ($11.50) — with tomato sauce, pancetta, egg, and arugula — was made with even less care, the crust crackery and tough. It's one thing for line cooks to dismiss brunch as a second-class meal, a duty that brings them back to the kitchen just a few hours after dinner service ends, but diners shouldn't sense their disdain.
3. Out the Door, Bush Street. Why is there no line outside Out the Door on Saturday mornings? On the day I went, around the corner the Elite Cafe and La Boulange were rocking, yet the 9-month-old branch of Charles Phan's diffusion line — the D&G to the Dolce & Gabbana of his Slanted Door — was nigh empty, the cooks serenely prepping for dinner in between scrambling eggs. Not that I had anything to complain about.
Out the Door serves brunch for people who feel noncommittal about the "br" half of the portmanteau that the British upper classes invented in the late 19th century. Its eggier dishes are tucked among banh mi, rice noodle bowls, and pho. It's possible to play brunch agnostic, lunching on a papaya salad and a Vietnamese crepe, pretending ignorance of the throngs devoted to the Sunday ritual of hash browns and grumbling.
But the breakfast dishes are worth ordering. By and large, chef Grace Nguyen doesn't force Vietnamese and American breakfast traditions together. There's a little coconut in her caramel roll ($3), but as you're unpeeling the spiral of brioche, what you're intent on is capturing as much of the sticky burned-sugar topping as you can scoop up. And if she adds a touch of soy sauce and a few chives to a buttery crab scramble ($12), it's only to deepen the flavor of the crab.
Bowls of rice porridge ($8) seem as appropriate a cure for Friday night cocktails as fruit and oatmeal, the flavor of ginger a sultry undertone beneath the deep chicken, the caramelized shallots, and the splashy rau ram. And the crust on a bacon marmalade quiche ($10) had all the shattering flakes I could hope for; its custard had not overbaked into grainy curds, and the bacon topping (cooked down with caramelized onions) obviated any need for cured pork on the side.
But if there's a reason to go to Out the Door for brunch, it's Chucky Dugo's vanilla beignets ($4 without Vietnamese coffee, $6 with). It's a wonder that the powdered sugar they're coated in hasn't dimpled the fragile surface of the fried dough, and a mystery that their gossamer wheat architecture can contain so much hot air. The beignets are the kind of Sunday morning treat I would line up for, week after week. Not having to wait for them? That made my weekend.