Full Complement

Balthazar, NYC: “That was the most charming and endearing excuse for infidelity I’ve ever heard.”

WHAT a glorious weekend!  Philadelphia hosted its second annual Philadelphia SketchFest, we had our first snowfall of the season, and I was honored by brunch with both Win and Nan!  Because I was busing up for just the day, and because Nan was heading out for a weekend in Baltimore, and because Win is ever hungry, we decided to do an early breakfast/brunch and nowhere would do except Balthazar.

We had a plan, sort of.  Win had called earlier in the week to make a reservation for the 10AM brunch, but was rebuffed.  Apparently, they only take so many reservations and they were all filled.  (When distressed, Win talks in intense italics.)  But, proposed Win, what if we showed up at 9AM, ostensibly for breakfast, and then lingered into the brunching hours?

So that is exactly what we did.  We convened around 9AM outside the MOMA store; by 9:15 we were seated at a small table with a carafe of water and menus before us.  Win and I started with coffee, Nan with a ginger-lemon iced tea.  As we waited for the clock to tick on, we ordered a pain au chocolat (we couldn’t resist) and a donut.  Win was inspired to ask the maitre d’ about a brunch table and, at 10AM on the dot, Ian — our effective and amazingly hospitable maitre d’ — walked over to inform us that a table had been prepared for us.

We relocated.  We gasped over the expanded brunch menu.  Our waiter brought Nan’s bag from the other table.  We finished the donut.  We debated Eggs Benedict versus Eggs Norwegian (the difference being in the meat: salmon instead of ham).  We finally gave up and asked our new waiter for his input: as we intended to share the Scrambled Eggs in Puff Pastry (complete with mushrooms and asparagus) and the Sour Cream Hazelnut Waffles with fruit compote, which version of the eggs benedict would be best suited as the third dish?  And per Winston’s advice, we happily (and very chattily) ordered the Eggs Norwegian.

I loved it.  I loved the entire experience.  From the boulangerie to the wall of wine bottles; the tiny-tiled floors to the wooden tables; the immense menus to the quaintly formal aesthetic; the bowed stairs to the restrooms and the glass bottles of tap water… It was all so perfect!  I see why people make plans around going to Balthazar; I’m already planning my next trip up, specifically for a seat by the window and another round of that amazing Eggs Norwegian.  La, but that was heavenly!

Win had brought her camera so we spent a good while snapping shots of each other and miming rapt conversation.  Nan is a natural in front of the camera — she makes the best confused and slightly un-mollified looks of anyone I’ve ever encountered.  One day, I’d love to get her hair blown out by a pro and then shoot her in front of a giant fan, white chicken feathers fluffing into the air around her.  She’d make the best exasperated faces ever.

I think we amused the waitstaff at Balthazar.  We were so clearly there for the laughter and the joy of meeting up after a long time away from each other, and we couldn’t do much of anything without shrieking for a camera to document the moment.  Whether it was Win rhapsodizing about her life, Nan reminiscing about the mother-daughter brunch dates of her childhood, or me getting excited over the prospect of driving a truck in Tennessee at Christmas time, we all brought such grand, photogenic verve to the meal that I think Balthazar will forever be linked for us to a time of great joy exuberance.

Like the incomparable Gigi, Balthazar is a poser.  It may claim to take itself seriously — it may seem top-lofty and oh! so staid — but inside those beautiful beveled glass doors is a world of laughter and delight and wonder and “youthful zeal.”  Like any satisfying romance, the lead in this production comes off one way but soon grows in the eye of the beholder into something infinitely more precious: in the case of Gigi, she casts off her youth to become the one woman who won’t  bore Gaston.  In the case of Balthazar, the restaurant destroys its own aura of hoity-toitiness to transform into a place of exultant stories, ribald laughter, and fantastic imaginings.

Balthazar, by way of Colette, I salute you.

-bisoux

Full Complement

The Weekend Retreat: Philadelphia

IT IS a well-known fact that when a friend comes to your town, it is your express duty to make sure they see the best parts of said town.  When they are coming in for a quick weekend–a retreat, if you will, from the day-to-day and the hard work of being alive–it is doubly more important for them to see the benefits of your city.  Especially if they might be coming back.

So when Lisa came down to Philly for the weekend, I decided to take her on a tour of the standards in brunch.  We had plans to meet up with college friends; we had plans to get absolutely toasted; we had plans to sit and talk and catch up and get to the meat of our own existential crises.  But more importantly, we had plans to eat.  And a weekend retreat equals two prime opportunities for brunching à la wherever you are.  The decisions we made were based as much on walkability (we wanted a minor trek) as on stomach (we both decided against heaviness; hangovers and weight aren’t a good match).  But I also wanted Lisa to see a bit of Philly, and so we ended up walking quite a bit and checking out some of Philly’s cute(r?) neighborhoods.

It’s one thing to be a college student at the outskirts of a major city: you go into “town” maybe once or twice a month, push that to three in birthday months.  You know the city is there but you don’t utilize it unless you have an assignment or a specific purpose (art history classes that direct you to the PMA; women’s studies courses with an internship component).  So you graduate, and you’ve spent, what? a total of 36 afternoons in a city that has an incredible amount of things to offer?

Tsk, tsk.  Obviously, the way to remedy that is to come back once the demands of paper-writing, club-running, thesis-drafting, etc are behind you.  When you can give time to the city that was there for you, even if you didn’t remember to visit all that often.  So Lisa’s visit was as much a glorification in Philadelphia as it was a reunion.  Making the most of her time was, therefore, a guilty necessity.

We decided on a sampling of Philly’s best.  Some may disagree with me here; that’s fine.  But in a quest for comfort foods, familiar faces, and places representative of the Philadelphia entrepreneurial spirit, I think Lisa and I hit all the right places.  On Friday night, we opted for a range of places: Raw sushi and sake lounge, Cuba Libre, Sugar Mom’s and Apothecary.  The food at Raw was exquisite; our waitress was eager with helpful suggestions and we waddled out, nicely full and ready for some exploring.  Cuba Libre granted us a pair of very sweet mojitos; Sugar Mom’s turned out not to be quite what we wanted at the time, but will be a place I return to.  (Though, truth be told, I prefer Tattooed Mom’s.  I’m just putting that out there.)  But we struck gold at Apothecary.

I’m always excited to see friends doing what they love.  Be that creating a show for the Philly Fringe and Live Arts Festival or building crazy new artworks, I like seeing people enjoy themselves in a way that supports them.  Maybe it’s because I’m still seeking out that perfect melding of passion and salary; whatever it is, walking into Apothecary and realizing the bartenders were college comrades was certainly an experience I was not expecting but one that I’ll treasure.  On the practical side, of course, was the fact that they knew their drinks inside and out and could tailor them to Lisa and my specification (don’t want ginger in a ginger-infused beverage? try elderflower instead).  So big props there.

Saturday was the Big Day.  Not only was there a party in Jersey–send-off celebrations in this age group inevitably turn into reunions; that’s the other reason people go to them–but Saturday was the day of Lisa’s first Philly brunch.  Heavy from dinner and drinks the night before (and recovering from a 5-week Brazilian getaway), Lisa wanted something light on the eggs.  Not easy to do when you’re talking brunch.  A walk was also determined as a “must” for the event, and so we bustled off in search of Beau Monde’s amazing crepes.  Lisa picked the Smoked Trout, Leek and Spinach crepe; I opted for the Mushroom, Bacon and Goat Cheese.  I cannot say this enough: I am addicted to Beau Monde’s crepes.  In fact, I would be there right now if, well, if a bajillion things weren’t waiting for me to do today.  Sigh.

From Beau Monde (where we enjoyed an Elvis medley) we wandered in the Italian Market a little bit; I bought plums and Lisa bought loose-leaf tea.  (Lisa also ended up with a new pair of mustard colored flats, too, for those of you seeking new ideas in footwear.)  From there, we made our way to Capogiro.  The idea was to get coffee, but I was quickly distracted by the luscious flavors of gelato.  Lisa tried a few but ultimately returned to her coffee needs; I, instead, went with a melding of the basil lemon and the kiwi gelatos.  Yum!

After that, the party In Jersey (which was suprisingly close; I sometimes forget how not far parts of Jersey are).  Which led to dinner at Good Dog.  Something about Good Dog is so fascinatingly comforting that I have a hard time remembering it’s a bar.  It’s become the place to go after an event–a happy hour, a party, a good conversation you/I don’t want to end.  It’s loud, certainly, but it’s homey and the food is surprisingly good.  What more do you need?

Sunday morning dawned, lush and lovely.  Lisa was heading out in the early afternoon but wanted to have a star Philly brunch before she left.  So what was I to do?  One thing, and one thing only: take the girl to Sabrina’s.  While the Buggles played in the background, Lisa had the Apple Cheddar Omelet and I the Eggs Benedict Florentine.  Though the cheddar wasn’t as sharp as she’d have preferred, the omelet nonetheless hit the spot.  As for me, this was my first foray into the Eggs Benedict realm.  With an avocado-tomato topping, the dish hit the spot.  Now I know: Hollandaise is not merely for D, who still gushes about her eggs benedict at Honey’s.

And that, it seems, is how to do Philly when you’re in for a satisfying, homey, retreat from responsibility.   Most of the weekend was spent on foot, and so Lisa got a tour of the Philadephia she’d missed in college and reacquainted herself with the parts of the city she had known.  I’ve always thought Philly was sort of like a childhood memory: it is present for you in some form, but not until you’re actually thinking about it or confronted by it does it seem real and true.

-bisoux

Brunch · Drink · Full Complement

Cafe Mogador, NYC: “It’s the Romantic in me”

SOMETIMES, escape is inevitable.

You know how it is: a rough week at work, your Netflix queue is backed up and the final disc of Doctor Who: Season 3 is going to be shipped in from Ohio (of all the absurd nonsensical places in the universe; these two days are killing me), the person you’re scamming wireless internet from has caught onto you and has password-protected their connection (a hypothetical situation, of course), you’ve seen all the movies you want to see in the theater (Snow Angels, people: devastating and hauntingly grim, but beautiful and achingly tender, and Kate Beckinsale completely redeems herself after the travesties of Underworld and Van Helsing), you’re restlessly awaiting the outdoor café days of spring, and you’ve realized—suddenly and horrifyingly—that you’re going to be moving in less than two weeks and you haven’t even started thinking about packing yet.

The ideal solution? Escape to New York City, of course! Preferably in a car driven by someone else (shout out to Dan, who wouldn’t even let me pay for gas; I’ll be your co-pilot or backseat snoozer any day) so you can take in the scenery and brush aside all those nasty little details and responsibilities you’re leaving behind.

“Why New York?” you might ask. Besides the rather large population of friends, acquaintances, and relatives inhabiting the city, there’s the food-scape. New York has it, as demonstrated quite admirably by today’s sampling. It seems that whenever I mention my breakfast quest, people always have some place in New York that I just “have to try.” Apparently, a girl can’t be disappointed in NYC, especially if the object of one’s affection is of the edible persuasion.

Getting together a group of eight girls for a brunch-fest is quite a feat. But Jyo, thinking ahead and scoping out chowhound, came up with seven possibilities, which were then narrowed down to one and communicated to the group across various media: facebook, myspace, text message, email, and the antiquated but nonetheless effective face-to-face. The MTA being what it is, we even managed to reach Café Mogador within 15 minutes of each other.

 

Eggs

 

I sometimes pride myself on my powers of observation, but I confess to being distracted when I first read Jyo’s list of enticing East Village eateries. Getting ready to leave work at the end of the day on Friday, I didn’t properly peruse her descriptions and agreed, completely without judicious thought, to what everyone else had already agreed to for Saturday brunch (yes, we’re rebels). So when we showed up at St. Marks Place and were confronted with a Moroccan-inspired menu, I was surprised, slightly taken aback, and completely thrilled.

It must be said: I miss Morocco. I miss the tang of the orange juice, which nobody should ever drink on an empty stomach because it’s so tart and acidic. I miss the olives, best bought from street-side vendors and spiced with an entire caravan’s worth of seasonings. I miss the brightly colored city walls, the glasses of heavily sweetened mint tea, the slow-cooked tajines over mounds of yellow couscous, the ornate tilework in the gardens of the old cities, the beat of the Atlantic Ocean against the stalwart walls of Rabat’s casbah, the superstitions and traditions associated with the graves of Islamic saints and the eel-inhabited pool at the Chellah (feed the eels a hard-boiled egg and you’ll be pregnant by year’s end, for example; but feed the groundskeeper’s cat and you’ll have good health for a whole lifetime).

Café Mogador takes all the best pieces of the Moroccan experience and crams them into a surprisingly well-sized East Village restaurant. The décor of the room is tasteful and evocative; accent walls are painted the same blue as the walls of the Jardins Majorelle in Marrakesh; the woodwork adorning the walls and the deep benches with carpet-cushions are reminiscent of the riads converted into guesthouses in the medinas of most large cities. The menu boasts of classic Moroccan tajines, bastilla (flaky pastry stuffed with meat and spices), mint tea, merguez sausage, and pita bread slathered with zaatar. For brunch, there are various options accompanied by Moroccan spices or a Moroccan salad of green pepper and tomato (called the Moroccan salad because the colors are those of the national flag).

Olives

Our selections represented the broad range of options that Café Mogador offers. We got it all, from the Blueberry Pancakes to the Moroccan Eggs Benedict (which substitutes a spicy tomato sauce for the usual hollandaise). Win and I split the pancakes and the Eggs Normandy (we chose this specifically for the smoked salmon, and were happily delighted). Others tried the scrambled eggs, the Moroccan Omelet with Moroccan sauces and green peppers, the Haloumi Eggs which come with haloumi cheese and zaatar-topped pita bread, and a Goat Cheese, Spinach and Tomato Omelet. Brunch options come with a small glass of orange juice (enough to whet your appetite) and a choice of coffee or tea.

We sampled each other’s dishes, compared the use of Moroccan spices across the different egg platters (unanimous vote: yum!), handed pieces of pita bread across the table, and mopped up every last bite. At the end of the meal (which came to $96.82 for us thoroughly sated eight), we collapsed against the wooden benches, contemplated our empty plates and full bellies, and agreed: we’ll be coming back.

Café Mogador is sure to be counted amongst my most beloved confidantes from now on, and will be a certain destination for future escapist episodes. (And, for the record, Café Mogador is also a fantastic place to go when considering a new haircut, as you’re sure to see many interesting ones paraded before you among both the clientele and the waitstaff.)

 

Ending

Over cappuccino and conversation, we chased away the petty annoyances of the real world and created of Café Mogador a haven for laughter, stories, and an indulgent escape into that most fantastic of adventures. In those immortal last words, this feast was the “start of a beautiful friendship.”

-bisoux

 

 

On a partially-related side note, parts of Anthropologie’s spring catalogue were shot in Morocco and feature the vibrant colors of the country. Planning a trip to Morocco? Pack your Lonely Planet guidebook (tried, tested and true), and book a seat on Royal Air Maroc, flying daily from JFK nonstop to Casablanca’s Mohamed V Airport!

Brunch · Full Complement

Honey’s, Philadelphia: Finch’s Landing

Coffee

IF The Decemberists’ album The Crane Wife married Emily Dickinson and set up house, their home would look like Honey’s Sit ‘n Eat. With Baroque-esque wallpaper, cracked mirrors, and gilt picture frames, Honey’s has the sort of old-world Southern charm that welcomes you in with open arms even as it presses you up into its rather large, lilac-scented bosom. It could be in any city, but is most definitely locked into a time period close enough to ours to make it feel familiar–like coming home–while still yearning towards a past replete with linen napkins, smelling salts, and doilies. There’s nostalgia here; it scents the walls and rims the lips of the coffee cups (which are, ironically, from Ikea). Through the large village-bakery type windows, you can almost hear Scout’s galloping footsteps on the sidewalk. Like Dill’s active mind, Honey’s “[teems] with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies.”

Located at the corner of 4th and Brown in Northern Liberties, Honey’s is my panacea; it is comfort fare at its very elemental best. I admit to a rather hefty bias here: they serve amazing seasonally-inspired french toast (the autumn Peaches and Cream is my favorite) that may well be the best I’ve found in Philly so far.

True, the wait can be long–up to 45 minutes on Sundays–but it is worth it. Weekdays and Saturdays are slower; the most I’ve had to wait is 10 minutes on a Monday and 15 on a Saturday morning. Brunch for two usually tallies up to about $22; though Honey’s is cash only, they do have an ATM on the premises. During cold winter days, they set up heating lamps on the pavement outside and you can sneak inside for hand-warming cups of coffee. Helpings are on the hearty side and the coffee (decaf or regular) is endless. Fresh squeezed orange juice is available; a perk of sitting at the counter is getting to smell that startling orange tang whenever someone orders a glass.

Eggs

D and I had decided, much earlier in the month, to meet up at Honey’s. We had a craving not only for the food, but for the corner table–tucked up against the wallpaper, wrought iron farm implements, and cheerfully swinging kitchen door–from where we could watch the goings-on laid out before us. Though Honey‘s is not a people-watching place, it’s a comfort to see that food being shared, and to hear the rumble of satisfied conversation.

D, devout vegetarian and reveler in the magical alchemy of food, chose the Eggs Benedict. It was a last-minute decision; she had been considering the Berries and Cream Challah French Toast or the Tofu Enfrijoladas. Like all good decisions, she didn’t double think herself and just chose on a whim. Our waitress helpfully guided D to substitute spinach for the ham when she asked for the vegetarian version. The Hollandaise sauce was lemony with a hint of chive; the eggs were poached to perfection, breaking open to reveal the yellow inside, and melding with the sauce to create a rich, sensuous mouthful balanced by the garlicky steamed spinach.

Pancakes

As for me, the grey day had determined my choice; it couldn’t be anything but the Two Giant Buttermilk Pancakes with Bananas and Chocolate. I wavered for a moment between Bananas and Almonds, Bananas and Seasonal Berries, Walnuts and Peanut Butter Cups…but fell back on the satisfying, moist delight of the banana-chocolate combination. You can’t ever go astray with that.

The food and the ambiance lend themselves to talking about dreams, mutual friends, adventures to be had and adventures had, and the beautiful reckoning of spring. Details emerged and swam before us; somehow, the morning stretched into afternoon and before we knew it, we were concocting plans for future travels, future homesteads, and future bread ovens. There’s something in the air at Honey‘s. Like a good, classic ghost story, it makes even the wildest, secretest, hungriest dreams seem tame-able by daylight.

-bisoux