Brunch · Drink · Full Complement

Max Brenner, Philadelphia: “That’s my new favorite camel”

THERE’S decadence, and then there is decadence. There are curtains with valences; and there are curtains with velvet valences.  There’s hot chocolate, Swiss Miss style; there’s Ghirardelli hot chocolate, invigorated with one or two shots of espresso and covered with a froth of chantilly cream.  (In fact, pretty much anything with chantilly cream is, by definition, decadent.)  There are sparse, simple movies like Revolutionary Road; but there are also glossy, well-defined, lush productions such as  The Brothers Bloom.

Max Brenner (Chocolate by the Bald Man) makes decadence its trade.  Truffles, Mexican hot cocoa, oozing chocolate cakes, chocolate-dusted crepes, pure chocolate licks…. Mmmm.  Eating here is a feast for the eyes, the nose, the taste buds–even your ears.  Fingers, too, can be dipped into the chocolate lick, luxuriating in the soft warm delight.  And, of course, there are the “hug mugs”–vessels designed to warm your cold hands in the winter even as they allow the nose to partake of the aroma of your hot chocolate or mocha cappucino (milk chocolate? dark chocolate? white chocolate? your choice).

The occasion of brunch at Max Brenner was twofold: we had a break in both the heat wave  and accompanying inexplicable rains that have been taking over the East coast, and my father flew into town just a few days ago.  This was his first Saturday on US soil in something vulgar like two years.  So naturally we had to go seek out the most luxurious brunch we could and let him seep into a culture of perks, delightful aromas, and understated presentation.

And Max Brenner delivered.  Good Lord, did it ever…!

We were ushered into the main body of the restaurant by our waif-like hostess and were presented with two menus.  One for brunch, one for the usual odds & ends offered by the chocolatier (cocoas, mochas, frappes, crepes, chocolate cakes, coffees, etc).  Our waiter came a moment later, and assured us that everything goes with chocolate.  We hemmed and hawed; but ultimately, upon his suggestion, I chose the decadent french toast; my mother ordered the “well-mannered omelet” and my father picked the grilled chicken panini.

Let me take a moment to address my parents’ choices.  There’s no need to go into my own; if the words “decadent” and “french toast” appear in the same sentence, you can bet your eyeteeth I’ll be having that.  My dad picked the panini mostly for the accompanying fries: “waffle fries dusted with chili and chocolate powder,” and they are heavenly.  My mom’s  really into goat cheese and is trying to eat more healthily, and the omelet with creamy spinach seemed ideal.  It was embellished with spiced homefries, a “diamond dusted sugar buttermilk biscuit,” and a “pure melted chocolate lick.”  G0t that?  Chocolate goes with everything.

The french toast, I am happy to report, was opulence defined.  Topped with cinnamon apple and white chocolate truffle bits, it was liberally covered with warm toffee sauce and brown sugared pecans.  I drizzled it with the accompanying white chocolate and milk chocolate.  Each bite was a novelty; every taste was a dream come true.  If you can handle that much sugar, this is the french toast to end them all.

One of the things I love about The Brothers Bloom (and I loved plenty about that film) was the detail to background, color, and sound.  In a similar way, Max Brenner has created a complex and layered experience.  The decor is done in muted colors, all collected around the central, signature chocolate brown hue.  A good portion of the restaurant is dedicated solely to selling chocolate: cases are full of small square treats, there are bags of delicacies to take home, and a staff is on hand to walk you through the offerings and samples.  The music, too, is designed to create an atmosphere of comfort and vaunted luxury.  Classic cover songs are mixed with the suave tones of Frank Sinatra; we enjoyed a line-up that included Roberta Flack, a Nina Simone knock-off, and “Is You or Is You Ain’t My Baby” covered by some husky-voiced ingenue.

All told, I’m impressed with the experience at Max Brenner.  If this was a DVD I could own, I totally would.  The next best thing, of course, is returning.  Again and again, because there’s simply so much there to sample.  Chocolate fondue, anyone?  Or how about the “Three Layer Chocolate Concoction with Toffee Bananas”?  Lord, the options are endless!  And I am just getting started…


Full Complement

Cafe L’aube: “I have learnt how to live…How to be in the world and of the world.”

ELEGANCE is hard to find in a city of over 1.4 million people.  It’s harder to find on a Sunday morning, bleary from the night before’s festivities (or, in my case, bleary from working till 2AM).  But elegance is exactly what Dan and I found, tucked quietly into a small cafe on South Street, awash in the  sunny glow that seemed to fill the entire city with joy and a sense of spring-like satisfaction.

What happened, February?  I woke up this morning to the sound of water sloughing off the roof; I stepped outside into a brave new city, resplendent in sunlight and proud of its amazingly brilliant buildings.  Today was a gift; it sparkled and sang, and it reminded me of how much I love this city and how much I love this year.  This is the year of hope, of personal change, of stepping up and realizing dreams and taking those opportunities and turning them into something larger and wilder than you ever could have imagined.

Already, 2009 is shaping up into something spectacular.  I’m writing again, small poems that don’t delve too deeply but that make my breath come just a bit quicker, my voice thicken as I move the words around in the air.  I’m taking Italian at Temple, as part of their non-credit “personal enrichment” program.  Am I ever going to get to use this Italian?  I have no idea!  But I feel as though my mind is coming alive again, and that’s what I was aching for.  My library card for the Free Library of Philadelphia finally came in, and I’ve already put about a dozen books on reserve and brought Henry Miller‘s Tropic of Cancer home with me.  I’m only about 20 pages in, but I can feel the first faint stirrings: there’s another poem, a few pages of prose, something in me that’s itching to get out.  I’ve reconnected with some of my far-flung friends (California seems to be claiming more than wanderers these days), made new friends, and have settled into a routine of Thursday night quizo.

All of which, taken separately, don’t indicate very much.  But together, as one unit, all of these collected little bits (and the dozens of other little moments too small to name, but too important to overlook) add up to a swell, swell spring, if not year.  That’s my personal manifesto for 2009: I am going to make it spectacular.

And what better way to usher in this new regime of living than brunch?  Because of the College’s winter break, Dan and I hadn’t seen each other in, oh, something horrendous like a month and a half.  A meal seemed like the perfect way to catch up, to lay down plans, and to wax poetic on our current projects.  (His are much more poetic than mine.)

And the city of Philadelphia gave us its blessing, melting the snow and gilding the morning with such auspicious brilliance.  Today was a day for dreams–how could one not be inspired in today’s sunlight?  Everything was new; every street was an enchanted safe haven; every passing block seemed somehow more alive, more vibrant.  I forgot how much of a spring person I am, how the way light falls on a building can reduce me to raptures; how the lengthened shadows between buildings can inspire my imagination.

Cafe L’Aube is the perfect place to go when the city has captured your fancy.  L’aube means dawn in French, and the cafe  itself is painted in the bright colors of a dawning new world.  According to the website, Cafe L’Aube‘s mantra is “Every day should be fresh and full of promise,” which is an accurate (uncanny?) reflection of my current state of mind.  As Sabrina Fairchild wrote to her father, “Paris is for … throwing open the windows and letting in la vie en rose” –and that is the aesthetic that Cafe L’Aube holds to, offering gorgeous crepes, French sandwiches, fair trade coffee and sumptuous hot chocolate.  It’s the aesthetic reflected not only in the logo of the cafe, but also in the French music that sifts through the air and creates an atmosphere of quiet finesse.

Dan and I began with the savory crepes, but found that the longer we sat, the more we had to say–and the more we had to say, the more we desired to eat.  So savory crepe became crepe à sucre; from “ham, egg and cheese” crepe to the “nutella and strawberries” crepe for Dan, and from “mozarella, tomatoes, and fresh basil” to “nutella and bananas” for me.  Each bite was a surprise, a gift; and when the nutella crepes arrived, I nearly swooned from pure pleasure–not from just the lovely scent of lingering chocolate warmth, but also the presentation and delicate wash of confectioner’s sugar.

This, this shall be my new home within the city; I thought Beau Monde was the central hub for crepes in Philadelphia, but I was misinformed.  Here, at Cafe L’Aube, you are invited to sit, to sip, to experience.  You are invited to dream among the amber and green walls, to concoct plans and whisper recipes for new adventures.  It’s quiet and casual, with minimal distractions and the lovely sense of being at once in the world and of the world.  Balancing mugs and glasses and plates on round cafe tables, you are invited to partake of a small moment of elegance in an otherwise inelegant world.