I’ll give you fair warning: this post is not particularly family friendly. It doesn’t espouse the virtues of patience or pragmatism (or any real virtues at all, to be frank). This is a review of a drunk brunch, a damn fine drunk brunch, and if you’re down with hearing about that, then buckle up. I do apologize to all my underage or more temperate readers (who am I kidding, you lushes), but for once I’ll be writing largely about something other than food.
I’m not exactly sure when I first heard about Calle Ocho, but it had to be shortly after I moved to Manhattan, because I feel like it’s been on my brunch backburner forever. Their gimmick is not remarkably novel — plenty of restaurants and bars in NY offer all-you-can-drink (AYCD) brunches, and many of them include sangria. But what sets Calle Ocho apart is their level of commitment. These people are serious about sangria, and serious about getting you smashed, if you so choose.
Calle Ocho is located inside of the Excelsior Hotel, on West 81st St and Columbus, right across from the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve passed it a million times in my countless visits to gape at the dinosaurs, but this past Saturday I finally fought my way through the falling snow into the hotel to meet my friends. As with many AYCD brunches, Calle Ocho is very popular, but luckily they’re one of the few places in NY that allow reservations for brunch, so my industrious friend Sarah (different than Thanksgiving Sarah, I know, it’s confusing) had jumped on that early, and we were quickly ushered to our table. Sarah, who lives nearby on the Upper West Side, told me that the restaurant also has a Monday happy hour deal — mojitos and daquiris for $5. As an underpaid twenty-something who collects info on cheap deals on food and alcohol like she used to collect Beanie Babies, my ears perked up at that — filed away for another rainy/snowy day.
Unlike the wood-paneled, more regal lobby of the Excelsior, Calle Ocho’s interior is bright and adorned with bright colors in stripes and polka dots. The restaurant is very large, with a spacious bar area with lounge seating, then two large dining rooms that seem to take up most of the hotel’s ground floor. We were seated in a comfortably large booth in the farthest dining room, which is clearly also used for private events.
Food and Drink:
Now let’s get down to brass tacks. The reason Calle Ocho is so popular is because their brunch features an unlimited sangria deal: as long as you are eating, you can make your way through any and/or all of their 8 types of sangria (4 white, 4 red). The catch? These bad boys are served in 20 oz glasses. TWENTY OUNCES. As in one bottle of Coke-sized. Holy bursting bladder, Batman. So yeah, I’d love to see somebody take 8 glasses down, and then deal with the bathroom visit (and possible alcohol poisoning), if they could find someone to literally drag them there.
My feelings about sangria are similar to my feelings about Oreos. Whenever I see sangria on a menu, I have an existential crisis about whether it’s appropriate that I order it. It’s my alcoholic kryptonite. Unfortunately, unlike the rigorous standards enforced by Nabisco that assure my Double Stufs are consistently double-stuffed (stufed?), plenty of bars in NY tend to cheat on sangria. Some cheap red wine, an apple chunk or two, lime wedge — bam, sangria, right? Thankfully, Calle Ocho is not that kind of establishment. All of their sangria options featured unusual spices and fruits for the drink, like tamarind or cinnamon.
Although I’m usually a red sangria kind of gal, I ended up getting two of the white varieties (yes, 40 oz of sangria — I told you this was far from a virtuous review). I started with the cheesily-named “Havana Banana,” which featured coconut rum, Creme de banana, coconut, bananas, and lychees. Maybe it’s a stretch, but in my mind it was almost suitable for breakfast, considering all of those fruits. While it was certainly very sweet, the sweetness was actually effective in balancing the taste of the alcohol from the wine, rum, and creme de banana. I’d never had lychee before, and once I made it over the texture hurdle (it reminded me of those bowls of peeled grapes people put out at Halloween — ooooh, it’s a bowl of eyeballs!), I actually liked the taste. Granted, I should probably try lychees when they’re not soaked in fruity alcohol to get a real sense of them.
The other 3 members of my brunch group ended up getting red sangria — the “Samba,” which seemed closest to your average type of sangria, the “Fresas,” which prominently featured raspberries and blueberries, and the “Roja,” which emphasized brandy. My second glass was the “Tropical” (Light Rum, Triple Sec Lemongrass, Lemons, Passion Fruit Nectar), another white sangria which was enjoyable, but I found a little too heavy on the lemon for my tastes. The “Havana Banana” remained my favorite, although the late second round entry of the “Spanish Harlem” that my friend Megan got was a close runner-up. It seemed like a take on cold mulled wine — dark rum, cinnamon, mandarins and peaches. Although I tend towards beer and wine for my drinks, rum is my go-to spirit, so I really enjoyed the interplay of the red wine and the rum, and the warm spice of the cinnamon. I might keep that combination in mind for a winter cocktail in the frozen depths of February.
Now I have to at least attempt to redeem myself by briefly mentioning the food. Calle Ocho offers a variety of pan-Latin cuisine, and I’d love to go back and really sample the menu for dinner to give the food its due. My fellow brunchers got “Cachapa de Salmon”: Venezuelan sweet corn crepes filled with salmon, a Cuban sandwich, and the “Calle Ocho Omelet,” stuffed with manchego and tomato. I ended up getting the “Tortilla Espanola”: a frittata with spinach, peppers, asparagus, and mushrooms over a “crab enchilado,” which seemed to be a tomato-based sauce with crab meat. I thoroughly enjoyed the frittata — the eggs were firm and well-cooked without being overdone, and the vegetables were similarly still their independent and flavorful selves, instead of the mushy mess of green stuff that you sometimes get at brunch egg dishes. The tomato sauce was delicious as well — a nice amount of acid to balance the richness of the crab meat. I only wish the crab had been a little more seasoned — it was pretty plain compared to the flavors of the rest of the dish.
Also worth noting is the bread basket. I consider myself a snootily discerning individual about bread baskets (I do love me some carbs), and this one was exemplary. Chocolate chip rolls (reminiscent, but not as good as Cornelia Street Cafe), corn muffins, and miniature biscuits that reminded me of Mexican donuts with their crisp outer layer and soft and airy interior. All of the above was served with strawberry butter, which seems to a be a NY brunch staple these days.
Where Calle Ocho loses a few points is on service. They were very attentive in seating us and taking our drink and food orders, but 3 of our dishes came out all at once, leaving one person waiting alone while the rest of our food got cold. The downside of being seated far back in the separate dining room was that we were a destination spot for the waiters, rather than something they passed by en route to the kitchen, so our requests went unanswered for much longer. For example, my friend Sarah got a Cuban sandwich, and it ended up having no pickles on it. She was basically done with the sandwich by the time we flagged the waiter down, asked for the pickles, and had someone go back and get them. A similar situation occurred with our attempts to get a picture taken — we finally got a busboy to do it because our waiter had disappeared. I think this situation might be easily remedied by asking for a table in the main dining room, but it was still frustrating and a downer during an otherwise lovely meal.
Overall, I would definitely recommend Calle Ocho for brunch, even if your goal is other than testing the limits of your day-drinking abilities. While the service was less than ideal, they kind of get away with it because I was a little too tipsy to really notice the lags in time. I’d love to try some of the other sangrias, which seem to rotate seasonally (some of the varieties I saw on Saturday are not on the website, and vice versa), and I’d like to give the food its due. It was a nice brunch to end 2012 on, and certainly the kind of raucous revelry you expect from the year-end. I certainly intend to go back, but it might not be for a few weeks — January is the time for resolutions and gym visits, not sloppy Saturday afternoons with creme de banana. So here’s to 2012, a year full of exciting food adventures, but now, I swear, I’m going to buckle down. Expect only posts about salads in 2013 — Experimental salad-stronomy. Starting tomorrow, I swear. Right after I eat all of the cookies and magic bars I baked for tonight’s NYE party.
Happy New Year everyone!
The Excelsior Hotel
45 W. 81st St