Brunch at Good Enough to Eat: It’s all About the Biscuits, Baby

I like to think of myself as a fairly tolerant, openminded person, but there are two types of people in this world that I believe I fundamentally cannot get along with: people who hate dessert, and people who hate bread. I’m just not sure what common ground we could find. Obviously we’ve heard a fair amount about my love of dessert — today, let’s focus on the other vice.

There are restaurants I frequent purely because of the bread they offer, from megachains to haute cuisine. One of the best parts about going to Outback Steakhouse (Bloomin’ Onion aside) is the endless supply of their Questionably Authentic Aussie Brownbread. The breadbowl at Panera is equally legendary, as is the Rustic Flatbread of Cosi, and the buttermilk biscuits at Cracker Barrel.  Not to mention the complimentary bread baskets like those I encountered at Dr. Shakshuka in Jaffa, or the cornucopia of white, multigrain, and raisin nut rolls offered at restaurants like Daniel or Toqueville, where you may pick as many as your carb-loving heart desires.

An embarrassing personal story to further illustrate: the summer after my freshman year of college, I was lucky enough to be able to go to the Cannes Film Festival through Penn’s Cinema Studies program. Although we had access badges for the festival, they were very limited, which meant that the only way to see the top-bill movies was to wait on line, sometimes for hours, for any extra available seats. And so what did this fresh-faced, first time in France ingenue choose for sustenance during the long, hot hours of hope and disappointment? Why, entire loaves of raisin bread, of course. Much like my deplorably slow learning curve with Starbucks hot chocolate, it took me way to long to fully consider the ramifications of consuming entire boules daily.

While I’m slightly more realistic these days about the amount of bread I should be putting in my body each day, my fervor is far from diminished. And so after months of Jacob regaling me with tales of the buttermilk biscuits (and generally high caliber brunch) at Good Enough to Eat, we finally found a Saturday morning to make the trip to the Upper West Side, and try them out.


First Impressions:

Good Enough to Eat's cozy, laid back charm.

Good Enough to Eat‘s cozy, laid back charm is obvious from your first glimpse.

Good Enough to Eat is another one of those New York food scene staples. The restaurant was established in 1981, a fact they rightly take great pride in, considering the ephemeral nature of restaurants in Manhattan. GETE’s enduring popularity was clear to see when I arrived on Saturday morning. The restaurant opens at 9am, outrageously early by NY brunch standards, but even by the time I got there at 9:30, there was already a line waiting outside. Yes, the weather was especially nice this weekend, but the majority of the brunching populace was unlikely to be out and about for at least another hour and a half.

The line greeted me bright and early on Saturday morning.

The line greeted me bright and early on Saturday morning.

GETE’s whole aesthetic evokes a folksy New England small town cafe, from their maroon awnings with white trim to the literal picket fence that borders their outdoor seating. The fence actually appears again once inside GETE, where is separates the bar from the dining area. Inside, the walls are exposed brick, covered with knick knacks and odds and ends, most of which involve depictions of cows. Even the bathroom has a collection of hand-drawn cows sent in by children. Some of the quirkier decorations include a random muffin tin high on the wall, Good Enough to Eat -branded clothing (another testament to its popularity), and fake potted plants. The place is small, with probably only ten tables inside and another six outside, and there is a general bustling air of charming unpretentiousness, from service to plating to the menu itself. There’s a full bar, as well as a classic diner-style case full of homemade baked goods, from muffins (clearly they have other tins available) to a variety of pies.

The indoor section of the picket fence is just visible at the bottom center.

The indoor section of the picket fence is just visible at the bottom center.

The pie case next to the full bar.

The pie case next to the full bar.

Looking towards the back of the restaurant. Note the muffin tin on the right hand wall.

Looking towards the back of the restaurant. Note the muffin tin on the right hand wall.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to this casual attitude in the way that incoming customers are handled. The staff is very nice, but GETE does not take reservations for brunch, nor do they take your name up front. Instead, everyone gets in line outside of the restaurant, and the hostess comes by to find out how many people are in your party, then seats available tables depending on size. With this system, it is perfectly possible that a group of four arriving after a group of two could be seated first (as actually happened to us). Jacob and I ended up waiting about 30 minutes for our table, so I can only imagine what the wait would be like around noon.

 

The Food:

Eventually we were seated, and once we sat down the service was prompt, but never to the point of ushering us out the door (we had time to eat and linger for a bit afterwards). As it was Cuatro de Mayo, there were a number of Latin-themed brunch specials, but I opted out because they came with tortillas instead of biscuits, and I had my eye on the prize. I think this ultimately tempered my enthusiasm, however, as in my heart of hearts I was really in the mood for Huevos Rancheros or something similar.

On the weekends, GETE only serves breakfast and dinner menus, so even later-arriving brunchers should expect maple syrup over mayo as the condiment of choice. There are a number of options within this sphere of brunchfluence, luckily, so diners can pick from several different types of pancakes, waffles, and egg dishes, and GETE even offers a tofu scramble for vegans. I ended up ordering the “Little Italy Omelet,” while Jacob picked the Turkey Hash. After our half hour wait just to get it, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly our meal arrived.

The "Little Italy Omelet" -- well executed, but nothing spectacular.

The “Little Italy Omelet” — well executed, but nothing spectacular.

The omelet was filled with roasted mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese, and came with biscuits and strawberry butter, of course. GETE cooks their eggs loose, which they do mention on their menu, but I neglected to notice this until after I had ordered, so the omelet was a little underdone for my tastes. It was still cooked well, and there was a good proportion of eggs to filling. The roasted mushrooms and tomatoes dominated the dish, especially the tomatoes which definitely tasted of being packed in olive oil. I found the eggs a little underseasoned, but still it was a solid omelet that was the right size to leave me full without being too heavy.

Jacob's "Turkey Hash" -- a pile of breakfast.

Jacob’s “Turkey Hash” — a pile of breakfast.

I thought Jacob’s dish was a bit more successful. The Turkey Hash is made up of roast turkey, potatoes, red bell peppers, carrots, celery, and two poached eggs, and comes with the aforementioned biscuits and strawberry butter. At least on Saturday I had a serious need for potatoes in my breakfast, because I went after the ones in Jacob’s dish when he offered a taste. It was a sizable dish, and I probably wouldn’t even need the turkey to be satisfied by it, although I was impressed that there was actually chunks of roast turkey, rather than slices of cold-cut. The dish was really elevated when Jacob broke open the poached eggs, and the rich, buttery yolk soaked into the hash. The turkey and vegetables were fork tender and far from dry, but you really can’t argue with throwing another layer of cholesterol on the pile.

But the best part of my brunch by far were the biscuits and butter. Although they had been built up quite a bit, I did not think they were oversold. The strawberry butter was soft and fresh, and had small slivers of actual fruit in it, muddled in like a beautiful butter cocktail. It’s hard to recall, given the sangria-induced stupor of my brunch at Calle Ocho, but I think Good Enough to Eat trumps it in terms of purity of strawberry flavor. The biscuits were small, about the size of those store brand square Parker House rolls my mom used to put out for dinner (those rolls were sick — can you still buy them?). The biscuits split apart easily, the middle soft and just a touch flaky, but far from the commercial endless layers of Pillsbury Grands. They arrived on the plate slightly warm. I don’t think they were fresh from the oven, but in terms of texture they were still tender and moist, and buttery in a real, goddamn there’s a bunch of butter in this way, almost creamy when mixed with the strawberry butter.

Just two biscuits was not enough, and I think if I could do it again, i would just accept the fact that I’m a bread fiend and get one of the other, more exotic brunch dishes (like the Apple Pancake, the Pumpkin French Toast, or the standard menu item of the Migas: scrambled eggs with tortillas chips, bell pepper, cilantro, onion and cheese) and just shamelessly order myself a side of biscuits as well.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, my brunch at Good Enough to Eat was solid, if not awe-inspiring, but in retrospect a lot of the disappointments probably came from not listening to myself. The lesson here is trust your gut when you’re about to fill it, folks. Good Enough to Eat is a cheap enough Manhattan brunch for you to indulge in a side of biscuits if it’s mandatory like it was for me. I’d recommend trying it out, if mostly to have the experience of dining at a NY institution — not too many places in New York make it into their fourth decade. The prices are reasonable, the atmosphere friendly and homey, and the biscuits are worth the trip uptown. Since Good Enough to Eat takes reservations for dinner, and offers both the biscuits and some of the more popular brunch dishes (like the Migas and the Gramercy Omelet) on their dinner menu, I think I’ll avoid the wait next time and go in the evening. That way I can hit all my weaknesses and indulge in dessert as well. Because if their biscuits are any indication, in the category of baked goods, Good Enough to Eat very much lives up to its name.

 

Good Enough to Eat

483 Amsterdam Ave (at 83rd St)

http://goodenoughtoeat.com/

 

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Review: Calle Ocho

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.

Decor:

Calle Ocho recently reopened in the Excelsior, and there's still scaffolding up from the construction.

Calle Ocho recently reopened in the Excelsior, and there’s still scaffolding up from the construction.

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.

The bar -- there were a couple of lounge areas to the right and left.

The bar — there were a couple of lounge areas to the right and left.

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.

The back dining room, which was about half the size of the main one.

The back dining room, which was about half the size of the main one.

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 Havana Banana -- note the fruity eyeballs in the bottom.

The Havana Banana — note the fruity eyeballs in the bottom.

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.

Tortilla de Espanola -- I loved all the veggies with the crab meat in the sauce.

Tortilla de Espanola — I loved all the veggies with the crab meat in the sauce.

Calle Ocho omelet

Calle Ocho omelet

Cuban sandwich

Cuban sandwich

Cachapa de Salmon

Cachapa de Salmon, about to be devoured.

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.

Service:

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.

Final Thoughts:

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!

Calle Ocho

The Excelsior Hotel

45 W. 81st St

http://www.calleochonyc.com