Restaurant Reviews

Let's Do Brunch

Like cooking styles and ethnic cuisines, meals tend to go in and out of fashion. In the '70s, ladies did lunch. In the '80s, power breakfasts were the all-important yuppie thing. And the '90s saw a return to fine, late-night dining. So what can we expect from the new millennium?

Brunch, it seems.

The term brunch is generally defined as a cross between breakfast and luncheon, supplying dishes from both meals to please the first appetite of the morning -- or afternoon, depending on when the bruncher gets up on weekends. In The Brunch Cookbook, authors Crownie Billik and Kathy Kaufman pronounce that "no one likes to rise early for breakfast on a weekday morning, and one's slumber usually lasts through lunch." Therefore, they conclude, brunch is the perfect meal for "vacationers, country weekenders, city night owls, and those who make [it] a family affair…" (disregarding the fact that most of us who have children tend to wake up around cartoon time on the weekends).

Nevertheless brunch has been making a quiet comeback in the restaurants of both Broward and Palm Beach counties, and lately my friends, relatives, and acquaintances have been planning brunch outings, parties, and events as opposed to dinners. I'm all for it -- it's actually healthier to eat earlier in the day, when you're more active and able to burn off some of the more stubborn fat calories, rather than later. Indeed, heavy midday meals have always been a European tradition, followed later in the day by a light supper of breads, cold meats, salads, cheeses, and fruits.

Most of our local restaurateurs agree on the time span during which brunch should be served: from about 10 a.m. till 2 or 3 p.m. But at her Penn Dutch Restaurant on Dania Beach Boulevard in Dania Beach (not to be confused with Penn Dutch meats on the other side of I95), Gianna Beatrice is ready for business at 6:30 a.m. Perhaps that's because she opens this home-style, no-frills joint for sunrise breakfast every day. The only difference on weekends is that more upscale specials, such as eggs Benedict with lump crabmeat, might be offered (and if so, you should try it). On Sundays -- and Saturdays, too, for that matter -- the place can be SRO by 9 a.m., filled with families eager to get a start on their day.

At Penn Dutch -- not unexpectedly, given the back-to-basics philosophy the name implies -- brunch is a reasonable affair; my family of five recently ate there for $40, including tip. It's also very hearty. Omelets and eggs are plentiful, but in fact it's difficult to escape without tasting at least one kind of meat. And they're not all standard breakfast meats. Though the spicy sausages wrapped in fluffy pancakes were notable, I really went for the Vienna sausage-and-eggs combo. Then there was the griddled meat loaf partnered with scrambled eggs and thick-cut home fries so tasty that the spuds might have been flown in from Idaho (but were more likely yesterday's baked potatoes). Toasted homemade breads, including banana and cinnamon-raisin varieties, accompany every meal. This is just the kind of flavorful, no-nonsense meal I might invent for myself out of the fridge leftovers if I were to stay home on Sunday.

'Cept why would I want to do that, when I can sip champagne in tropical splendor at Sundy House? Proprietor Filip Rady's restored turn-of-the-last-century house on Swinton Avenue in Delray Beach also has a large following who like the grand digs but enjoy eating overlooking the botanical gardens even more. I can't blame 'em -- the elegant menu matches the surroundings. French toast is made with brioche and topped with tropical fruit compote; a fruit plate is accompanied by date-nut bread finger sandwiches and honey-almond yogurt; the vegetarian omelet is stuffed with spinach, tomatoes, and goat cheese.

All entrées are à la carte, with prices ranging up to $12.50. My two favorites, of course, fall into the higher end of the range. But it's hard to resist the seafood Cobb salad, a refreshing mix of romaine, hard-boiled eggs, crisp bacon, blue cheese, baby scallops, and rock shrimp, all topped with tangy honey-mustard dressing. Chef's Benedict is even more difficult to bypass, if you like the sound of traditional eggs Benedict upgraded with shrimp, asparagus, and artichoke hearts. Overall, this gourmet brunch tempts one to linger over a mimosa, especially when the flowers are in bloom in the garden. I say go for it -- weekly.

That is, unless you prefer stuffing your face to such a degree that you don't need another meal for a week, let alone the rest of the day. If that's the case, you'll certainly want to head for the brunch buffets as opposed to à la carte. The downside of buffets, in my opinion, is that the food tends to sit out too long and can harden or get dry. On the other hand, I adore brunch buffets for the extras that come with them -- a glass of champagne here, an assortment of sweets there.

Music is usually one of those ambiance-setting extras. If easy-listening live jazz is your ticket, head over to Churchill's on Griffin Road in Cooper City. Most locals know the very proper Churchill's as one of the only jacket-and-tie restaurants left in South Florida. Others remember it as the most lavish, antique-stocked restaurant in Cooper City or anywhere in western Broward. The rest probably know it by now as the expensive property in dispute between proprietor Victoria Williamson and her estranged, older husband, who is suing her for divorce on grounds of adultery.

That melodrama doesn't seem to affect the running of the restaurant. Indeed, no sign of strife is apparent: Champagne shows up like clockwork; coffee is poured from a thermal pot; the music is mellow and soothing. As for the fare, dishes ranging from paella with crawfish to omelets and crepes made on the spot were all equally delicious. A cold salad bar included smoked salmon and boiled shrimp, which makes the $19.95-per-person price tag worth it right there. You don't have to dress up on weekends, either, though reservations are still suggested. And what you wear doesn't affect how you're treated. Churchill's wait staff, extremely correct, always tends you as carefully as though you were clad in Armani.

But not all brunchers require jazz to aid digestion. If you fall into that category, as I do, then Jamrock Café on Mizner Boulevard in Boca Raton is your scene, mon, 'cause the brunch here is reggae, and the atmosphere is rockin'. Colorful as the Caribbean, the rustic décor enhances what's billed as "global seafood." The items on the regular menu range from Japanese sesame-seared ahi tuna to a Cape Cod fisherman's platter.

The brunch menu is similar, with bowls of Thai-marinated calamari, New Orleans-spiced shrimp nestled in ice, and other breakfast foods like, yes, the ubiquitous eggs Benedict, this time in a chafing dish. I found this place a bit disorganized -- at one point we could hear the chef shouting at our waiter, and when the eatery ran out of pastries, some were brought in from the nearby Publix -- but we were still charmed by the $16.95 combo of nosh 'n' Tosh.

In fact I've just gotten going. Plenty of other eateries are offering brunch deals these days, like Evangeline in Fort Lauderdale (live jazz); Hollywood Beach Golf & Country Club in Hollywood (complimentary bloody mary); 811 Bourbon St. in Plantation (crawfish pie); and Topanga! in Fort Lauderdale (free glass of champagne). I could go on, but why bother? I'd rather just go brunch.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick