There is something indulgent about brunch that we don’t often experience at even a lavish dinner. It’s not necessarily a matter of gluttony: I’d rather choose from a selection of chef-created morning and midday dishes rather than dive into a gigantic buffet spread under plastic hoods known as sneeze guards. Ick.
No, the joy of brunch has something to do with comfort food – breakfast for lunch – elevated by culinary touches that we aren’t likely to replicate at home.
And also brunch drinks! Mimosas! Bloody marys!
So, where shall we go for brunch? This week Fork & Barrel beckoned, and I was happy to respond.
Fork & Barrel is Culinary Institute of America-trained Chef Geoffrey Heyde’s upscale-casual eatery in Clifton. It opened in 2017, filling the space vacated by Basa Modern Vietnamese. I enjoyed a delicious dinner there not long after it opened, impressed by the fare but a bit gobsmacked by the $235 toll for four, not including tip.
This flattened-wallet memory discouraged thoughts of a speedy return, but wait! Fork & Barrel’s got brunch? Brunch makes it possible to enjoy a fancy place at a relatively painless price. So off we went, and sure enough, Fork & Barrel’s kitchen hums the same high note by day as it does at night.
The long, narrow room retains a touch of its predecessor’s spare Asian sensibility. The walls are off-white, with a rectangle of rough-hewn planks and high-back burgundy banquettes rising along the sides. Front windows offer a view of Frankfort Avenue; a small Z-shape bar zig-zags across the rear of the room, offering a quiet refuge. Heavy wood tables are set with buff cloth napkins artfully folded around heavy flatware.
The brunch menu isn’t as extensive as, say, a fancy hotel’s Sunday buffet. But it offers plenty of choice and good variety, with nine brunch entrees that range in price from $9 (for a stack of cornmeal pancakes with real Vermont maple syrup – no Bernie jokes, please) to $19 (for a luxurious take on eggs benedict). You can go country-style with biscuits and gravy ($11) or corned beef hash with fried eggs ($14), or walk on the wild side with a fried brussels sprout salad or a fancy breakfast burrito ($12 each).
For the thrifty, an a la carte menu invites you to fashion your own breakfast from a dozen items such as eggs ($2), toast with butter ($1), sausage links or patties ($6) and a lemon poppyseed waffle ($8).
There’s also a good choice of brunch beverages including $1 mimosas, a large bloody mary ($5), or a fancy BLT bloody mary ($10): breakfast in a glass. You’re not going to get an oversize mimosa for a buck, but it was still a good deal, quality OJ and a splash of sparkling wine for a refreshing gulp in a small flute glass. The regular bloody mary was excellent too, spicy tomato juice and a good shot of vodka in a glass that looked big enough for a draft beer.
We doubled up on brunch choices in order to get a wider sampling, treating the smaller plate as an appetizer and the larger as a main. Hey, it works for me!
A short stack of corn pancakes ($5 for a three-pancake side order, $9 for a generous brunch main course) was impressive. Dusted with just enough powdered sugar to decorate them but, happily, not to sweeten them, they made a filling starter. Crisp on the outside, light but stone-ground textured within, they had a good cornmeal flavor that went nicely with real maple syrup.
Based on my prejudices, I wasn’t smitten with the idea of fried brussels sprouts salad ($12), but a taste persuaded me. Deeply roasted, almost charred sprouts had been diced and shredded, then doused with a smoky, unctuous mustard-sherry-bacon vinaigrette. Bits of mild goat cheese and marcona almonds were mixed in, building a flavor combination that was really spot on with the over-medium fried egg on top. Quartered pale winter strawberries could have been omitted with no loss of flavor.
It was braised short rib benedict ($19), pictured at the top of the page, that stole the show. Two perfectly poached eggs perched atop a mound of luscious, succulent pieces of long-roasted, shredded brisket, a mix of juicy meat and crunchy charred edges, with savory drippings that flavored the thick patties of hash browns beneath. Creamy, lemony and rich chive-finished hollandaise and midnight-dark beef jus completed a perfect dish.
A side of textured, creamy grits packed with chopped poblano peppers ($4) was so good that I’d have happily gone back for more.
An outstanding brunch for two came to $48.76, plus a $10 tip for flawless service.
Robin Garr’s rating: 90 points.
Noise level: It’s a happy, noisy place when the room is filled, but we were able to chat with friends at our table. (Average sound level was 79dB, near the upper edge for comfortable conversation, with an occasional ear-pounding shriek to 89dB.)
Accessibility: The front entrance is inaccessible to wheelchair users, up two tall steps to a heavy door. We’re told that level access is available via the rear from a small parking lot, though, and the restrooms are accessible.