Sunday Brunch is the closest thing my diverse group of friends and I have to religion. No matter how each person was raised and what we believe and practice now regarding personal faith, I think it would be safe to say that a theological scholar quietly observing our group from afar would guess us as an urban version of a Dionysian sect left over from ancient Greek times.
It being hard in this fine city to find hidden forest enclaves for frolicking and reveling in the joys of food, wine, and the unruliness of nature, we are constantly on the lookout for breezy wooded nooks in the form of a restaurant to leisurely languish over plates heaped with good food and to revel in the glories of our unruly town.
Knife + Fork makes brunch, a very good brunch, in an almost religious room. The entrance to the restaurant is an open door that comprises about half the front of the place creating a cozy, light, and airy atmosphere with tables more hewn from timber than crafted in factory and banquettes that would be pews if it weren’t for the cushions and pillows. A room that feels ethereal and frivolous on a temperate Sunday summer afternoon and that I imagine will fold its arms of lumber around you like a tavern from a Tolkien novel on a cold winter night.
Through an oddly shaped hole in the stucco wall, like a mushroom inclined to lean toward the sun, that faces the open door/windows is a small kitchen, and there stands Damien Brassel, an Irish born chef who spent time honing his skills with some diverse greats of the culinary world, from creative dudes like Blumenthal to classic guys like Gagnaire. At his stove you can see a future for this room where a chef cooks his whims, and diners gather and eat. This room is not going to be a fast-paced in and out NYC restaurant, but a place to linger over tasting menus (reported to me by trustworthy people as creative, affordable and of serious execution – I’ll let you know the minute I get there for dinner).
I cannot speak to what the cuisine of Knife + Fork is at dinner, but at Sunday Brunch it is exactly what I want. Inspiration and creativity applied to traditionally hearty Irish Breakfast fare rife with the aroma of truffles (the first thing that hits you walking in).
It all started with a drink. Bloody Mary with sake, pink peppercorns, and tomato juice, topped with wasabi foam. Ok, I am a classicist when it comes to cocktails and think interpretations of classics should be rebranded, so giving it a twelve word name almost fits the bill. Better would have been to name it something like The Phlebotomary or something. Names aside, it is a good drink. Knife + Fork has the wine and beer version of a liquor license so there is no vodka to thin the platelets of the standard bloody. In its place is sake bringing a sweeter thinness to tomato juice with a smooth puréed texture, the sweet piquantness of pink peppercorns pairing better with the sake than black would. For the rest, all the standard flavors are there. Celery is represented by celery seed, there is a slight lemony note, a smoky flavor of Worcestershire, the definite hint of aged pepper sauce, horseradish, and the wasabi foam. Well, what could be wrong with that? Like the six unique and separate strings of a guitar agreeing to get along to make a song. A drink as easy to credit to a chef’s understanding of flavor as a cunning solution to giving brunchers what they expect in the face of a restrictive code. Whichever the inspiration, both point to admirable traits in a chef.
With too many desirable choices, we ordered a couple of extra to split. I had my fair share of three:
(sorry no pictures, in what Wife, Bear, and Soho suspect to be an on-purpose accident to get myself back sooner, the gorgeous sunlit pictures I took were lost in a trash removal computer incident)
Works burger with pineapple, fried egg, bacon and tomato served with polenta fries: A patty of beef with such a smooth bite I would compare it to good meatballs rather than most burgers. The definite areas of black scorching suggested that something with a sugar content beyond that of chuck was mixed in, as well as that the burger was seared on a very hot, flat thing. Topped with a fresh sunny side up egg, three strips of smoked bacon, and the kind of wild arugula I call rocket in order to differentiate it from the soulless baby arugula so popular today, a paste made of tomato (that appeared on each dish) was on the side of the plate which I spread on the roll à la ketchup, and I would love to tell you how the pineapple played from the side but Wife ate it all. Besides the pineapple, on the side were polenta fries. Warm, soft, sweet and rich, they proved the perfect medium for the tomato sauce.
Croque Madame with black forest ham, sun-dried tomato, fried egg white truffle oil and Jarlsberg cheese: Eggs, toast, ham, cheese, truffle oil and Dijon mustard stacked like a napoleon and broiled. The bare corners corners blackened just enough to add a contrast to the richness of the ham and cheese, while the cheese and egg yolk translated the truffle aroma, and the mustard kept it from going too deep into the unctuous area. Again, in that Irish tradition of tomatoes with breaky the tomato paste appeared on the corner of the plate as a ready contrast to all the profiles of the meal, should it be needed.
Knife + Fork black pudding, truffle scrambled egg, crispy bacon and breakfast sausage: This is the hearty meal a person that laughs at continental breakfast wants. Salty breakfast links fire grilled, black puddings cut on the bias and fried exuding their sanguine richness, Limerick bacon limber in the center and pitch black on the ends, a pile of earthy roasted mushrooms, the thick tomato purée again (this time offering its zing to cut the richness), all around a puddle of truffle-scrambled eggs so perfectly cooked I would assume they were made in a double boiler. (I’ve made eggs this soft and creamy at home, but I have never had them out. The time to table usually robs them of the couple minutes they are truly great). In the center of this sea of food that tended toward hearty, stick-to-your-ribs type of fare, was this perfectly delicate execution of a preparation I have trouble getting right when it is the only thing I am doing.
All that being said, this plate is where the business plan of Knife + Fork shone through. A small room with its chef in its center for all intents and purposes, the chef saw four people eating about six breakfasts, drinking our way through all the bloody fixings he had, and decided to send along with it a piece of grilled foie gras to round out the Irish breakfast plate as well as some white asparagus spears. Later, my conversation of thanks with Damien bore out that he plans to change his menu every week, a plan I endorse because even the best chefs’ food gets boring when they get bored by it, a fact often exacerbated by the usual simplicity of the earlier meals of the day.
Truth is, before the foie and the news of ever-changing options we probably would have been back soon anyway, but that kind of sealed it up. An intimate place making great food that appreciates the type of diners that revel in food is perfect for us.