Sunday brunch is something of an institution in New York City. It’s to New York what the Sunday roast is to Britain: an excuse to be lazy with loved ones while feasting on good food.
On a Saturday or Sunday morning (and well into the afternoon), New Yorkers, adopted and native, will almost certainly find themselves lingering over breakfast food, coffee, and cocktails as they catch up on the week’s gossip with friends, family, or their latest date.
There’s constant debate and endless lists dissecting which restaurant serves the best brunch in the city. Traditional or with a twist? Manhattan or Brooklyn? As a newcomer to the area, I thought “When in Rome”, and decided it was only polite to do some personal research and eat my way around the city’s best eggs and mimosas.
First stop was Jack’s Wife Freda, a restaurant with the distinction of being one of the most Instragrammed spots in the city (yes, it’s that popular). In fact it was on the photo sharing app that I first discovered the restaurant, taken in by artsy images of colourful meals set on clean white plates, even before I moved to America. Would Jack’s Wife Freda live up to the social media hype?
My husband and I strolled onto Carmine Street in the West Village around noon on a snowy day in early February, expecting to wait a good hour for a table at the restaurant’s newly opened second location, which features the same striped awning as its older sister in Soho. Somehow, we were seated immediately – something almost unheard of at popular New York restaurants that refuse reservations. Feeling pleased with ourselves, we ordered coffee, people-watched, and deliberated over the menu, which in itself is a work of art, taking up half the table and annotated with doodles.
Husband-and-wife team Dean and Maya Jankelowitz set up Jack’s Wife Freda in 2012, offering simple dishes that remind them of their families and respective countries (Israel and South Africa). Named after Dean’s grandparents (Jack and Freda), the restaurant serves American food with a Mediterranean twist: think Lebanese yoghurt and challah toast, or potato latkes taking the place of English muffins.
I was particularly taken with the potato latkes, which were laden with smoked salmon, poached eggs, and beet hollandaise sauce in a new take on that old brunch favourite, Eggs Benedict. The Madame Freda was the cool cousin of a Croque Madame: a pressed sandwich with duck prosciutto, cheddar bechamel, gruyere, and a sunny-side up egg. It was good, but couldn’t beat the latkes in my book. To keep things interesting, we asked for a side of the duck bacon too.
The Anchovy Baguette was an afterthought, a last-minute addition to the order, and it ended up being our favourite dish of the day. It was such an unusually satisfying combination of flavours – salty anchovies, tangy salsa, cooling tomato – that we couldn’t resist ordering a second baguette to round off the meal.
Jack’s Wife Freda didn’t disappoint. Before we had even paid the bill we were discussing when to return, which friends to drag along, how we would definitely order the anchovy baguette a third (and fourth and fifth) time.
A week later we found ourselves in the same neighbourhood, huddling in the porch for warmth as we waited for a sought-after Sunday table at Buvette, a French ‘gastrothèque’ located at 42 Grove Street. The term was coined by chef and owner Jody Williams, in an attempt to capture the restaurant’s ‘informality and delightfulness’.
“I wanted to take big dishes and make them small, take an elaborate meal and make it in two bites,” she told Kinfolk magazine. “It can be your café, it can be your stand-up/sit-down dinner, your indoor/outdoor picnic. It can be all these neat things. You tell me what it is.” Whatever you want to call it, it’s a recipe that works; Williams opened a sister ‘gastrothèque’ in the Pigalle neighbourhood of Paris last year.
As we waited for a table in New York, the hostess added name after name to the chalkboard doorframe (which doubled as a waiting list). On hearing the wait for a table would be at least an hour, each new would-be diner said yes, they’d hang around. I was impressed at the dedication. Was Buvette really that good?
The New York Times describes the charming, narrow restaurant as “a miniaturized version of a true Paris cafe: easygoing but with just the right patina of formality.” Buvette is certainly small: tiny tables, miniature menus, and petite plates full of fresh, flavoursome food. With the brick walls, tin ceiling, wine-filled shelves, and that easygoing atmosphere, it really did feel like a little piece of Paris tucked down a New York side street. Luckily for those of us waiting in the cold, the food tastes like a slice of Parisian perfection too.
I opted for the Jambon Cru (steamed organic scrambled eggs on toast, topped with a creamy-textured prosciutto and shaved parmesan), and managed to steal a few bites of the incredible Croque Madame my husband had chosen. We shared a bowl of salad too, filled with juicy roasted chicken, green beans, potatoes, and mustard vinaigrette. As I mentioned before, I don’t usually eat salad, so when I do discover one I enjoy, I’m more than impressed – and the Buvette offering was brilliant.
A second round of mimosas – prosecco paired with fresh blood orange – and some fluffy madeleines rounded off the meal perfectly. Seated at the bar, we were able to watch the goings on behind the scenes, and eye-up the sandwiches that we didn’t order as they were shipped out to the tables squeezed into the 1000 square foot space behind us.
As an introduction to the Big Apple’s brunch scene, Buvette and Jack’s Wife Freda have only whetted my appetite for more. Weekend brunch is one New York tradition that, as an expat, I can definitely get used to.
What’s your favourite Sunday brunch spot? If you’re a New York local, do you have any tips on which brunch offering I should try next?
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