Ask anyone: brunch in New York is as daunting as it is delightful. You’re hungry and probably irritable because you skipped breakfast (or most likely slept through it) and while you would love to think you have the stamina to wait on the harsh, blustery sidewalks of New York in the middle of winter for an hour just to taste the eggs at Prune or the pancakes at Clinton Street Baking Company or the merguez at Cafe Mogador with your blood sugar dropping and your toes losing sensation, sometimes it’s just too much.
There are some overlooked gems in the neighborhood with excellent, well-priced brunches where there is never a wait. Paprika and La Palapa come to mind as really solid second choices for the impatient and the hypoglycemic (okay, so I diagnosed myself.) Having said that, I’m like every other jerk in New York and sometimes I want what everyone else wants, so before the holidays, I went to check out Northern Spy Food Co. with my dear friend Steven to see what all the fuss was about. We got there early, a little before 11, when they open for brunch. There were already half a dozen people waiting on the benches outside. You’d think they were giving food away for free, not charging $12 for an egg sandwich. (More on that later.)
Northern Spy Food Co. is built on ideas that cause most people these days perk up their ears and a few cynical others to roll their eyes. They try to use as many seasonal, locally grown or produced ingredients as possible. Their beers come entirely from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern regions and their wine from small, artisanal producers. Their adorable interior, which looks at once like a cozy New England bed and breakfast, a general store and the sort of diner that exists only in nostalgic recollections, was designed and built by Brooklyn-based firms and is furnished with repurposed materials. The floors are reclaimed hickory boards and their retail cubbies are made from… wait for it… a repurposed chicken coop. I know.
We started brunch with the butter biscuits and jam, which were pretty fantastic. I kept telling myself I would only eat one to save room for the rest of the meal, but I guess perfect homemade biscuits are like Lay’s potato chips. For our entrees, we decided to order two different things to try a bit of both. This is something my mother does. When we dine out as a family, she makes us all order different things so we can try each other’s dishes. It makes perfect sense but I resisted it for years because I found it invasive and I wanted to prove her wrong. I’ve long since come around to the idea, but don’t tell her. (Alright, I know she reads this… and follows my Twitter feed… and reads my status updates on Facebook, but I’m not going to apologize to her face.)
I ordered the Corned-beef hash (with heritage beef brisket, confit potatoes, poached eggs)
Steven ordered the Chicken & egg sandwich (crispy thigh, poached egg, chimichurri, market greens)
Both dishes were very tasty and well-made but I preferred the chicken and egg sandwich. Bless them for using a thigh (my favorite part of a chicken) and for cooking it perfectly so that it was juicy, flavorful and tender and a touch crispy. And genius to top it with a perfectly poached egg so the rich, silky yoke broke onto that crispy thigh and all that richness was with balanced with clean, peppery arugula. Oh, and there was chimichurri. Have I ever told you how much I love chimichurri? (anything with garlic is a friend of mine.)
The only problem I had with what is an otherwise exquisite sandwich was the gigantic bun that encased it. It was like a diamond ring inside a duffle bag. To me, a sandwich is all about proportions and I don’t want my first two bites to be just bread. I tried to understand the reasoning behind it. I imagined that while testing the recipe, the yoke ran all over someone’s fingers and they figured it was better to give the customer enough bread to soak it up, to give it room to ooze out, but it still felt like a mistake.
In the end, Steven and I agreed that the flavors at Northern Spy Food Co. were spot on (delicious, in fact) but that the portions were tiny. It just didn’t feel like we were getting a lot of bang for our buck. I don’t doubt that the reason they charge so much for so little has to do with where they source their ingredients and how it’s all made. I’m sure I’m getting something of quality that I can feel good about purchasing, that’s supporting local artisans and farmers. I think these are all important issues and I applaud them, but one of my goals for 2011 is to be more fiscally responsible and a few blocks away at La Palapa, they give you a cocktail, a fruit plate and a pot of tea or coffee with your huevos rancheros. Just saying.
Northern Spy Food Co.
511 East 12th Street (between Ave. A and Ave B)
New York, NY 10009