There are two kinds of people: Those who understand why one would order oatmeal from a restaurant, and those who do not. If you are one of the latter, this article will do very little for you. I can hear the objections already: Why would you pass up the rest of a breakfast menu for oatmeal? Why would you pay dollars for something that costs just pennies? Why would you waste your time?
Poor, maligned little oats.
As I see it, ordering oatmeal from a restaurant is no different than ordering pasta. Simple, starchy dishes. Ones you could make yourself, for far less money. How much does a box of spaghetti cost? How many boxes could you buy for the cost of the average restaurant bowl? There you go.
But wait! the pasta apologists say. Pastas can be fully composed dishes. Perhaps the noodles are handmade; perhaps there's a sauce that you couldn't replicate. The chef adds something. And you're at a restaurant! You're going for the experience!
If a café sticks a bowl of soggy Quaker Instant in front of me and charges $12, will I be outraged? Of course. Just as I would be if I paid that for limp linguini in weak tomato sauce. But a bowl of perfect steel-cut oatmeal, a smooth suspension of tender grains, with grappa-stewed fruit, or apricot butter, or caramelized pears—well, that's a whole different dish.
Our survey of New York restaurant oatmeal, after the jump.
Cheap and Delicious
In last year's fast food oatmeal roundup, Jamba Juice was the hands-down winner. And at $3.25 for a hearty little dish, it's still one of the best oatmeal bets in town. While its soy milk base may sound unorthodox, this is the oatmeal that will please steel-cut purists. It's creamy and just a hint sweet, with the slightly nutty flavor that comes only from long-cooked Irish oats. Toppings lean towards the sweet side: apple-cinnamon and blueberry-blackberry compotes tasted like warm pie filling; the crispy brown sugar bits, like the topping of a good berry crumble.
Moving on from the chains. Served at the Jamaican Dutchy on Tuesdays, the street cart's banana oatmeal ($4) turns out to be one fine porridge: rolled oats, vanilla, cinnamon, milk, bananas, and sugar all cooked down and whirled together until they're the consistency of a hot, delicious smoothie. About ten times as warming (and twenty times as tasty) as your street cart coffee. And the 16-ounce serving could easily satisfy two.
Fancy sandwich shop Wichcraft does an excellent job with their oatmeal ($3.95), swirling in a pretty irresistible cinnamon butter, as if you waved a wand and turned the dough of a cinnamon roll into hearty, healthy, steel cut oats. The normal sprinkle of crushed walnuts gets promoted to a healthy handful of lightly candied pecans, almonds, and macadamia nuts.
While steel-cut oats get a lot of attention, rolled oats can also make for a superior oatmeal. At Joyce in Prospect Heights, they're cooked down with huge, juicy chunks of apricot and apple that soften right into the oatmeal, imbuing it with a sweetness that renders sugar unnecessary. $3, and $3.75 with a cup of strong Gorilla coffee.
And a recommendation from oat aficionado Erin Zimmer:
If you grew up eating the packets of Quaker instant Apple Cinnamon, the oatmeal from Iris ($4) might blow your mind. Instead of the dehydrated fruit flecks, Iris Cafe uses nice hunks of Saratoga apples that are cinnamon-spiked and soft, but still crisp. But, here comes the really good part, the caramel. It's the same sweet goop from their popular sticky buns, drizzled over the coffee mug-full of oatmeal—just enough to flavor the milk (and make you want to drink it, kids cereal-style) but not so much that you can't actually taste the heartiness of the oats.
And yes, those would be rolled oats (no steel-cut here). Co-owner Rachel Graville already had the flakes lying around for her oatmeal raisin cookies and granola and thought, hey, why make things more complicated. She's happy to serve the crockpot-cooked oatmeal all day, at least until it sells out.
Jamba Juice: multiple locations (map); Jamaican Dutchy: 51st Street and Seventh Avenue (map), 646-287-5004; 'Wichcraft: multiple locations (map)Joyce Bakeshop: 646 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn (at Park Place; map), 718-623-7470; Iris Cafe, (map);
Few More Bucks, Still Tasty
While Le Pain Quotidien's $5.50 oatmeal is a bit pricey, it's a simple, perfect bowl: thick, milky steel-cut oats with berries dotted on top. If you're stopping by, step into the dining room and plop yourself down next to one of Le Pain's condiment caddies; swirl in some nutella or raspberry preserves and you have a much more exciting breakfast.
In the West Village, Doma serves an unusual bowl of rolled oats ($4.50), cooked through but left with a little bite, almost like a wet granola; the pile of berries on top softens into the cereal quite nicely. And Tbsp in the Flatiron scoops out slow-cooked steel cut oats, topped with brown sugar and tons of berries ($4 small, $5 large).
Mid-Priced and Worth It
Though slammed during the evening, Joseph Leonard is a peaceful, light-filled breakfast spot. Their rolled oats ($6) are excellent, cooked with just enough milk and spread with apples caramelized so deeply they fall apart and dissolve. Across the Village, fellow newcomer Northern Spy Food Co. serves a standout oatmeal on their brunch menu. Perfectly poppy steel-cut oats, with mascarpone and a thick pat of incredible apricot butter. On first glance, it looks like too much—I'm sure a cardiologist would say it is—but as it melts gracefully into the thick bowl of porridge, you wouldn't give up a single drop.
The steel-cut oatmeal at Prime Meats is topped with excellent warm maple syrup. The oats are soft and tender without being mushy.
Grey Dog's "Delaware Baked Oatmeal," a big, indulgent undertaking, is baked with cinnamon and sugar, bread-pudding style, and softens in a lovely pool of steamed milk. $8.50
And Locanda Verde—what don't you do right? Steel-cut oats from Red Mill, perfectly creamy and poppy, topped with a punchy, sweet stew of grappa-ed up fruit. At $9, it's not cheap—and for those same $9, it might be hard to pass up Locanda's sheeps' milk ricotta plate, one that I, personally, dream about. But oatmeal doesn't get much better than this. And hey, you're getting a bit of booze with your breakfast.
Joseph Leonard: 170 Waverly Place (at Christopher Street; map); 646-429-8383; Northern Spy Food Co.: 511 East 12th Street (b/n Avenues A and B; map); 212-228-5100; Prime Meats: 465 Court Street, Brooklyn (map); 718-254-0327; Grey Dog Café: multiple locations, here 33 Carmine Street (b/n Bleecker and Bedford Streets; map); 212-462-0041; Locanda Verde, 377 Greenwich Street (at North Moore; map); 212-925-3797
Fine, But You're Paying For Real Estate
Breakfast destination Sarabeth's served perfectly passable steel-cut oatmeal in four cutesy iterations—from the "Baby Bear" with milk and honey to the "Big Bad Wolf" with wheat berries, cream, butter, and brown sugar—but is this otherwise uninteresting bowl worth $7.75? Nope.
At Morandi ($7), we loved the musky stewed saba but lost the oats themselves in a sea of starch. And The Breslin ($9)? No complaints about this crock of steel-cut, but with maple syrup and an ample kick of salt, this didn't taste far off Quaker Maple-Brown Sugar. We could almost smell the packet.
Sarabeth's: multiple locations, here 40 Central Park South (b/n 5th and 6th Avenues; map); 212-826-5959; Morandi: 211 Waverly Place (at Seventh Ave South; map); 212-627-7575; The Breslin: 16 West 29th Street (b/n Broadway and Fifth Avenue; map); 212-685-9600
No, No, No
Petrossian: This is why people don't order restaurant oatmeal. It's a bowl that an antioxidant diet book would have put together: rolled oats and powdered cinnamon, no cream, milk, or butter, cooked until flaccid and stirred with unremarkable dried cherries and cranberries. The "chamomile infusion" listed on the menu? I'm guessing the oats were soaked in day-old tea; they tasted, well, teabaggy. As if atoning for the caloric deficit, the oatmeal comes with a tiny cinnamon roll, but that, too, is dry and unappealing. The worst part? This thing costs nine dollars.
Absurdly Pricey, but Oh, So Tasty
Let's get this out of the way: either one of these dishes from Norma's at Le Parker Meridien will set you back $16. (Absurd? Of course—you're in the land of $28 omelets.) But if it's your birthday, or if some benevolent breakfast partner is picking up the tab, or if money truly is no object, stop in for some of the best oatmeal in town.
Deeply caramelized apples and pears dissolve into this bowl of cream-soaked McCann's steel cut oats—but really, it's all about the brûléed top, a sparing sprinkle of sugar torched into a gorgeous crackly crust.
And then there's the red berry risotto oatmeal, essentially a thick rice pudding, piled into a slightly eggy "Crispity Wafer Bowl," with a healthy dose of plump berries that fall apart and stain the bowl red. Either one of these bowls could easily feed a few—though we don't recommend a party of three walk into Norma's and order only one bowl of oatmeal. The power breakfasters would disapprove.