113 MacDougal Street, New York, NY (at Minetta Lane; map); 212-475-3850; minettatavernny.com
Service: Charming and solicitous (once you're in the door)
Must-Haves: Shirred eggs, Crépinettes, duck hash, prime rib, Black Label burger
Cost: $25+/head, before drinks
Minetta Tavern is one of those restaurants that is virtually impossible to get into for dinner at a regular time—unless you're a regular yourself, or you're close with someone who is, you're not likely to get a table anytime but 5pm or 11pm. That's a real shame, because it is in fact one of the better restaurants in New York—and not just because of the justifiably famous Black Label burger. Co-chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr are two of New York's best cooks. They have cooking chops to burn, and perhaps more importantly, can reliably turn out delicious food to hundreds of serious eaters at their restaurants (Balthazar, Schiller's, and Pastis) on any given day.
But at brunch, even a layperson can call and score a reservation on a weekend. Using a name Minetta didn't know, we were able to get a 11:00 a.m. reservation for six people on a Sunday on five days' notice, without wading through interminable waits on the phone, and then we switched it to Saturday at 11:00 on three days' notice.
No problems, no hassle, no nothing.
You might be slotted right at the restaurant's opening, as we were; but at brunch, that's a lot less of an indignity than at dinner. In fact, it might be the best way to experience daytime Minetta: take your seats early and watch the show start up around you.
But what about the food, you may ask? There are eggs and latkes and French toast, but beyond that, you'll find an impressively creative menu featuring dishes far more ambitious than at many New York restaurants; there's no sense of a high-end kitchen slumming on the weekends. With a couple of exceptions, the dishes we tried were outstanding. And in the daylight, Minetta Tavern feels a fine breakfast club for everyone—if you're willing to pay for the privilege, that is.
Our advice: if you go, accept it as an indulgence. It will be expensive for brunch, because Minetta Tavern is not a cheap restaurant. There are oysters; there are truffles. (Sometimes there are both in one dish.) Just know that you're getting the experience for less than you'd shell out at dinner—and that you're in for an experience without equal in the city.
Minetta's brunch cocktail list is extensive, spanning the spectrum from creamy to sparkly to tomato-y (there are six Bloody Marys to choose from). Being more inclined to appreciate a good oxtail broth than a stiff drink, I loved the Surf & Turf Mary ($14), with clam and oxtail broth and an unmistakable beefiness. My tablefellows, a bit more inclined toward alcohol than I, liked the Seelbach ($15)—Blantons Bourbon, Cointreau, Peychaud, Angostura bitters, and Taittinger Brut, like a morning-friendly sparkling Old Fashioned.
While a pastry basket wouldn't be a bad way to start—brioche, croissants, and cannelé from Balthazar—lighter options may better prepare you for the meal to come. The Salade d'Agrumes ($14) had perfectly segmented grapefruit, blood orange, and tangerine in an olive oil dressing with pomegranate, mint, and pistachios; straightforward and refreshing, it's by far the lightest dish you'll find. But the Crépinettes et Huîtres ($16) are the first-couse showstopper. The soft and intensely fatty balls of truffled pork sausage arrive next to Fisher Island Oysters, briny and sweet and already mignonetted.
The brunch entrees get more creative from here. But while Minetta Tavern is known for its burger and clubby feel and impossible reservation policy, it should really be known as one of the best steakhouses in the city. To this end, it may be worth skipping brunch altogether and diving into the Roasted Prime Rib au Jus ($42), crusted and beautifully marbled and served with a skillet of sublimely light Yorkshire pudding. The Prime Rib is essentially half of the extrarordinary côte de boeuf Minetta serves for dinner.
About the Black Label burger ($26): there's not much to say that we haven't said before. It's on the brunch menu, just as it is on the dinner menu—prime dry-aged beef from Creekstone Farms in an eight-ounce burger that's crusty and indecently juicy and worth every penny. In fact, that may be a problem with Minetta Tavern brunch; once you're in the door, it's hard to order anything other than the beefiest items on offer.
Our predictably excessive advice: order one for the table, enjoy every morsel of the half- or quarter-burger you're allotted, and keep moving through the menu.
How else, after all, would you get to try the Duck Hash ($9)—awesomely designated a side dish? The skillet of crisped-up duck bits and potatoes could be a brunch dish in itself (we're imagining a fried egg on top). We wanted just a bit more crisp in the potatoes, but they're swimming in duck fat; it's hard to complain.
Brioche French Toast ($17) may be the last thing an adventurous eater would choose on this menu, but it's excellent: housemade brioche soaked in a custard and then griddled to a buttery crisp, and topped with a Salvatore Bklyn whipped ricotta so creamy you could be forgiven for thinking it was a tangy sort of butter. A judicious pour of syrup touches everything with maple without drowning it in sweetness. We preferred this dish to the Latkes ($22). As a plate of food, the perfect poached eggs, tangy dill hollandaise, and tendrils of smoked salmon were right on; but the latkes themselves (though, we were told, they're cooked in clarified butter for a hotter fry and better crisp) were too thick and had the wrong crunch-to-potato ratio for our taste.
The kitchen's real creativity starts to emerge when eggs are involved. Shirred Eggs and Black Truffles ($18) were magnificent—the mold coated in butter and Parmigiano Reggiano before it's filled with eggs and cooked slowly over a water bath. Accented simply with chopped truffles (in the eggs and shaved on top), that Reggiano, thyme, and no shortage of cream, it emerges wobbly and delicate and perfect for slathering on the baguette "soldiers" served alongside.
The Black Pudding Clafoutis ($20), as you might imagine, was a bit more polarizing—but those ready to take on blood pudding in the morning loved it. For the savory version of what's generally a dessert, Nasr and Hanson make the loose-textured boudin in house, bound with caramelized apples in a clafoutis batter, all in a remarkably flaky tart dough. "We copped a version of the clafoutis from a dish at Guy Savoy," said Nasr. "Salty trumps sweet."
These dish names are not misleading; just as "Black Pudding Clafoutis" tells you what you're getting into, Slow Baked Ham in Hay ($22) really is just that: fresh hams brined for 10 days, and then steam-baked on a bed of fresh-cut hay. Real hay. They're served with eggs, creamy Anson Mills grits, Tuscan kale, and remarkably tasty biscuits Nasr and Hanson make from house-rendered lard. And the ham? In our opinion, the hay-steam worked a little too well—something touched by hay is grassy and appealing, but something that verges on tasting like hay, less so. Still, the quality of the biscuits (some of the best we've had since Brooklyn Star's fire), perfect eggs, and grits made us want to take another chance on this dish.
Desserts come straight from Minetta's dinner menu, excellent if not adventurous classics: Pots de Crème ($9), three perfect thimblefuls to end your meal, and a Coconut Layer Cake ($9), with crème fraîche pastry cream that kept it moist and tangy and therefore many times better than your average coconut cake.
Being able to eat a Black Label burger without groveling for a table would by itself make Minetta Tavern a worthy brunch destination. But so much of the food is so good, and so original, and so gutsy, it more than makes up for a couple of less recommendable dishes. The brunch menu has made Minetta Tavern a much more democratic place. If you want to go eat there for brunch—and you want to foot the bill—you can. And it is worth your while.