The first I heard of Penelope, a beloved Murray Hill fixture, was when, at my office, I overheard two colleagues making lunch plans: "Vermont today?" I later learned that Vermont was code for Penelope, as the cafe so easily stands in for the kind of homey, casual, comfort-food spot one might associate with bucolic images of the Green Mountain state. The breakfast menu—while it dispels any illusions of a trip to Vermont (not a blueberry pancake in sight)—draws a crowd for its selection of omelets and egg sandwiches, french toast and waffles, all with a side of shabby-chic.
We started with Abuelo's Egg Sandwich ($9): eggs-over-medium with Swiss cheese, grilled ham, and balsamic-mayo on Somun bread, which is a variation of pita. The combination amounted to a perfectly balanced breakfast sandwich. Bright yellow yolks burst into the crispy flatbread at first bite, and every ingredient could be discerned.
The Penny Egg Sandwich ($8) was equally a success. Two scrambled eggs are served fairly dry, which works with the addition of rich pesto and gooey American cheese on a buttery croissant. An English muffin is also an option (as is meat--or meat subsitute--for $1), but the croissant really made this feel decadent. Neither the Penny Egg nor the Abuelo are served with sides, however; heartier appetites might need to spring for something extra.
I "Heart" Waffles ($9.50), toasted coconut waffles with strawberries and a side of papaya, were less special. The waffle itself is slightly heavy and doughy and the combination of tropical fruit and toasted coconut with strawberries seemed odd more than inspired. We agreed that they fell into the vehicle-for-syrup category of waffle (which, on the upside, was real maple syrup and limitless).
Mabel's Homemade Granola ($8) is a dried-fruit-lover's dream: toasted honey-sweetened oats with almonds really just accent hefty doses of coconut, dried figs, apricots, and cranberries. However, burnt coconut gave the dish a slightly bitter flavor that was brought out further when we added the whole milk (yogurt is available for an extra dollar). I didn't love it, but it was hard to say whether the burnt flavor was a batch error or a preference.
Verdict from this sample: the egg dishes are the winners. That said, I wouldn't hesitate to try more from the menu (or the pastry case).
Perennially packed, Penelope is no secret; residents and workers in the neighborhood turn up time and time again for comfort-food favorites. It doesn't make any attempt to reinvent the wheel, which might be just what makes the slightly countrified spot such a standby.