Like the first frost, falling leaves and the smell of pumpkin are the first signs of fall for many, an excellent outdoor brunch is the first sign of spring for me. (Related: Gazpacho season is the first sign of summer. Don’t @me.) While I understand that brunch is a meal for any season, I equate it with sunshine and rebirth. But last weekend everything changed. Not only was it an awful meal and a worse experience, but it may also be the catalyst to have ruined brunch for me forever. A life-changing event, Saturday’s experience has induced Post-Brunch Stress Disorder.
Brunch is unique because it is the only meal eaten purely for luxury and frivolity. Synonymous with weekends and, more importantly, no work, it’s held at its own specific time and even inspired cuisine that typically does not come to mind when one thinks strictly of the far more practical breakfast or lunch.
When else can you have powdered sugar as part of a meal? And before dessert springs to mind: that isn’t a meal – it’s a meal accompaniment. Or bottomless mimosas? Only at brunch do orange juice and champers mingle so gloriously.
During the season’s first brunch-perfect weather in NYC, I quickly modified my Saturday plans and agreed to meet a friend to enjoy the weekend meal alfresco. Everyone who knows me knows what my favorite place on the Upper East Side is to eat outdoors – for brunch especially. Hence, my friend did not fight when I mentioned where I wanted to dine.
I have enjoyed at least 50 meals at this particular spot since the eatery opened, all pleasurable. I have had romantic dates, business meetings and solo outings, all near-perfect experiences. It also has the best margaritas in the city – not sweet or with a fake syrupy mix, and they pack a nice punch. All of this joint’s cocktails have been top-notch. Another friend still marvels at a purple gin concoction he had there with me last summer.
Hear me out: I have already mentioned I have loved this UES mainstay, but I am also rarely a complainer about food.
I have a few strict preferences: no cheese, caffeine or egg yolks. Other than that, I will eat what you give me. I don’t expect perfection. I am usually just so happy to be served anything.
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My dining companion, though, has had a dark cloud following his restaurant dining experiences. I rarely care about waiting for service, and I am happy to chat away and drink in the sunlight, watching passersby. He is more conscious of shortfalls.
But last weekend’s events tarnished everything. Tainted, I tell you!
Things started well. We snagged a seat outdoors, and I tied Biggie Smalls, my dachshund, to the pole next to our table. I scanned the egg-heavy menu, and the frittata looked good, as did the avocado toast with fried egg atop it and the chilaquiles with a fried egg, which I have had many times before.
I needed to see if the chef would substitute egg whites for the whole egg, and I apologized in advance to the waiter for the inconvenience. He said he was relatively new but would do his best.
I asked if I could have an egg-white frittata. I also noted that I would pay extra, would be fine waiting longer, and my friend, who ordered the soft egg scramble, would take the leftover yolks if they were worried about food waste. The restaurant, which shall remain nameless, has previously accommodated my yolkless lifestyle. I thought it was a no-brainer. And the place wasn’t bustling – no line or waitlist, empty tables and staff milling about.
Our waiter said he didn’t think the chef would, but I requested he ask. Most of the brunch menu features eggs; I’d have the same question for multiple dishes.
The waiter came back quickly with a hasty “No.”
After inquiring further, a manager came over to participate in what had now turned into an impromptu TED Talk about the limitations of egg preparation in the restaurant’s kitchen. Feeling this brunch was morphing into a Seinfeld episode, I ordered a burger — hold the cheese — and moved on, trying to squelch the sense of loss and longing I felt when I saw others’ avocado toast and chilaquiles arrive.
Thirty minutes in, the regular-sized glasses with ice we requested the moment we sat down still had not arrived, so we remained stuck sipping warm water in tiny cups. We saw the waiter standing idly by the back entrance staring aimlessly. Brunch wasn’t boding well for a relaxing and enjoyable experience.
This meal was getting to be more work than pleasure. And a task I was paying to do.
A side dish of Parmesan fries ordered as an appetizer by my friend took an excessive length of time to arrive, and when they did, crushed red pepper coated the fries to the point where potato and Parmesan were no longer the main ingredients. The menu didn’t mention the Parm fries had any chili flakes on them, much less piles of them, so my friend couldn’t eat them.
At this point, I begged him to please not return the fries. Brunch was turning into a tragi-comedy of errors. But he stuck to his guns: he couldn’t eat the fries covered with red flakes and whole chili seeds in clumps, so he sent them back.
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In just minutes, the manager returned with a fresh plate of fries sans pepper flakes, despite the original order taking more than a half hour. The fries arrived covered in clumps of salt as if whoever seasoned them had not bothered to mix them properly, compounding the culinary disaster. The venue’s new laissez-faire attitude didn’t inspire confidence.
Were we being punished for asking about egg whites only? Was this some twisted kitchen retribution? There is no way any chef or human would serve anything like this. I’m no restaurant critic, but I have eyes — and they were watering from what appeared to be spoonfuls of chili flakes.
About an hour had gone by and no burger or soft scramble had arrived. I just wanted to leave, but sometimes you hang onto things far too long, hoping they will improve.
To wit: THIS BRUNCH HAD MORPHED INTO A TOXIC MARRIAGE. Drag brunches are fun; BDSM brunches are decidedly not.
We had waited so long, and I was desperate for a happy ending; I sat and waited some more. I put so much time and effort into getting a plate of edible food in me that I just couldn’t quit now.
When we had to ask again if the food was coming, I felt a tiny bit of my soul lost forever.
Finally, plates arrived without fanfare, but with PILES OF SALT on my fries. You could see a white mass on my plate. I told my friend I suspected the chef was somehow retaliating for the innocent question about getting an egg white.
My friend said it was just pure awful service and an inept chef. I wasn’t so sure. Was I in the middle of some brunch conspiracy? Did I stumble upon Brunchgate? I imagined the chef cackling diabolically, saying, ‘You want egg whites? I’ll give you something white! Salt, mounds and mounds of it!’
Unable to endure the stress of returning my fries, I left them untouched and took a few bites of the double-patty burger. Again, I have had the burger there many times, and it was truly a thing of beauty up until yesterday when it was nothing like the burgers of yore.
The patties were tiny and thick like hockey pucks piled high, less of a smashburger like usual, and more of two meatballs on a greasy bun. In preparation for writing this op-ed, I reviewed a great picture of a mouth-watering burger I posted on my Instagram account last summer. Those were the days.
My friend was equally upset with his eggs, which were not soft-scrambled, but almost leaden. Jeez! Another eggs-istential crisis! The home fries came with piles and clumps of red pepper again, like a full order with a side of red pepper and potatoes as a mere afterthought.
I was so dismayed and freaked out at this point I just wanted to get out of there and try to put this horrible experience out of my mind. I was literally about to flee brunch. My friend said he would not pay for the entire meal because his pepper-covered home fries and my salt-coated fries were inedible. I could only assume he was being so spicy because of the excessive amount of chili pepper he ingested.
The anxiety induced by this culinary experience made me so uncomfortable that I handed my friend the total amount for my meal, ran away from the table, dog in tow, and headed home as if running from a burning building.
The grease and the saltiness (both literal and figurative) left in my mouth made me nauseous. I knew I could not eat anything else for the rest of the day. However, I also began to feel fully programmed to feel terror and angst with the mere mention of the word ‘brunch.’ Had this place’s meal ruined the entire concept of this meal for me for life?
If I had not had so many wonderful memories of the place, one bad experience would be easier to swallow. But to see such rapid and horrific devolution turned my stomach. I mourned for the beloved eatery of yesteryear – or at least last summer.
My friend later showed up at my apartment to check up on me. I worriedly announced I had just self-diagnosed as having Post-Brunch Stress Disorder.
As happy as I was to coin a perfect term describing the agita I felt, I feared the long-lasting ramifications. Was brunch ruined for me for just this season? At 53, I’m not sure how many brunch seasons I have left. Would I be able to order a Bloody Mary with glee and aplomb next year, celery stick crunch a panacea for the week’s slights? Or would a waft of hollandaise induce chills and have me ducking and covering under a metal café table for the rest of my life? Would I get the sweats whenever anyone mentioned dining out at 2:00 pm?
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I also pondered whether I was the only one who suffered from PBSD or was this an unspoken phenomenon others had experienced. Maybe there is a particular word for this – German, perhaps?
A quick Google search unearthed nothing except the related post-traumatic feeding disorder. Post-traumatic feeding or eating disorders are behaviors exhibited when an infant relates a painful or frightening experience with eating.
In this scenario, I AM THAT INFANT!
Am I now really the equivalent of an infant who cries at the sight of a bottle? For the rest of my life, if I see a smoked salmon platter, will I go running for the hills?
For his part, my friend said after I left, he told the manager he would pay for the meals, albeit with a discount for the inedible side dishes. He also disclosed that his dining partner (me) had to leave because she was so distressed, wondering if somehow this place was retaliating for asking about egg whites.
The manager apologized and said they had a new chef, and the kitchen was overwhelmed. We were left feeling we were not wanted as customers — as if we were the problem for even wanting to eat there. How dare we?!
My friend said he felt that there was something bigger at play here. Joking about PBSD aside, he wondered if people have become complacent, post-pandemic, about lousy service and worse food. Dining out costs more than ever, yet the quality — at least in this case — has not kept pace. Are people afraid to say anything about this devolution because of empathy for all restaurants endured during Covid?
I disagree. New Yorkers are willing to pay for a good experience. They are a discerning group, and service in the city has to be on its game to keep bringing people through the door. Good owners know this. Substandard chefs, managers and servers are the owners’ problems, not the customers.
It’s hard for eateries to stay in business, post-pandemic or not, but the good ones rise to the top. And lest you think I’m just overly neurotic and histrionic, my Sedaris-like writing aside, NYC is a sea of neurotic inhabitants. Kvetching about bad fries – or a limp slice – is inherent in a New Yorker’s genes.
As for me, I didn’t eat dinner that night for fear of anything else food-related going wrong. I was supposed to meet a different friend for the B-word the following morning but canceled, still reeling from the debacle.
I will probably bow out of brunch festivities for the remaining year, hoping I don’t wake in a panic from nightmares of egg yolks, mounds of salt and surly service. Only time will tell. For now, I am officially declaring: BRUNCH IS CANCELED. You read it here first.
In the interim, I will be looking for a PBSD support group.
NOTE: I contacted the restaurant owner privately and disclosed what happened. He very graciously apologized and offered a detailed explanation. Everyone can have an off-day, and he assures me their stellar cuisine and service is back on track.
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