Take Back the Brunch

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There's hope yet for the wayward meal at JoeDoe Brunch stinks. The franken-meal manages to drag through the mud two of our most venerable dining concepts: breakfast foods and the noble art of daydrinking-perverting the latter with baby-strength mimosas and tepid bloody marys and drowning the former in a tidal wave of mediocre egg dishes and cavity-inducing French toasts. However, it's big business here in New York. Try to leave your house on the weekend any time between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., and you're surrounded by gaggles of women out for their weekly lady-date, awkward new couples avoiding the walk of shame and tired old couples looking for a distraction. These are the Brunch People, and they are legion. However, there is one small but bright light in the wilderness for those of us who wake up hungry on a Sunday afternoon, and it is on First Street, a stone's throw from Prune, the tiny institution that is one of the city's original brunch juggernauts. The equally tiny JoeDoe (45 E. First St., chefjoedoe.com) is helmed by Chef Joe Dobias, an outspoken, occasionally belligerent champion of the much maligned meal-and given the fantastic, occasionally revelatory food he's putting out every weekend, he's earned the right to fight for it. Brunch options at JoeDoe are, on their face, what you might find on hundreds of other menus across the five boroughs. Here are the egg dishes, there the French toast and pancakes, the granola and yogurt for the woman who swears she's "not that hungry." But look closer, and you'll see that those eggs benedict are served with face bacon, the fatty, tender pork jowl cured into salty submission. The hash is with house-corned duck instead of the old Hormel standard, and it's topped with bright orange-yolked duck eggs. Meanwhile, the drink list is blessedly bellini-free, instead offering a range of prepared beers for those who want to keep it light, and a full cocktail list for the serious daydrinkers. Staff T-shirts proclaim their style as "Aggressive American," and often it can seem as if Dobias is daring diners to get on his level. Most of the dishes are carnivorous-bacon comes in at least three varieties (the aforementioned face, shoulder and plain old belly), brisket does double duty in chili and on sandwiches, and the biscuits and gravy have a ham hock thrown in for good measure. The Honey Beer, which combines pale ale with gin and a bracing shock of lemon juice, comes in a tall pilsner glass dripping obscenely with salted honey. Those who are too prim to lick the glass will miss out on the drink's full-flavored glory. But it's not all tough-guy brawn on display here. Dobias' signature brunch accomplishment is his biscuits, the best in the city by far. These beauties' perfectly browned tops and tender, melting crumb belie a patience and attention to detail. They come unbidden to every table like a gift from a benevolent god, accompanied by honey butter that is entirely unnecessary (but wholly delicious). Dobias has a brilliant palate, and the menu is studded with dishes boasting refined, unexpected flavor combinations. Matzo brei, that lifeless classic associated with the pain of Passover deprivation, is brightened with great big stalks of cilantro, crumbled, salty cotija cheese and a honeyed sambal that pulls no punches, spice-wise, but is perfectly balanced. And the slaw that accompanies every plate is no afterthought side salad, no wilting pile of baby greens waterlogged by a too-sweet vinaigrette. No, this mound of shredded red cabbage is a bright spot of winter seasonality, tart and smoky with a spice blend that defies pinpointing. Za'atar? Cumin? It's just enough of a teaser to make you want to come right back for dinner, where Dobias' creativity is allowed to roam free of brunch's eggy constraints.

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