Critic: Toronto’s love-hate relationship with brunch
How the unholy amalgam of hangovers, soggy toast and overpriced eggs became a city-wide ritual of belt-loosening hedonism
Rose and Sons
176 Dupont St.,
Brunch always seemed to me a silly invention, the Hallmark holiday of meals. We have this fantasy of idle gossip over mimosas with Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha, but more often than not it’s spoiled by lineups, slowpoke service and $5 thimbles of orange juice. The menu options are eggs Benedict with gloopy hollandaise or bone-dry pancakes decorated with waxy, unripe strawberries. No serious chef would open at that in-between hour, except to make quick cash on piles of potatoes and toast.
Then, in the past year or so, restaurants started opening at a breakneck speed, and, to remain competitive, chefs began offering increasingly decadent brunches. The most talked about are the Trimalchios who raise the bar with epic breakfast feasts that leave you so terrifically bloated you cancel dinner plans. At Origin Liberty, Claudio Aprile’s west-end place, the French toast is loaded with blueberries and duck confit, and the bartender shakes cocktails like it’s 11 p.m., not a.m. At Edulis, the homey oasis in the middle of King West’s condos, brunch involves half-price wine, velvety pâtés, slow-roasted pork belly and a slice of Black Forest cake, a leisurely gout-fest that stretches over three hours. And, after 23 years, the upscale institution Splendido launched its first brunch service, a $35 prix fixe that includes freshly baked brioche with lobster.
If you go to these places on a Sunday, you’ll notice the crowds tend to be 30-somethings, often with babies or toddlers. They are new-breed yuppies who grew accustomed to dining out every night and posting pics of their latest gastronomic accomplishments on Facebook. Brunch is their social lifesaver—the one time of the week when they can go out with the kids, maybe even catch up with friends over a drink, and not be sneered at by other diners. It’s usually less expensive than dinner, which means they can get their gourmet fix without blowing the childcare budget. On Sundays, the courtyard in front of Edulis is a parking lot for jogging strollers.
The busiest brunch in the city is currently at Rose and Sons, a north Annex diner owned by Anthony Rose. Until last year, he was the head chef at the Drake Hotel, where he led Toronto’s recession-era comfort food movement, popularizing poutine with brisket, mac with small-batch cheese, and smoked everything. I remember stopping by the Drake’s barbecue pop-up shop very early one Saturday morning a few years ago, after someone’s too-long karaoke birthday party. I ordered a slow-smoked pulled pork sandwich topped with coleslaw, a bag of kettle chips, a retro glass bottle of root beer and a sugary whoopie pie—the perfect nexus of quality ingredients and lowbrow cuisine. It also prevented a hangover.
For his first solo place, Rose took over People’s Foods, an old Dupont greasy spoon, keeping the vintage street sign promising hamburgers, and remaking the interior with subway tile, pew-like benches and an on-trend bourbon bar. One morning, I watched a young mom plant her kid, still wearing his superhero PJs, at the bar with a puzzle book and order herself a caesar. On one side of me was a table of age-indeterminate Kardashian look-alikes who drove up in a fleet of Range Rovers and gabbed about house prices, and on the other, a post-coital couple, the guy still wearing last night’s suit. The room only seats 26, small enough to be handled by a single enthusiastic waiter, a kerchief tied rakishly around his neck. He shimmied between tables to Frank Ocean and managed to rave about the house-made chili sauce without coming across like a Portlandia sketch.
Rose must have designed the menu for sumo wrestlers. My three over-easy eggs came with a heap of hash browns fried in pure, unadulterated chicken fat. They were crispy and savoury and surprisingly greaseless, but definitely one of the least healthy ways to eat a potato. On top, there was a thick slab of back bacon that had been soaked overnight in a brew of garlic, chilies, herbs and Dr. Pepper before meeting the sous-vide machine and then the griddle. A few forkfuls in and completely stuffed, I paused to calculate travel time to the Munk Cardiac Centre (a six-minute dash provided University wasn’t closed for another charity run). The most convincing argument for waiting an hour for a table is Rose’s patty melt. The beef, perfectly charred but blush pink inside, is stacked with a fried egg and more of that sugary bacon, then sandwiched between two slices of dense caraway rye.
The gourmet hand-chopped burger, once an indulgence for traders at expense account restaurants like Bymark, has spread onto brunch menus across town. The one at the Junction’s studiously ramshackle Farmhouse Tavern is topped with a fried duck egg—the patty is delicious and crumbly and drips everywhere.
On the hedonism scale, Farmhouse rates a close second to Rose and Sons. Sunday morning reservations are filled weeks in advance, and the servers give consolation muffins to the unlucky people they turn away. Alexander Molitz, the chef, previously cooked at Marben and Jacobs and Co., both places devoted to carnivorous excess. He has brought the same outsized appetite to Farmhouse, making it Toronto’s equivalent to Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon, where lard and gravy are essential food groups. Molitz offers oysters and foie gras as add-ons, and often serves his creations on wooden boards, as if he’s cooking in the bush for a team of ravenous beaver trappers. A dish named Mother and Child Reunion brings slices of ruby duck prosciutto and two duck eggs rolled in panko and deep-fried—they’re like intensely rich, overgrown Scotch eggs. (Molitz is obsessed with duck eggs: his 14-ounce rib-eye comes with two of them, also fried.)
By one o’clock, after several rounds of caesars garnished with caper berries and smoked Malpeques, Farmhouse is as loud as a pub on game night and parents are taking photos of their kids stabbing at buttery, maple syrup–smothered pancakes. Soon, though, after the last duck egg disappears and the strollers roll home, we’ll all need a good long nap.