It took me all of one mimosa to convert into a brunch snob. There I was, the country mouse in the big city, a college girl venturing into the edgy, gritty environs of Bleeker Street, convinced as I sat down in a creaky cane chair that I had reached the epicenter of the sophisticated literati world. Looking back, I’m sure I had selected a tourist trap café ventilated by taxi exhaust. It didn’t matter at the time. I had arrived. I was having Saturday brunch. And that mimosa…mind blowing.
I’d like to think I’ve attained a few threads of sophistication since my starry-eyed wonder of a New York City Saturday morning (but I most likely have not). What has become more refined is my heartfelt appreciation of a quality brunch. What’s not to love about a meal meant to consume hours of a weekend morning? To sip cup after cup of coffee as sleepy grit slowly blinks from your eyes? To luxuriate in the choice between brioche or french vinaigrette-soaked endive or croque monsieur or sweet potato frittata? To watch the sunlight ooze in steady progress up the walls of a café? To drink champagne and orange juice in the morning?
What doesn’t work for me: brunches that include pancakes on warming platters, powdered eggs, stale toast, fake orange juice sans bubbly. Sadly, far too many brunches in Pittsburgh simply don’t work for me. When I give up the middle hours of my Saturday morning, I expect to receive perfectly selected foods while sitting shoulder to shoulder with people who have actually read Kerouac and who know that the best brunch joints are tucked in streets just off of Bleeker. E2 (pronounced “E squared”) in Highland Park is actually one Pittsburgh brunch that could compete head to head with the best brunch the Big Apple can dish up.
So let’s see how E2 stacks up to my stringent Brunch approval check list: Menu. Food. Atmosphere. Mimosa.
MENU: It’s no secret I prefer menus that rotate frequently, following the seasons’ progress around the calendar. Or that I seek out restaurants with a commitment to local farmers and producers. I consider it a good sign when I walk into a restaurant and find a well-used chalkboard offering the day’s selection. And E2 boasts one of the larger chalkboards I’ve yet to encounter. The menu paid homage to late winter greens, cellared vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and squash, breakfast meats, and home-baked breads. While staying within the confines of foods expected to appear on a brunch slate, E2 also took some refreshing creative license in offering unique twists: fennel hash, mush, and an egg hoagie were thought-provoking choices.
(Mush–polenta with savory sausage and maple syrup. No wonder the dish is featured so prominently in Good Night Moon. As in “A comb, and a brush, and a bowl full of mush.” I’ll take E2‘s mush as my bedtime snack any day.)
Menu Grade: A+
FOOD: Half a bite of sourdough ginger sugar doughnut later, I knew that the menu selection was just a foreshadowing of the excellence being plated in E2’s kitchen. The doughnut was paradise. Rare in today’s kitchens, it was homemade. And what I came to appreciate more strongly with each bite of E2‘s food, it was prepared with intelligence. A slight bite of ginger laced through the sugary dough evidenced a thoughtful mind behind the food. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised that E2 had sophisticated palates designing the food; E2 is owned and operated by the famed Enrico Biscotti Company in the Strip District. While E2 is just shy of its one-year anniversary, the staff has a well-established history of quality food and creative menus.
Our doughnuts were served, paper-lunch-bag-style, atop a vintage plate within just a few minutes of ordering. The doughnuts were fresh, hot enough to burn our greedy finger tips. If the doughnuts were paradise, however, they were merely a foretaste of the second, heavenly course: beignets.
Do you see that dome of crisped bread with a peak of powdered sugar? Do you see how someone couldn’t keep her hands off of it long enough for me to snap a photo? Now, check out the warm, moist, pillowy interior you encounter after breaking though the crusty exterior:
Yeah. That’s a beignet. And you won’t want to leave E2 without ordering at least one plate of them. Strike that. Order two. You’ll thank me later. Both the doughnuts and beignets belong to a menu section titled “Oh My Gosh I Am So Hungry” or “OMG” for short. Brilliant. Because when I go to brunch, forgoing my typical 7 am breakfast time, I. am. so. hungry. And the doughnuts and beignets more than make up for the wait.
I wonder if the OMGs set the bar too impossibly high for the main dishes to adequately compete. I ordered the butternut squash risotto cakes with bacon and baby greens salad. They were good. Great, even. But I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down after the unexpected mastery of the doughnuts and beignets. The risotto was technically perfect. Moist, sticky risotto blended with perfectly creamy butternut squash was shaped into cakes, breaded, and deep fried. I actually love wholesome fats, so I didn’t shy away from the fried risotto, but I did feel that the fried texture and grease overpowered the delicate taste of butternut squash. The risotto ended up tasting just a tad…bland. The bacon and greens tossed with a perfectly balanced vinaigrette and gorgonzola cheese helped add some flavor to the composition, but I couldn’t help comparing the entire dish to my incomparable first love (the beignets).
Big Friend went for the most masculine dish on the menu: the egg hoagie. I’d like to think that the sandwich has something in common with the croque madames of a stately Parisian brunch, but when it comes right down to it, I suppose the egg hoagie is E2‘s brunch twist on a more yinzer classic: a Primanti’s sandwich. In either case, the fried eggs appear on slabs of fresh, crusty rolls with capicola, salami, ham, & provolone. A side of potatoes completes the picture. I think I had a bite of the hoagie. I do know that I looked once, and there it was on Big Friend’s plate. I looked twice and it was gone. No complaints from his stomach–the egg hoagie was a winner.
Food Grade: A
ATMOSPHERE: E2 has a tasteful, casual feel. A hip, café vibe pervades the simple decor and is completed by the clientele: hipsters and baby boomers dined elbow to elbow. Located on Bryant Street, an unassuming treasure trove of teeny restaurants, bakeries, and convenience stores, E2 evokes a neighborly, relaxed invitation to while away the weekend morning hours. While Little Friend alternately colored (aka threw her colored pencils on floor, table, and chair for effect) and charmed our neighbors with her smiles, stares, and bounces, I felt that delicious sense of belonging: not worrying about the errand list or the hour hand ticking around the clock. I was happy to sit, think, munch, and sip the endless cup of coffee that was refilled with the frequency of a great diner. In short, E2 serves up the ideal brunch atmosphere.
Atmosphere Grade: A
MIMOSA: Uh-oh. E2 earns straight As all the way across the gradebook. Then comes my pesty little criteria for the perfect brunch: a mimosa. Not on the menu at E2. However, rather than have any mark tarnishing an excellent brunch experience at E2, I’m going to relax my snobby expectations just a bit, just this once. Let’s put it this way, if you distract me with an E2 beignet, I’ll not give another thought to a mimosa.
E2, located on Bryant Street in Highland Park, dishes up a thoughtfully-designed, perfectly-executed, and bewitchingly-delicious brunch. An antidote to the rushed state of life these days, E2‘s brunch invites relaxation and contemplation. It’s a weekend date to savor . E2 also serves lunch and dinner on Tuesdays through Saturdays.