Monday, August 11, 2008

Beyond the Beltway: Essex

Essex, set in an austere lofty space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, is a New York culinary institution specializing in "drunk brunch" -- a $16 prix fixe meal [N.B. It is now $18] that includes three bloody marys, mimosas, or screwdrivers. While many New York brunch spots serve prix fixe brunch that include drinks -- why won't that phenomenon arrive in D.C.? -- this one is the best. The food is a highly creative Jewish-latin mix and Essex serves food that you won't find outside of New York (maybe it's illegal to ship bialys across state lines?) A bialy, for those who aren't from New York or Jewish, is a Yiddish word short for "bialystoker," which is named after the city of Białystok in Poland and was thought to have been brought to the U.S. by Eastern European Jews in the late nineteenth century. It's a circular roll similar to a bagel. However, unlike a bagel, which is boiled and then baked, a bialy is just baked, and most bialys do not have a full hole in the middle but instead have only a depression. The depression is often filled with various ingredients such as onions or poppy seeds. More on bialys in a future Brunch Historian entry.

My Essex favorites include the "LEO," which is scrambled eggs with onions and gravlax (salmon cured in a mixture of salt, sugar, and dill) and served with a bialy from Kossar's, a grand street bagel and bialy shop. Eggs Leo, an Eastern European Jewish dish, is usually served with lox or nova, but the gravlax provides a nice twist and adds some spice to a dish that some people criticize for being too dry. The bialy was, of course, chewy and delicious, though I have long mentioned to them the need for cream cheese or another schmear to put on it; unfortunately, my requests have gone unanswered. The home fries that garnish it are ordinary, even a little mushy but that's a small detraction.

Three other solid dishes are the matzo brei, the potato pancakes, and the challah French toast. Matzo brei is another eastern European Jewish dish consisting of eggs, onions, and matzo that has been softened with warm water. It's served with excellent chicken apple sausages, though I think the eggs themselves are a little dry. Matzo brei can be tough to make since it requires the correct consistency of the matzo and I think they should have softened it a little more. The potato pancakes, or "latkes," that they have here are Latin influenced since they are combined with spinach-mushroom-black bean hash, which provides an interesting and creative take on the classic dish. Finally, the challah French toast is also excellent. Challah is a traditional Eastern European Jewish bread that is generally eaten by the religious on the Sabbath and other holidays. It's a large braided bread, which makes it especially suited for French toast, and Essex's is pretty good. I think, however, they could do without the banana foster sauce, which is very sweet.

As for drinks, the bloody mary is my favorite and is fairly strong on the horseradish. While the brunch only comes with three drinks, often they give you more; in fact, this weekend we got four rounds. In the past I've gotten as much as five or six.

Brunch menu (pdf) [Essex]
History of Bialys []
Gravlax [Cooking for Engineers]
Kossar's Bialys [Kossar's]
Lox [Wikipedia]
Matzo Brei [Coconut & Lime]
Latkes [Wikipedia]
Challah []

120 Essex Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 533-9616

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