Brunch is back: Tampa Bay chefs get creative
In December 2011 when Eric McHugh was hired as a chef at The Refinery, co-owner and executive chef Greg Baker immediately handed him the task of cooking Sunday brunch.
?He said, ?Brunch is your baby,?? McHugh says. ?Greg doesn?t work brunch. Sunday is his day off.?
To improve lagging sales, he revamped the standard eggs, bacon and French toast menu to give it more of the Refinery?s playful touch.
First he added the ?John Denver,? which had red curry-braised pork shoulder, sunny side-up eggs and braised greens on an open-faced biscuit. ?Sunshine on my shoulder?
Then came the ?Alice in Wonderland?-inspired ?Walrus and the Carpenter,? which pairs an oyster cake, paprika braised cabbage and cornbread. That?s covered by poached eggs and an Old Bay hollandaise sauce.
The response was nearly immediate. The restaurant went from only needing two people to work brunch to hiring additional workers to handle the crush of reservations.
?We haven?t seen a slowdown since then,? McHugh says. ?Most Sundays are fully booked before we open the doors.?
Brunch, once a staple of buffet food troughs and vacation resorts, is being reinvented by restaurants around the Tampa area with a creativity and artistry usually reserved for nighttime dining. This weekend, customers will flood restaurants to celebrate Easter, the biggest day of the year for brunch.
During the rest of the year, the meal is taking on new flavors that merge traditional forms with ethnic ingredients. Across the country, diners are finding scrambled eggs mixed with chorizo and coconut milk pancakes served with Asian-flavored syrups, U.S. News & World Report says.
?It would amaze you how well poutine sells at lunch,? says Ted Dorsey, executive chef at Boca Kitchen Bar & Market in Tampa. The restaurant offers brunch on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
One of Boca?s signature menu items, the staff meal, allows him the most freedom to experiment. The Hangover Panini, a sandwich with house-made sausage and bacon, caramelized onions, scrambled chicken eggs and gruyere was so popular it had to be put on the permanent menu.
A Cuban Eggs Benedict made with Cuban bread, house-smoked ham, a Tabasco lime hollandaise sauce and poached duck eggs sold 45 orders in 45 minutes. Dorsey remembers because he worked the kitchen?s egg station that day.
?I really love brunch,? Dorsey says. ?After two years of doing it, it is insane. It starts the moment you open the door. I?ve never seen anything like it. I?ve never done 250 to 300 people a la carte brunches in thee hours like we do at Boca.?
On St. Pete Beach, Sunday morning customers fill Ruthie Buxbaum?s Steam and Chill restaurant on Gulf Boulevard. Her brunch showcases a range of unusual items, including a Caprese Omelet, Bananas Foster French toast, Blue Crab Benedict and shrimp and grits with cheese, Andouille sausage and a fried egg.
Todd Sturtz, author of the new book ?Food Lovers? Guide to Tampa Bay, (Globe Pequot Press, $14.95), is a fan of the brunch at Love?s Artifacts Bar & Grille on MacDill Avenue in Tampa. He goes for the southern breakfast of fried chicken, scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy for $9.95, or $16.95 with unlimited access to mimosas,
?That?s a pretty stellar offer,? Sturtz says.
Another favorite he writes about in the book is at Oystercatchers in the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Bayport Drive overlooking Tampa Bay. The brunch – ?an absolute feast,? he writes – runs from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. A traditional champagne brunch, it nonetheless is is done with great flair, with fresh seafood, omelet and pasta stations, desserts and Bloody Marys. The brunch costs $49 per adult, or $27.50 for children 4 to 11 years old.
Oystercatchers? brunch earns raves from Jeannie Pierola, chef at Edison Food + Drink Lab on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa.
?I love brunch. I love eggs,? Pierola says. ?Any chance to sit by the water is a vacation to me.?
Her favorites from the feast are the croissants. Only those she had at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles compare.
?They have the very best in the city of Tampa,? she says. ?I tried to buy some to take home.?
One sign that the category has broadened: Customers rave about the Sunday brunch at the funky Ella?s Americana Folk Art Café.
?We don?t do brunch,? says owner Ernie Locke. ?I don?t have the patience to do eggs. We do Soul Food Sundays.?
It?s an easy misunderstanding when your menu features cheese grits, biscuits and chorizo sausage gravy, and the Funky Monkey Waffle, which is topped with Nutella, bananas and toasted peanuts.
Then there?s the Bloody Ella, a Bloody Mary with chipotle-infused vodka, pickled vegetables, olives, pickles and a barbecue pork rib for full effect.
?It?s quite the attention-getter,? Locke says.
What do most diners not want for brunch? Pretty much anything healthful. Each of the above restaurants features vegetarian options, but customers tend to go for comfort food on Sundays.
They want the Refinery?s Heart-Stopper Sandwich (fried chicken thigh with sausage gravy and a fried egg). The yogurt bowl with fruit that McHugh once sold is no longer on the menu.
?We put the Heart-Stopper as a special and it got 200 likes on Facebook,? he says. ?People want hearty food for brunch.?