Monday, November 26, 2007

Sunday Brunch at Cirrus Taken Too Seriously

I should have written about Cirrus at Allen and Main before having brunch there. I would have talked of the chic interior, homemade biscuits and vegetarian white gravy, and moderate entrée prices. These points still make up the bulk of my story and will probably bring me back to eat there again. But, after my Sunday brunch at experience, my Cirrus sales pitch comes with some disclaimers, and now I’ve got my fingers crossed that Cirrus’ potential and obvious good ideas will turn into a great eatery.

First off, I want to fess up that I’m somewhat biased in favor of any restaurant at Allen and Main. My first Richmond apartment was right across the street ten years ago, and my wife and I celebrated our engagement at Dogwood Grille (RIP), the space’s previous occupant. Also, it’s within walking distance of my house in Byrd Park. Lastly, and for the record, the good folks at Cirrus have enabled me to write about one of my favorite foods of all time: biscuits and "sausage" gravy. And for that, they'll always have a place in my heart.

For these reasons, I was excited when I saw the brunch menu in the window at Cirrus. Seeing the vegetarian biscuits and gravy on the menu put a trip to Cirrus at the top of my priority list. (Well, that and the allure of reasonably priced entrees, with an modern black/white backdrop.) Surely, this place was going to be a hipster brunch destination. That said, I want to acknowledge that you really can’t judge a restaurant by it’s brunch service. The head chef is rarely on duty weekend mornings and the dishes don’t usually receive the attention that you’ll find on the dinner menu (aside from Millies, of course). So, please take this review for what it is: a story of brunch, over scrutinized.

Considering that Style Weekly had just posted dueling reviews (both relatively positive), I was sure that Cirrus would be crammed with people enjoying a holiday weekend indulgence by going out to brunch. We walked up to the place at 11:20am, but were the first customers of the day. Inside, we sat in the two-tone dining room feeling kind of awkward and receiving loads of friendly attention from our server. My wife loved the interior design, but I would describe it as severe and cold (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I kept wondering if I had anything in my wardrobe that would disguise my crunchy granola look and help me fit in with the austere environment. Nonetheless, the shimmering pendant lights and matte silver and white sconces are touches that deserve to be seen by everyone, regardless of your attire. Hopefully, they’ll complete their design by painting or replacing the wood grain entrance, which sticks out like a sore thumb.

At first, I was worried about the brunch menu because there was no mention of sides. Would a plate of quiche, or eggs and bacon come unaccompanied, like at Can Can? Paying extra for must-have elements is a major pet peeve for me. Luckily, everything comes with homefries (except for the breakfast pizza, which sounded so decadent that you wouldn’t want anything more).

My wife ordered eggs benedict (we'll address my dish in a minute). When our respective plates arrived, I was alarmed at the whiteness of the home fries, so I rushed to put one in my mouth before the server left. Yup. Raw potatoes. Some feint skillet marks could be seen on a few of he diced spuds, but most of them actually crunched like apples. For the rest of the meal, we were showered with apologies. We laughed it off. "Hey, at least we know they’re fresh, right?” was all I could muster. Potatoes take time, so one would think that an 11am brunch opening would have given them time to prep the side dish that accompanies every breakfast item on the menu.

The potato mistake turned out to be a good thing, actually, because they quickly brought out some potatoes wedges and thin cut sweet potato fries. Both were seasoned heavily and put smiles on our faces. This was ironic, because the uncooked potatoes had next to no flavor, making me wonder if they would have been worth eating regardless. At any rate, they quickly brought Grey Poupon when I requested it for my sweet potato fries. This is a perfect combination, as I learned from years of eating at Ipanema Café. They should just bring a bottle of the stuff out with each sweet potato fry order to ensure that every diner experiences that revelatory flavor combination. The eggs benedict wasn't bad, with it’s perfectly poached egg and rich hollandaise. The only fault was the piled-on rough-cut ham, which, according to my wife, made the dish too salty. She just removed some of it and moved on.

Like clockwork, I ordered the vegetarian biscuits and (fake) sausage gravy. At this point, I should probably stop and explain my fixation with this dish. My parents have been ordering the real sausage stuff at diners and Denny’s since I was a kid. When I got serious about vegan cooking, I quickly learned that it is ridiculously easy to make tasty white gravy at home and then spike it with store bought fake meat (that link is the best recipe). When this gloppy goodness is served on top of fluffy biscuits, it’s the ultimate comfort food. My wife, who eats meat, loves my vegan version and frequently urges me to make it for her. For me, to have this brought to my table at an eatery just blocks from my home was a dream come true.

Well, almost. The version served at Cirrus featured some great homemade biscuits, but the gravy lacked the copious amounts of black pepper that gives white gravy it’s punch (and the charming black speckles in white sauce would fit the aesthetic of the Cirrus decor). Hopefully, they’ll refine their recipe in time, because I know that there is a constituency in Richmond that will beat a path to their door for good vegetarian biscuits and peppery (fake) sausage gravy. Okay, while I’m being a know-it-all critic, I’ll say that the barely flavored TVP that was added to the gravy needs to be replaced with commercially produced soy sausage (from Twin Oaks, Gimmelean, Morningstar Farms, etc.). Homemade “soysage” rarely packs the punch that puts this dish over the savory edge. Store-bought may be expensive, but it saves prep-time, and a little goes a long way in white gravy. Did I mention that constructive criticism is an act of love? I really feel like a heel for airing all of my pet peeves and smug suggestions. And in the end, flawed vegan biscuits and gravy is better than no vegan biscuits and gravy.

All in all, I’m excited about Cirrus, despite my complaints. All the indicators point to the probability that the details that I focused on were exceptions to the standard practice at Cirrus. Next time around, I’m going to try their dinner service where I've noticed more veggie options and I'll find something fashion forward to wear for the occasion.

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After reading this post, my wife informed me that a) Cirrus has brown and white interior and not black and white (more evidence that I'm going color blind) and b) that I went overboard with my dissection of the biscuits and gravy. Ya know what? She's right. The food at Cirrus all smacks of homemade goodness and care - undeserving of my anal-retentive vegan-nazi fundamentalism. Shit, I'm not even vegan anymore. My point is that the inspiration for my diatribe wasn't Cirrus' food, it was my adoration of the perfect batch of biscuits and gravy that exists in my mind. Sunday brunch was simply a convenient excuse to prattle on about one of my favorite foods.

3 comments:

  1. I dont know how blind i have been but i just noticed cirrus tonite on the way back fromt he gym... i may have to try brunch there one sunday, we typically hit starlite for food and cosmos for brunch... hmmmm... also Mexico is opening soon on cary st next to golds.... wooo hooo...

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  2. Kelly, I feel like I have partied vicariously thanks to your blog and your comments here. Yes. Eat at Cirrus. They're good people and their food tastes homemade. The swanky interior should suit you. As for Starlight and the other Robinson/Main eateries, I think I prefer Helen's. Do you work out at Golds Gym? I was employed for a time at the old Pain Street Naughty Body before it was bought out. Cheers.

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