Brunch bunch: crowds hungry for fresh choices by city's chefs

Sunday morning is quickly becoming one of the best times to be out and about in Cincinnati. As café and bistro chefs put increasingly sophisticated spins on traditional comfort food, they find their tables packed with a dining public hungry for novelties like goetta ravioli and Rogue Mocha Porter maple syrup on French toast.

"It's kind of become a spectator sport," says Matt Buschle, 43, chef-owner of Virgil's Café in Bellevue. He changes the brunch menu weekly, and designs it around the freshest available produce, meat and seafood. In the four years since he opened Virgil's, he's noticed an increasing demand for new and unusual dishes.

"It's an adventure," Buschle says. The culinary safari concludes with photos of the catch posted on Facebook or Flickr. "People come and eat, and take away these little media trophies."  

Buschle's changing menu emphasizes creative effort, energy and passion, which keeps the cooking game fresh for him and delights his customers. Achieving this means running a very process-centered kitchen.  

All of the café's bread is baked in-house, and Buschle draws as much produce as possible from a garden plot just behind Virgil's. He also eschews extra sauté station burners for a meat grinder, smoker and sausage stuffer. These allow him the control necessary to put signature twists on his pastrami and andouille sausage—elements that he incorporates into a number of dishes and keeps people coming back week after week.  

As the second youngest of 13 children, Buschle is steeped in a tradition of expansive home cooked meals; going out to eat was never an option.

"I just grew up around food made from scratch," he says. "It's really the only way to cook."

Buschle honed his skills for from-scratch cooking during more than 20 years of cooking in restaurants around Cincinnati. He has never had a job in fast food. "The idea of buying pre-made sauces, dough, sausages and pie crusts…I mean, why?" he says. "You have hands that can make these things."

Commitment to freshness both of concept and ingredients is also fundamental at Take the Cake in Northside, owned by Doug Faulker, the eatery's pastry chef, and Melissa Mileto, who is the culinary mind behind the food. Faulkner, 48, trained in Bakery and Pastry Arts at the Johnson & Wales Culinary Institute in Charleston, SC. And throughout his career in bakeries and restaurants, Faulkner has developed a passion for uniting flavor, freshness and variety.  

For Faulkner, this means changing his brunch menu weekly and his lunch menu daily. Keeping a huge stock of ingredients would mean reducing the quality of his product; constant variation is a guarantee of ingredient excellence, he says. "You get the freshest available product until it's gone and a new one comes in."

Likewise in Over-the-Rhine, chef Joshua Campbell, 34, of Mayberry enjoys the unique ability of a small, non-corporate restaurant to innovate. He varies his brunch menu, too, with an aim at cultivating creativity and enthusiasm within his kitchen team.  

"We try to come up with the most ridiculous craziness we can think of sometimes," he says. Inspired by a case of hangover hunger, Campbell and his sous chef developed a dish of crispy pork and shrimp fried rice with a fried egg and Flamin' Hot Cheetos. "Everybody loved the hell out of it, screamed for it," he says.  

Campbell's dishes aren't pure whimsy, though. He draws on an extensive career in some of the country's finest kitchens, two years in Thailand at the Royal Thai Culinary Academy and a stint pioneering molecular gastronomy in the Bahamas as director of cuisine for Graycliff, the only five-star restaurant in the Caribbean.

That's not to say that Campbell's brunch menu exists entirely on the fringe. His BLT and Cobb salad are staple items in constant demand. In fact, the comfort food craze at Mayberry reached such a pitch that in January, the restaurant began serving late-night brunch on Fridays and Saturdays from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.  

Packing a dining room on Sunday morning doesn't depend solely on ever-dynamic menus, though. Since beginning brunch service in February 2012, Taste of Belgium's bistro menu has stayed relatively stable, but guest numbers explode records nearly every week.  

"Once we started, the floodgates just opened," says Jean-François Flechet, 39, owner of Taste of Belgium.  

Although the menu doesn't often change, unique offerings like goetta hash and "Belgian" toast with a raspberry lambic beer reduction keep the gastronomically curious coming.

Because the brand originated more than five years ago by selling waffles at farmers markets, and then graduated to a permanent location at Findlay Market, Flechet enjoys a close working relationship with local farmers. Now based at the full-service bistro on Vine Street, he continues to maintain those relationships and make quality, locally-sourced ingredients a priority. And for the increasing number of guests who want not only to know, but to see exactly where their food comes from, the open bakery and crepe irons provide the opportunity to see Taste of Belgium's bread, pastries and crepes made daily from scratch.   

In Northside, Doug and Shoshannah Hafner of Honey have their hands in a menu so homemade that even the butters and ice creams are made in-house. They've been serving Sunday brunch for seven years and have noticed complacency about food evaporate little by little each year. The rise of conscientious eating is a good sign, Shoshannah says. "I wish it would be more important to everyone. It's the better way to eat."

The recent eruption of culinary inquisitiveness doesn't stop at the menu and in-house operations, though. People want to know not only what's in their food, but where it comes from.

Restaurants score big points with guests by sourcing eggs, cheese, meat and produce from Findlay Market and local farmers. The dexterity that comes with operating a small kitchen with low inventory allows bistro and café chefs to be particularly selective about ingredient quality.  

"We even have farmers who come to us," Dough says. Replacing factory-farmed eggs with local and working with farmers to get just the right field greens for a Cobb salad are crucial for making a dish that will become a "media trophy." To truly succeed in this spectator sport environment means backing creativity with quality.

"There's very little you can take out of a box and put in front of somebody without them noticing something's off," Buschle says.    

Buschle knows he's on the right track when a new menu item goes viral. "It's like a Bloody Mary," he says. "Someone sees one, gets interested, tries it, and suddenly everyone in the restaurant has one."  

That's what happened when an exceptionally fresh batch of oysters became available and Buschle tossed an impromptu Oyster Po' Boy onto the brunch menu. It sold out so quickly he felt obliged to run the dish two weeks in a row. That sort of instant feedback is a great reward for chefs who work with changing, creative menus, he says.

"A good brunch dish has me saying, 'I want to cook this, it's going to be fun, and I'll be proud of it,'" Buschle says.

Here's a selection of local brunch offerings focused on restaurants that serve distinct brunch menus. It's not meant to be comprehensive, so please share your favorite brunch destinations and dishes in the comments section:

Otto's; Sun 10 am – 2 pm
Virgil's Café; Sun 11 am – 2 pm
The Comet; Sun 11 am – 2 pm
Honey; Sun 11 am – 2 pm
Melt; Sun 10 am – 3 pm
Take the Cake; Sun 9 am – 2 pm
Downtown Area:
Brew River; Sun 11 am – 3 pm
Lavomatic; Sat 11 am – 2 pm, Sun 11 am – 2 pm
Mayberry; Fri 11 pm – 3:45 am; Sat 12 pm – 5 pm, 11 pm – 3:45 am; Sun 11 am – 3 pm
MOTR Pub; Sun 10 am – 2 pm
Nada; Sun 10:30 am – 3 pm
Nicholson's; Sun 11 am – 3 pm
Taste of Belgium; Sun 9 am – 3 pm
Via Vite; Sun 10 am – 3 pm
Hyde Park Area
Maribelle's; Sat 11 am – 2 pm, Sun 11 am – 2 pm
Nectar; Sun 10 am – 2 pm
Tellers of Hyde Park; Sat 11 am – 2 pm, Sun 10 am – 3 pm

Clifton Area:

La Poste Eatery; Sun 10:30 am - 2 p.m

Andrew Welsh is an alum of the University of Cincinnati, where he studied Journalism and Creative Writing. He has spent years cooking and working in restaurants. He writes regularly about food for Soapbox.
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