Breakfast is often when otherwise responsible culinary establishments charge bottle service markups for dishes that one could easily cook at home. Case in point: Balthazar's $20 egg white omelet, or Casa Lever's $17 oatmeal. Perhaps this is why breakfast is the most boring restaurant meal of the day, and possibly the most inconsequential, if you don't wake up until after it’s over like this critic often does.
That’s not to say we need a 30-course tasting menu that begins at 6 a.m. and ends before the financial markets open, but given the ubiquity of buttermilk pancakes and pain perdu, it would be a bit more fun if more restaurants pushed us outside of our comfort zones in the AM. This is why the Mediterranean-tinged Santina in the Meatpacking District, with its coconut iced coffee, rock shrimp frittatas, and lard-slicked rice, is the subject of my first (and hopefully not last) breakfast review.
Envelope pushing is the way of the samurai at Major Food Group, which transforms cheap red-sauce fare into something fancy (and expensive) at Carbone, and which internationalizes Gallic fare with nods to New Orleans, North Africa, and even India at Dirty French. And while I didn't necessarily find that same edgy "let's talk about this food at a cocktail party" vibe at (the very good) Santina when I reviewed it in March, a series of recent morning visits suggest that the hotspot, set in a Renzo Piano-designed glass cube, is starting to kick ass in its own eyebrow-raising way. So allow me to explain why breakfast at Santina is THE TRUTH, and also why it just might be your NYC 2015 restaurant of the summer.
Dinner Makes a Fine Appearance in the Morning
At The Fat Duck, Noma, and some of the other world's best restaurants, chefs commonly serve identical menus at lunch as at dinner, so as to guarantee the same experience to all guests. Such a policy might be overdoing it at breakfast, but at Santina, some the best aspects of the evening menu represent well at 9 a.m., guaranteeing that the venue's tried-and-true savory soul remains intact without having to go down the hackneyed path of steak and eggs. So for $18, diners can order chef Mario Carbone's famed guanciale e pepe, a snowdrift's worth of steamed Tamaki Gold that's been flecked with pork jowl, the grease and funk of the meat turning the dry risotto into the Italian version of fried rice.
At Santina, some the best aspects of the dinner menu represent well at 9 a.m.
The dinner menu's chickpea crepes are available at breakfast too, with the same side of mashed avocado, tomatoes, basil, and almonds, a Southern European guacamole whose acidity makes your tongue vibrate like a good riesling ($12). Also on tap is smoked salmon carpaccio with capers, a wondrous body slam of fish oil, and a pile of cold egg salad cut with black summer truffles and mayo, a fancy dose of haute-earthiness to amp up the blue-collar grit of the ceci-forged socca. And Santina's best side dish is available at breakfast too – Yukon gold potatoes that have been roasted, peeled, dried, fried, and coated in Calabrian-chile paste. The textures and flavors of the tubers are mesmerizing; they evoke spicy vegetarian pork rinds stuffed with more pork.
The Room is Quiet and the Caffeine Is Strong
From inside Santina, with palm fronds swaying in the air-conditioning-induced breeze, you experience a marked sense of schadenfreude as museum-goers queue up in the sweltering heat for the Whitney next door. Sip on a $7 coconut iced coffee and watch the crowds fade away. No, the talented folks at Major Food didn't invent this drink, a staple of the vegan lifestyle, but the restaurant's advertising of it as the marquee caffeine option is significant. It legitimizes the creation as a compelling counterpart to regular iced coffee, rather than a healthy concession that's available "upon request." The taste is gently bitter, and faintly sour, barely fragrant, and distinctly sweet. It is an excellent entry-level coffee experience that recalls (and surpasses) those Starbucks Frappucino drinks sold by the glass bottle.
The Super Spendy Egg Sandwich Is Unambiguously Dope
A minor kerfuffle erupted in the culinary world when it was announced that a shop in Chelsea was planning to take a cheap staple of New York street eats – bacon, egg and cheese on a roll – and fancify it with artisanal ingredients. That venue, BEC, charges $8.50 for its namesake sandwich, about $4 more than at most bodegas. Santina, alas, charges $17. To be fair, the sandwich is bigger than most high-end hamburgers; it's a fork-and-knife affair that feeds two. Expect a spicy smear of green chiles on top, a concentrated spread of tomato sofrito on the bottom, a cushy mattress of scrambled eggs in between, and a crown of Nueske's thick-cut bacon, as heady as dry-aged steak. It's pretty awesome (Note: the sandwich costs $15 without bacon).
The Breakfast-y Stuff Is Totally Great Too
The pastry basket runs $21. That's expensive, though it works out to just over $4 per baked good, not a bad price for this curated selection of five treats, which might include warm, pliable Amy's Bread croissants, soft Chocolate "Canotto" from Sullivan Street, and bomboloni filled with super rich coconut ricotta made in house. (Balthazar, by comparison, asks $23 for its pastry basket at brunch.) Almond pancakes ($15) come with maple syrup, which you should not use under any circumstance; the breakfast cakes sport a nutty sweetness and a complex griddle char; if sold on the dinner menu as savory almond crepes no one would bat an eye. Also worth ordering: fresh strawberries for dunking in lime cream, and a rock shrimp frittata packed with a world of crustacean and olive oil flavor.
Santina Is Your Pastis Replacement
Santina isn't the only venue serving breakfast in the Meatpacking District, but since the closure of Pastis, a brilliant bastion of nonstop revelry and solid, affordable food, the Far West Side has been in wont of an all-day eatery that's equal parts cuisine, equal parts scene. And while The Standard Grill is good, Santina is more studied, more civilized, and it serves much better cocktails. The establishment is a lesson in how to keep the chef-driven vision of a restaurant intact, even while giving patrons what they want (or what they don't yet know they want), at a time when many of them wish they weren't in a restaurant (or quite frankly anywhere outside of bed).