A food writer who hates too hard on brunch — that weekly Champagne and syrup-soaked portmanteau of a meal — is like a middle-aged music critic berating the teens to quit watching Taylor Swift videos on YouTube and invest in a Led Zepplin boxed set instead. Categorical brunch anathema, I've come to accept, is a surefire path to irrelevance.
Say what you will about the indignities of cheesecake-stuffed French toast, but to humans who don't habitually eat out on weeknights, take 90-minute lunch breaks, or have time for leisurely, sit-down breakfasts, brunch is often the most accessible way to interact with a restaurant. It's a weekly-meal analogue, of sorts, to Restaurant Week: For a cynical chef, brunch is an opportunity to rip off unsuspecting patrons, but for smart operators, it's a gateway drug to to show off the wonders of their culinary establishment at a lower price, and an easier point of entry.
Eli Kulp is one of the smart operators. His bread-and-pastry-centric West Village restaurant, High Street on Hudson (a spinoff of his Philadelphia original, High Street on Market), belongs to a rare class of venues where the rustic pleasures of weekend brunch can equal the refined options of dinner.
Consider the redeye pastry. It begins with a tiny danish filled with coffee-spiked cream — alone, this would be a magnificent snack, but High Street's in-house bakers up the ante, garnishing it with country ham that's ruffled like an ornamental porcine flower. And the finish? A dusting of parmesan, like powdered sugar. So there you go, all the components of a proper European breakfast, minus the cigarettes, with a nod to the American south. The resulting combination of textures and sweet-savory flavors — caffeinated cream, musky pork, chewy dough, and MSG-esque fromage — is one of the city's best new pastries.
I'm not the first person to discover the joy of High Street in the morning. "We've actually closed the wait list for brunch," a host tells me an hour before the end of midday service one weekend. The following week, just after 11:00am, a line snakes out the door. Outside, ten aspirants, plus a baby in a stroller and a black labrador, wait for the host to text with good news. I overhear one of their conversations: "Is avocado toast a thing in Canada?"
Inside, natural light pours through giant windows overlooking Hudson and Horatio streets. Everything is wood and hard surfaces: white floors, brown tables, black chairs, and the type of too-shiny-to-be-real open kitchen that one might encounter anchoring a Williams-Sonoma outpost. It's all a recipe for high noise levels, but keeping the sound level in check are high ceilings and a soft fabric art installation — a burlap rendering of Manhattan that doubles as a nice head rest for those of us sitting against it.
Do yourself a favor and order from the A-list of egg-on-a-roll sandwiches, which include the Hickorytown — a sweet mess of fried bologna, frizzled onions, and gherkin mayo — or the Pastrami & Hash — a perfect geological cross section of stretchy crimson meat, soft brown potatoes, fluffy yellow eggs and a verdant jalapeño puree that's tangy then spicy. Spillage, even without a wax paper wrap, is minimal.
Or try the Meatpacker, a stunner of a $16 platter that includes a pile of funky, spicy coppa, soft broccoli rabe, two eggs any way, Old Bay potatoes (nuclear-sized chunks that taste of the Chesapeake), and, best of all, homemade malt sausage, a meat whose soft mouthfeel, pink hue, and livery aftertaste evokes a cross between Canadian bacon and scrapple. It is without question, one of New York's finest carnivorous options, and the platter itself rivals an English breakfast in its calorie content and deliciousness factor.
Kulp took an unconventional approach to opening his New York restaurant. Rather than kicking off with dinner and then waiting for the reviews to pour in, the venue debuted with breakfast, brunch, and lunch, and then added on nighttime hours a month later. High Street, in other words, was almost instantly an all-day brasserie, a risky move for such a young venue.
Of course, staying open throughout the day can help any young restaurant meet its financial obligations more quickly. At least, theoretically. The downside can be enormous: higher labor costs if guests don't show up (there's no captive hotel audience here), greater opportunity for errors amid the increased offerings, and a staff that will almost surely be overworked, no matter how deep the bench of cooks and waiters.
And yet, High Street pulls off the all-day experience with aplomb. No, the 60-seat spot doesn't quite have the space (or the wifi) to act as a true third space between home and work, the type of venue like Lafayette or the lobby at the Ace where four-tops can drop by for coffee only and end up spending an entire Saturday afternoon typing away on their MacBooks. But you can usually snag a stool behind High Street host stand and spend an hour or two during a slow lunch sipping a cortado and reading the paper. And for those who are skeptical about the usefulness of an institution where the brunch waits can exceed an hour, consider this: a dedicated takeout counter gets patrons in and out in under 10 minutes, even during peak hours. Not even a busy bodega can always accomplish such speed.
So if the queue drags on, pick up a cinnamon raisin bagel to go, saunter over to the High Line (a three-minute walk), and enjoy the super-chewy, naturally leavened treat on a bench while gazing out over the Hudson. In fact, that's where I ate half of High Street's stunning gabagool sandwich, an old school pairing of salami, iceberg lettuce, stinky provolone, spicy peppers, and musky pork shoulder, a gorgeous salt bomb of cold cuts on a soft a sesame hero.
The sandwich lineup can be hit or miss, with its dodgy roast pork and frankly terrible pastrami on rye, with cold, blubbery meat and an incongruous smear of cole slaw. But then there's the excellent, if incorrectly named, Bodega Sandwich: eggs, cheese, and malt sausage on a biscuit. (The proper New York bodega sandwich comes, of course, on a roll.) Another clutch choice is the sliced turkey: The kitchen cooks the fowl so gently and cuts it so thin it practically dissolves in your mouth like pâté. Is it as compelling as the original honey-marinated version from Torrisi Italian Specialties, where Kulp worked as chef de cuisine for years? It sure comes close.
As the afternoon sun dims and High Street switches to dinner, attention in the restaurant turns away from the sumptuous windows and back toward the room itself. This is when a diner might notice that there's an extra-wide path between the tables, leading from the front door back to the kitchen. A man in a motorized wheelchair and a baseball cap hangs out near the chefs. Later on in the evening he rides down toward the front of the house and greets guests.
This is Eli Kulp. Last May, the six-foot-four chef was en route to New York via Amtrak 188, the passenger train that derailed at Frankford Junction in Philadelphia, killing eight on board and injuring 200. The derailment sent Kulp airborne, and he hit the luggage rack with his neck, leaving him without the use of his legs and with limited mobility in his hands.
Kulp's imprimatur is everywhere in the restaurant, though culinary director Jon Nodler and chef de cuisine Taylor Naples does most of the cooking. But remember this name: Alex Bois. Bois does the baking, overseeing what truly sets the restaurant apart from the competition: the bread, both by itself — the High Street style is an armor-like crust and a moist, almost under-baked crumb — and as an integrated aspect of the larger culinary operation. Such a dedication to the craft of leavening is a true luxury in this era, when so many in-house bakery and pastry programs have been on the chopping block, an easy operation to cut in the face of rising costs.
On Saturday, a bowl of samples sits on the takeout counter; they're cubes of anadama bread, a New England-style deli loaf forged from cornmeal and molasses. At dinner, that same bread appears as toast, a crispy conduit (and foil) for the rich oils of barbecued eel.
Brunch guests smear malted butter (imagine the caramel overtones of dulce de leche, minus the sweetness) atop slices of nutty, caraway-packed rye. Breakfast patrons use sunny-side-up eggs as dipping receptacles for a potato bread so ethereal it's as if Bois knows how to transform meringue into a complex carbohydrate. And upon leaving, smart diners will indulge in the ultimate take-home treat: a cherry-buckwheat loaf whose fruit tames the intense earthiness of the dark cereal grain.
You could, of course, simply order the $8 bread board for your dinner, and make a light meal of it, but that would mean overlooking the kitchen's more ambitious fare. Kulp might've created the tripe dish of the century, brining cow stomach for 48 hours before frying it, cutting it into strips, tossing it with guajillo peppers and sriracha, and finally finishing the whole thing over charcoal. The finger-friendly starter boasts the crunch and heat of hot wings, as well as the satisfying chew of warm beef jerky, the sort of thing that wouldn't be out of place at a Super Bowl party.
Pastas are a smart order, from paccheri in a suede-brown buffalo ragu (how handsome!) to cauliflower caramelle, little dumplings filled with sweet root vegetable puree. But the real head-turner here is seaweed bucatini. The soft, dark noodles arrive draped under a blanket of rose-colored petals, a red Lamborghini with a black leather interior. Those petals, as it turns out, are lobster coral; the kitchen shapes the roe and shaves it like truffles. The taste is pure shellfish and ocean water, intensified by a factor of a hundred.
There are heftier mains, too, that don't quite deliver in the same way — a somewhat spongy sous-vide beef here, a too-sweet honey glazed chicken for two there. Better to stick with the pastas and finish off with caraway rye ice cream — that High Street bread game is everywhere. And as you leave, the host offers you a tray of cookies to choose from on your way out the door.
It's all quite amazing: As New York operators streamline and strip down their operations in this era of high rents and rising minimum wages, a guy from Philadelphia rides into town and makes an affordable little restaurant feel as bountiful as Eleven Madison Park and as welcoming as a Thanksgiving at your aunt's house. Even during brunch.
Cost: Pastries are $1.75 (citrus doughnut)-$4.50 (red eye danish). Breakfast sandwiches are $12-$13. Lunch sandwiches are $12-16. Dinner plates run $8 (breads and spreads) to $48 (chicken for two). A family style tasting menu costs $65 per person.
Sample dishes: Sample dishes: Bodega egg sandwich, meatpacker breakfast plate, spicy gabagool sandwich, eel toast, tripe diavola, seaweed bucatini, cauliflower caramelle.
Bonus tip: Most of the breakfast, lunch, and brunch menus can be ordered to go.