When I awarded Olmsted three stars in 2016, I mused upon the paradox of the destination local restaurant. Here was this quaint little spot, helmed by a chef who spent time at one of the country’s most experimental restaurants, peddling watermelon sushi, beet tagliatelle, and other edgy small plates for under $20. Olmsted was a boon for Prospect Heights, but the citywide and national crowds meant that two hour waits for walk-ins were not uncommon. While one can’t criticize a restaurant for being popular and serving affordable, excellent food, the pains to secure entry somewhat undermined its own stated goal as a neighborhood spot.
A bit of relief on this front seemed to come when Greg Baxtrom, who cooked at the three Michelin-starred Alinea, opened the space for brunch, a meal service more conducive to dropping in from around the block. And Olmsted’s daytime offerings are no less creative than at dinner; one of the signature dishes is a classic bacon, egg and cheese sandwich that’s been reinterpreted as an egg roll. I swung by on a recent Saturday to try the tongue-in-cheek preparation, served in a fast-food style cardboard nugget box. Sounds great, right?
The quoted wait, four minutes after the restaurant opened, was nearly two hours.
As luck would have it, my wait was (much) shorter, and friends report they’ve walked right in — one of them lined up at the restaurant before it opened at 11:30 a.m. Bookings are also not hard to come by for Friday brunch, which is a great time to relax if you can get out of work for the afternoon!
Saturday and Sunday brunch, by contrast, is fully reserved a month out on Resy. It’s the type of advance notice one might expect to give for a $300 tasting menu spot, not a place that serves $8 yogurt and granola. Then again, there are certainly worse fates than toughing it out in the outdoor garden, where aspirants can wait for seats while knocking back carrot mimosas and lounging underneath sunglow heat lamps that are warm enough to set a perm.
Related: People actually wait! And perhaps for good cause, because spending a Saturday afternoon at Olmsted is a profoundly enjoyable affair, particularly if it involves those egg rolls, which look they were pilfered from underneath a heat lamp at an artsy highway rest stop. The golden exterior yields to soft scrambled eggs, smoky bacon, and the sharp tang of cheddar. The first few bites can elicit a tongue-singing burn, not unlike the signature squirt of a hot mozzarella stick. Then you dunk into a ginger-and-coriander spiced duck sauce whose orange hue recalls a bottle of Fanta. Right on.
Brunch, like breakfast, is not typically a meal service that’s not generally known for winning chefs Michelin stars or James Beard Awards. The reasons for this reality are somewhat practical: morning guests naturally seek more basic nourishment over culinary inspiration. While ambitious restaurants have long showed off some of their best wares at brunch — venues like Prune, Ssam Bar, Estela, and Cosme come to mind — the pursuit of whimsy and experimentation on a Sunday morning is decidedly more rare. That’s what makes Olmsted so damn compelling — most of the time.
There are, to be sure, cured salmon platters like any other, with the obligatory riff on everything bagels (this time, crackers). The aji dulce pulp bloody mary tastes like virtually any great bloody mary, anywhere in the city (not a bad thing!). But there are no obvious staples — no eggs Benedict, omelets, steak tartare, pastry baskets, or steak and eggs.
There’s also certainly no $22 avocado toast. The vegetable dish of note is a $15 carrot kathi roll; it bears the official Dan Barber “WastED” logo as most of the ingredients are a byproducts of other menu items. Crispy, incendiary falafel is forged from carrot juice pulp and paired with repurposed beet trim and cilantro raita made from “last week’s” brunch yogurt. This is all wrapped in the restaurant’s famous carrot crepe, making for a floppy, drippy, crunchy, sweet, spicy mess of awesomeness.
A waiter advises that one or two starters plus 2-3 shared plates is about right for a party of two; I’ll cosign to that and add that one of those shared plates should be the duck two ways. The dish starts out as decidedly average, a bowl of ho-hum scrambled duck eggs and “crispy” duck sausage that’s not very crispy. Then you place this inside a freshly-baked pita covered in crystallized maple and the soft, squishy, funky flavors start to pop big time. The end product, with its distinctly sugary notes, evokes Canadian-Middle-Eastern-American take on an McDonald’s McGriddle.
The breakfast burger feels like a yawn at first as well: grass-fed beef and pork sausage served on a Portuguese bun. But a few bites in you realize the succulent coal-fired patty, with a heady grass-fed tang, and drippy choron sauce, could easily outgun most of the $25 and up burgers plaguing restaurant menus around town. This one’s $14. Pair it with piping hot apple strudel cinnamon rolls for dessert and there’s your new real deal brunch spot.
Just two quick suggestions: I wish Olmsted only took brunch reservations a week out; there’s something odious about tipping the scales to those whose lives are stable enough to know what they’ll be having for breakfast 30 days in advance. And I wish Olmsted didn’t take reservations for bar seats at all during any meal service, just to give diners who want to drop by for an impromptu visit, which is how a lot of us dine, more of a fighting chance.