Many folks feel about brunch as they do about Italian food: if you're going to spend money eating it at a restaurant, it ought to surpass whatever you could whip up at home. Unfair as that idea might be, the brunch bar is set intrinsically high and it's even higher anytime a revered eatery -- like, in this case, Area 31 -- announces it will offer a weekend brunch service.
Short Order tested it out, and we're pleased to report the answer is a resounding no, you can't make this stuff at home. With the exception of a lucky few in South Florida, we also doubt the view from your terrace can rival that at Area 31, which is conveniently located on the 16th floor of downtown's Epic Hotel.
The addition of brunch is only one in a string of changes at Area 31, which recently underwent an indoor/outdoor makeover and updated its menu courtesy of newly appointed executive chef Wolfgang Birk, formerly of Casa Casuarina. There's also a new bartender in town, and Dean Feddaoui certainly understands the role a skillfully prepared libation can play in shaping ones day, particularly if said day begins with the letter "S."
With seasoned brunchers by my side, we sampled three of the four bloody Mary variations, including the aptly named Beets Don't Kill My Vibe ($13). Mixing Compass Box Asyla (Scotch) with roasted yellow beets, fresh lemon, a homemade spice blend, thyme salt and candy cane beets, the beets didn't overwhelm in the least, but lent the beverage a unique freshness. In fact, we think all juice bars should take note.
Apart from its awe-inducing views, Area 31 is equally known for its delicious seafood dishes. After all, the restaurant's name and menu is drawn from Fishing Area 31, an ecologically sustainable swath of western central Atlantic Ocean encompassing the coastal waters of Florida.
That said, we were pleased to see eggs benedict featuring seared flounder on the menu ($21) (it was substituted with snapper when we were there. The snapper was grilled to perfection and the uni hollandaise was light by hollandaise standards) and had a nice kick to it. My only qualm with this dish was the poached eggs themselves, which lacked the expected runniness. Our courteous waiter took them back at our request, but returned from the kitchen with a "this is how the chef serves them" sound bite. Hmm.
Next up was the dish to end all dishes: the quinoa fried rice ($14). My quinoa-loathing dining companion became a convert after trying chef Birk's crispy, yet still fluffy rendition of the protein-rich grain that's not actually a grain. It didn't hurt it was accompanied by juicy pork belly, purple kale, a fried egg and coconut oil. The cornucopia of flavors made for a true mouth party.
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After the just-sweet-enough buttermilk pancakes with rum, caramel and bananas ($15), we barely had room for dessert, but the bite size options made it impossible to resist a taste. The key-lime meringue pie and chocolate éclair lacked complexity, however, the coconut-mango panna cotta packed a powerful punch ($4 each).
Walking through the lobby on our way out, we saw throngs of slightly wobbly patrons leaving Zuma's pricey ($95 per person) all inclusive Japanese brunch, making us think the Epic was wise to add a more affordable brunch option with a side of panoramic view.