Yup, it happened again: Miami was compared to New York unfavorably.
This time, the comment was from a colleague's wife, who noted while we were eating sushi at the newly revamped Doraku on Lincoln Road that New York had a much better weekend breakfast/brunch scene than Miami.
Normally I'd argue about how seriously sick I am of this city being viewed as a Manhattan outpost. New Yorkers don't go to Seattle (or San Francisco or Santa Fe) and say things like, "The coffee (or dim sum or Southwestern fare) is okay, but it's not as good as it is in New York." Instead they simply enjoy those unique qualities of culture and place, grateful for the temporary escape. After all that's what a vacation, a weekend getaway, or a full-on move is all about: experiencing variety. Yet Miami is always qualified in precisely that way. "There are some good restaurants, but ... "
Perhaps the Big Apple arrogance is inescapable, given that many of our snowbirds and plenty of our tourists hail from that northeastern habitat and seem to think that New York and Miami are sister cities along the lines of Minneapolis and St. Paul -- twin parts of the same whole. I will always think it's useless to compare apples to mangoes and pronounce one the undisputed winner of the fruit games. But even I have to concede my associate's spouse is correct: With a few notable exceptions like the Icebox Front Porch and Nexxt cafés on South Beach, Miami's restaurants don't really make much of an effort to cater to the eggs-Benny-and-bacon crowd. Those that do -- Nemo, Blue Door, the Biltmore, Café del Mar -- specialize in buffet brunches, which may be tasty but are hardly relaxing.
Why aren't Miami restaurants more concerned with attracting brunchers? To answer this question, I first had to figure out why this meal is popular in other places -- namely New York, since that was the comparison on the table. For those of us who don't actually come from "The City," allow me to explain. Brunch is the weekend version of breakfast at which New Yorkers can spend lost hours, not to mention some serious bucks. They bring their papers, they meet their friends, they celebrate their holidays. They're so enamored with the idea that authors Ann Volkwein and Jason Oliver Nixon published New York's 50 Best Places to Have Brunch. Search for the keyword "brunch" in the New York Zagat Survey and 80 matches will be found. Indeed the competition for customers has resulted in a host of eateries that specialize in brunch-type fare or are famous for their brunches, including Sarabeth's Kitchen, Bubby's, Barney Greengrass, Five Points, and Friend of a Farmer.
I, of course, know all about brunch, at least as far as New Yorkers have defined it. I grew up in Livingston, a northern New Jersey bedroom community of New York, and my family still lives in the area. In this town there was an unwritten grand plan: After a respectable four-year stint at a (preferably small, northeastern, private) college or university, you moved to "The City" and found a job, an apartment, and a mate, in that order. Then you married, had kids, moved back to the suburban town where you were raised (or to somewhere similar in the tri-state area of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut) and started the process all over again.
Yawn. And, I might add, it's cold up there.
I refused to follow the prescription and eventually found my way to perpetual warmth. But I always went back to New York City to stay with relatives and friends who lived there. I've consumed brunch with the best of 'em -- had popovers here, fresh-squeezed OJ there. But I never really observed it before, as I did on my recent visit to Norma's at Le Parker Meridien.
Even by jaded New York standards, Norma's is one of the most innovative eateries in the city. It tops every poll annually and attracts brunch-faddists from studio to brownstone. A modern, bustling coffeehouse set in the lobby of a refined European-style hotel, where the breakfast-only menu is served until 3:00 p.m., Norma's would probably do well given its 57th Street location and its in-house hotel traffic alone. Add to it gorgeously envisioned and wonderfully executed items like Hudson Valley duck confit hash topped with a fried egg, though, or a waffle stuffed with fruit and topped with caramelized sugar à la créme brélée (and did I mention the "chocolate decadence French toast?"), and it's easy to see why the wait for a table can equal that at Joe's Stone Crab.
As I sat drinking the complimentary frozen smoothie from a Parker Meridien shot glass that accompanies every meal at Norma's and pouring coffee from the French press pot -- or more aptly, sipping what my waiter poured from the pot he replenished every time it grew so much as lukewarm -- I acknowledged my acquaintance's point. We don't have anything like Norma's in Miami. In fact we don't even have any single element of Norma's, be it red berry risotto oatmeal or white-glove service. But oddly enough, it was a Jackson Hospital-born native Miamian, Richard Gordon, who provided the insight as to why.
Gordon, once upon a time a resident of North Miami Beach and now a New Yorker, was brunching at the table next to me with a number of people who had flown up from South Florida. I know this because almost as soon as I had sat down, he leaned over and asked me where I was from. After I told him, he relaxed, said, "I had you pegged from the moment you walked through the door," and introduced himself. Trust me to go to New York and find the Floridians. But what had given me away, I wondered? The fact that I was the only woman wearing a brightly colored outfit in the room? The champagne in front of me? (No one at Norma's seemed to be indulging in anything stronger than coffee.) Actually, Gordon admitted, it was the bag with the New Times logo that I was carrying. And what I wasn't carrying: the New York Times. In that paper, apparently, lies not just a really hard crossword puzzle but the key to a good brunch. Were the merely scan-worthy Herald something to dissect and debate, Miamians just might have the reason to demand a supply of bruncheries.
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As it stands, Gordon's table came to a consensus: New Yorkers do brunch because during the cold season, "there's nowhere else to go." In Miami the sun makes house calls, recruiting worshippers from the breakfast-table ranks. Plus kids play sports year-round, which means parents have soccer-mom duties and such 52-7; weekend breakfast is a quick bagel with a shmear from the local shop on the way to a practice or game. In short we just don't have the inclination for indoor flapjacks.
For the record, though, I have to admit we indulged in a little reverse elitism while we were in New York. The bell captain at Parker Meridien, trying to impress us, pointed to the dinner restaurant in the lobby and proclaimed proudly, "It's open till 2:00 a.m.! Can you believe it?"
Pfft, we sniffed. We're from Miami. We don't even go out until 2:00 a.m. Come to think, no wonder we don't go to brunch. Who, after all, is awake?