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Boisterous Brunchers Can't Bog Down Miami Chefs

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A 50-pound pig is pumped full of brine for four days and then -- around midnight on a Saturday -- placed in a large wooden box just behind the Four Seasons Hotel in Brickell. The box is closed, covered in hot charcoal, and left for hours beneath a tent that's shrouded by foliage. Around dawn, two cooks return and slide back the cover. Steam spills out and the sweet smell of roast pork fills the air as they flip the animal and roast it for another five hours.

Finally, not long before Edge Steak & Bar opens at 11:30 a.m., they lift the carcass from the La Caja China roaster and cart it inside. By this time, the skin has crisped to an auburn crunch and every muscle fiber collapses into juicy shreds. A cook tucks the meat, along with garlicky aioli and mojo-stewed onions, into sweet Hawaiian rolls. They are then added to the luxurious spread that includes a mountain of stone crab, pink shrimp, smoked ribs, fresh doughnuts with homemade Nutella, and much more.

"Brunch isn't about doing eggs," says Edge's executive chef, Aaron Brooks. "It's about creating another menu, using the team's creativity to make something exciting."

Where the portmanteau of "breakfast" and "lunch" got its start is not completely clear, but one theory has it that British author Guy Beringer in an 1895 Hunter's Weekly article offered the idea of a light, postchurch meal as an alternative to the more common heavy Sunday fare. "It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the cobwebs of the week," he wrote.

Edge is one of a handful of Miami restaurants making an impressive effort to turn brunch -- a loathed shift for kitchen crews that finished their midnight shifts only a few hours earlier -- into something special. But the meal has lately taken flack for the wrong reasons. A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times offered a scathing indictment. "Now that I see brunch for what it is -- conspicuous consumption disguised as urbanity -- I can't enjoy it," author David Shaftel wrote.

The Times, of course, had a point. In some places, overzealous patrons with no restraint care only about keeping the previous night's buzz going by sloshing down too much orange juice and champagne. But done right, brunch is a rare opportunity to marry every flavor -- sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami -- on the same plate. And in a country where only half the workforce takes its allotted vacation days, lazing about for a couple of hours on a Sunday is no crime.

"When you see a bunch of happy people in the dining room, nursing hangovers and enjoying the day, it makes it all worthwhile," says Danny Serfer, chef and owner of the no-frills Biscayne Boulevard eatery Blue Collar. The Allen Susser protégé has drawn a legion of followers to an unsuspectingly cozy spot in a once-slummy motel.

Though some standard brunch fare -- eggs, pancakes, waffles -- can be executed at home, Serfer turns out a handful of plates that are almost impossible to replicate. Among them are the duck "McMuffin" ($19), a superior riff on the McDonald's breakfast sandwich. It squeezes duck bacon, smoky Gouda, and a sunny-side-up duck egg into a Portuguese muffin, a fluffier version of its English cousin. Then there is the unsurpassable dish of pork and beans ($14), a spicy, salty, slow-eating stew that's a cure for all weekend woes.

At Michael Schwartz's flagship Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, brunch crowds fill the generously shaded courtyard within moments of the restaurant's 11 a.m. opening for pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith's remixes of childhood sweets like homemade Nutter Butter and Oreo cookies. There are also longstanding favorites such as Schwartz's crispy rice cake ($15), a sort of flattened arancini studded with chorizo and rock shrimp whose creaminess is cut by a smear of tongue-tingling chili aioli.

Goldsmith, who worked alongside Schwartz at Myles Chefetz's now-shuttered South Beach institution, Nemo, admits she's not a brunch person ("It's too much food for me in the morning") but says the meal reflects her culinary sensibilities. "To me, it makes sense to balance things," she says. "That's why brunch works -- that marrying of sweet and savory has always made sense."

As at Edge, work here begins long before the front doors open. Goldsmith's crew arrives shortly before 5 a.m. to prepare things like the crusts for breakfast pizzas ($14), which will be topped with house-made bacon and pastured eggs from PNS Farms, as well as dough for the "pop t's" ($7), filled with a tart, sugary grapefruit marmalade. Simple savory dishes, such as a tangy country pâté ($7), and playful sweets are laid out on an ever-changing menu, providing possibilities for seemingly endless combinations.

Of course, brunch is also popular in Asian cultures as well. Sakaya Kitchen chef and owner Richard Hales, who has Korean blood and has spent long stints working and eating throughout the region, recently introduced the "Chinese-American Stoner Brunch" at his newest eatery, Blackbrick. Offering choices like a spicy General Tso's chicken liver mousse that's spread onto an earthy slice of Zak the Baker's toasted rye ($6), brunch has made weekends one of his most successful times.

Hales' strongest suit, however, is his lengthy list of dim sum, which is among the city's most creative. Sweet, umami-laced cumin lamb dumplings ($12) are smartly stuffed into crisped, gyoza-style wheat wrappers. Vegetarians can delight in ones filled with meaty slices of oyster and kohlrabi mushrooms. And then there's the pulled Peking duck folded into emerald-green wraps ($11) that look too precious to eat.

For Hales, dim sum is a way to escape the familiar and become immersed in a different culture. While traveling, he says, "I would always find myself at a dim sum house meeting people, having tea, a few dumplings, maybe something sweet like a lotus bean paste bun."

So take your pick: chicken feet, latkes, homemade pastrami, or oozing chunks of roast pig. Sure, you have to pay an extra $20 at Edge's $75 Sunday brunch to imbibe as much as you like, but hey, it's the Four Seasons -- those mimosas come with something special. "We want to translate everything we do in the restaurant into our brunch," Chef Brooks says.

Miami on the weekend overflows with brunch spots that look to do more than just capitalize on the hung-over party crowd. The Times had it wrong. Brunch is more than conspicuous consumption. It's one of the week's best meals.

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