Cupcakes? Marvelous cupcakes, sweet constructions of carbohydrates and buttercream, are in sharp and delightful contrast with the equally tasty, slightly more savory, if less traditional food offered for brunch at Jilly's Cupcake Bar & Cafe. Chef Dana Holland, whose work we first encountered at the original Babalu's on Euclid, doesn't go for the ho-hum, so there's a wide variety of interesting fare every Sunday morning.
That said, the brunch is not without a few glitches. This is a hopping spot; and arriving sans reservations is chancy. Lots of windows and signature pink walls make everything bright as servers thread their ways between tables, bearing coffee, juice and used plates. The drill is a little confusing at first: Check in with the host or hostess, and when a table or seats are assigned, line up to pay, potentially a problem if tipping is necessary even before setting eyes on the server. Then proceed to the table, and thence to the buffet. The line for the food waxes and wanes, so patience may be necessary, especially when the person directly ahead saves a place for a couple of relatives and their 8-year-old.
The buffet table contains a delightfully large number of dishes, despite its compact layout, with light and cold items first, then the chafing dishes, and finally the official desserts, with, yes, the cupcakes as a highlight. Wonderfully moist banana bread sits with the mini-muffins. Chicken salad, normally among the most boring items at a brunch, is creamy, savory, white meat that remains moist without being overdressed; it carries a small note of onion, but neither grapes nor celery. Just interesting. Just delicious. Also quite tasty were slices of pate and rilettes, moist and with notes of brandy and perhaps a little mace. Untried: Egg salad, fresh fruit, pasta salad, brie with apricot chutney, several other items that looked tempting.
Biscuits and gravy? Of course, but with an orange-y Creole gravy, not killer-hot by any means, but a good match with Holland's maple sausage links. Also among the hot dishes was a caramel-apple bread pudding, a reasonable substitute for pancakes or waffles, especially when its lily can be gilded with roasted pineapple on the next plate, resting happily in its brown sugary juices. Similar in theory but completely different in execution is the Mexicali strata. Strata is basically a savory bread pudding, eggs and bread with unsweet ingredients. The texture indicates the addition of cheese and some corn tortillas, seasoned with cumin and chiles, plus extra salsa and sour cream to add as desired. Absolutely delicious, a superb example of what makes Jilly's brunch stand out.
And then there's the eggs Benedict. Thin slices of baguette and tender ham rest under properly poached eggs, the whole topped with hollandaise. But wait, that hollandaise, or perhaps Dana Holland-aise, carries serious heat. That's definitely not paprika sprinkled over the top. There's no excuse to miss the macaroni and cheese, clearly of the tender/gooey school rather than the firm/tidy one, and utterly irresistible for all ages of customers. Only the green onion cheese potatoes fail. Sounds like a good idea, but not warm enough, not cheesy enough and not much green onion flavor, a surprise considering its neighbors on the menu.
Shrimp cakes, less fragile than crab cakes, are imaginatively seasoned like the Maryland classic crab version. (We'd like one of these as a base for the poached egg and hollandaise, come to think of it.) Pork loin, so often tough and uninteresting, is fork-tender and moist despite being pre-sliced. Piped next to it is a light tan cloud that is either a dense cumin-laced gravy or a light cumin-laced potato puree, and some honey-sweetened applesauce waits in front to add its own particular contrast. Another fine dish.
Yes, dessert includes mini-cupcakes, un-frosted, with three different bags of icing and various sprinkles for do-it-yourselfers. But we went for and were delighted with the so-called parfaits. Flat cakes are split, filled and frosted with a couple of the house's cupcake combinations. This is an excellent idea, producing a wonderfully moist result that allows for portion control, if you're the sort of person who controls dessert portions. The turtle version, all dark chocolate, caramel and pecans, was nice, but it was the lemon-raspberry that rang the bell. For those who remember jelly rolls from childhood, here's the same great combination, a delicate sponge cake flavored with lemon and a tart raspberry filling, worth waiting in line for.
Good coffee, although it was so busy on our visit that getting refills usually meant walking up to the beverage station. Orange juice, too, is included in the price of the brunch, which at $15 is good value for the money. (No liquor license, if that's a concern.) And do plan on making reservations.
8509 Delmar Blvd., University City'
Brunch Sun. 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair to good