Brunch in New York can be
a.) a contact sport,
b.) excellent people watching
e.) all of the above
The correct answer is, naturally, "e". Experienced test-takers know to re-read questions to look for
key words, and here the key is "can be". Not "is", at least not necessarily. I've found a spot that's very good on several of those counts, not perfect, but rewarding in many ways.
The Tribeca Grand Hotel, just south of Canal Street, is one of those old buildings re-purposed as a hotel. Brunch is served in the Church Lounge, which is to say several areas on the first floor, an atrium, booths with large windows and the bar itself. It's dramatic and the art work quite serious. The building takes up an entire block and on at least three sides of it, it's unmarked, so despite the Google map, we were guessing until we saw a large clock on the street with the hotel's name in small, elegant letters.
This is a fashionable hotel in a hot neighborhood, so it was a surprise to see the price point for the buffet brunch, complete with live music. $26 for adults, $15 for children, and for an additional $15, two hours of unlimited mimosas, Bellinis or bloody Marys. Given the cost of cocktails in New York, this latter is quite a surprise, too. So what's the trade-off?
Not surprisingly, this is not one of those buffets that would be at home in a Tudor banqueting hall. (For that, plan on the Waldorf-Astoria - except in the summer, when they tell me it's doesn't operate.) But what they offer is of high quality. The only things brought to one's table are cocktails; coffee as well as juice is fetch-it-yourself, a bit of a downer.
On the cold table, one is greeted by first-rate lox and sable from the esteemed traditional purveyor Russ & Daughters. Bagels, of course, cream cheese, sliced tomato and onions - and a new fillip, guacamole, assertively seasoned. Green salads, of course, including one with watercress, dice of beet and tomato and candied pecans, plus fruit salad and one with blackeyed peas. Never thought I'd see that ingredient in lower Manhattan. Also offered was a Spanish tortilla, the open-face omelet often served at room temperature. Theirs was filled with bits of various vegetables, a little insipid compared to some of the onion-laced versions found elsewhere. And the potatoes so necessary to any brunch are here, too, strangely enough, a lacy sheet of crisply fried matchstick-sized potato strings that doesn't suffer from being away from the heat. Also wedges of lemon-roasted potato - and those really should be warm, although they're pretty tasty.
The hot food is over on the bar, and aims pretty much exclusively at breakfast items. There's an omelet station, of course, although one guest reported getting The Look when she asked for a couple of eggs over easy. On the other hand, I saw another guest do the same and the request was quickly complied with. This also where the fat, tender Belgian waffles are turned out, with warm, real maple syrup. There's ham, lean but very moist, a light cure and a glaze with just a little pop to it. The link sausages are first-rate, un-greasy but not tough, just a hint of warm spices like cinnamon among the pepper and maybe even some sage for them. And bacon? Bacon comes from another well-known supplier, Benton's of Tennessee, plenty lean, not soggy from a steam table, some of it crisp and some of it almost like country ham in its texture, and not heavily brined. Good stuff.
The dessert headliner is the doughnuts from the Doughnut Factory, although on my visit, the plain cake doughnuts, an unusual offering from a place known for its more exotic choices, were rather dry. The dessert of choice was a bundt-cake-looking pound cake with blackberries, best taken with what labels said were clotted cream and lemon curd. By classic standards, it was more like creme fraiche and a lemon sauce, less rich than a curd but properly lemony. The cake/cream/lemon combination was a fine finale.
The biggest downside was the service. Plates piled up on the table until one of my pals grabbed a passing server to request their removal. Cocktails took at least 10 minutes to arrive when first ordered, although the second round came with more alacrity. We had to physically take a salt shaker from a table across the way because no one walked by or gazed our way. No one was rude. They were just disorganized, or rookies , or perhaps hung over.
I think this place is worthwhile - not a gem, but fun. For most folks, it's a new neighborhood, the people watching (a local crowd) is good, the music is nice, the noise levels are acceptable, and much of the food is tasty. The service is just plain erratic. But this is good bang for the buck, and there's always Chinatown for an after-brunch stroll.
Tribeca Grand Hotel
2 Avenue of the Americas (6th Ave.), New York
Brunch Sat. (live DJ) and Sun. (live jazz) 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good