Like the feeling that you understand what Einstein was talking about with his theory of relativity, or a love affair untainted by cruelty and resentment, a great brunch place can be torturously ephemeral. The feeling is so wonderful, yet so hard to hold onto, that the pain of losing it exceeds the pleasure it gives. The answer, I think, is to give up on great brunch (as well as love and relativity). Good brunch will do.
This lesson is well illustrated by the two most notable additions to the Portland brunch scene in the last year: the Front Room and The Good Egg (the latter being the name Pepperclub gives itself in the mornings). The Front Room is one of the best dinner spots in Portland, and for a while there they offered the best breakfast too, and six days a week no less. It took this mantle over from Mim’s (it is probably no coincidence Harding Smith was chef at both places). While the coffee is still terrific at Mim’s, and the menu still intriguing, right around the time Smith left the food began to change subtly — most notably the pan-fried gnocchi, which traded their odd combination of crispy and runny for a more pedestrian doughy and bready.
At my first Front Room brunch I ordered the gnocchi (with spinach, bacon, poached eggs, and hollandaise) and found that old familiar perfection. Dipped in the swirls of hollandaise and yolk that pool on your plate, perhaps with a chunk of thick chewy bacon, it was hard to think of a better breakfast. Everything else on the menu was well executed: the coffee was dark and rich, and the room looked great in the morning light. Even the eggs baked with salad, an odd idea if I ever heard one, seemed all right.
Based on a recent midweek visit, the magic is gone. The central problem was the service. Spotty service is forgivable, and can even be charming, but a disinterested and resentful server is an off-putting way to start the day. Our server seemed annoyed to take an order, annoyed to refill coffee, and annoyed to take back potatoes and bacon that were served cold and lukewarm respectively. Set on edge by the service we fixated on shortcomings in the food — scant blueberries in the pancakes, spongy gnocchi, and poached eggs with the yolks completely cooked through. To show up expecting greatness, and to get this — it was depressing.
The name of The Good Egg (Mary Paine’s reincarnation of her sister’s old place on Congress Street) gets it exactly right. The scrambled eggs, for example, are good, not great. But then there is hardly anyplace in the country to get great, perfectly done scrambled eggs (stirred slowly over low heat, and then as curds begin to form, hit with a high flame, folded over several times, and plated while just undercooked, resulting in something akin to custard). But these were a fine accompaniment to a very good corned beef hash. The ample chunks of salty beef were spotted with tiny pieces of potato, onion, and sweet carrot.