Location: 5904 Bryant St., Highland Park. 412-441-1200
Hours: Sat.-Sun. 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Atmosphere: Bistro café
We love brunch, but we seldom eat it out. The meal is so often better in theory than in practice. The idea of a weekend morning so leisurely that it bleeds into the early afternoon is delicious, but the eternal tension between savory and sweet courses too often leads to plates overfilled by brunch clichés that sound better than they taste. (Come on, admit it: How often have you been disappointed in the blueberry pancakes?) Factor in the restaurant realities of steam-table buffets and long lines waiting to get to them, and it's no wonder we rely on 11 a.m. cocktails to get us through the ordeal.
Enter E2, the new Highland Park outpost of Enrico Biscotti, and a whole new brunch paradigm. Open only weekend mornings, E2 is the domain of Kate Romane, who has cooked at Enrico Biscotti Company in the Strip for a number of years. Now, on suddenly vibrant Bryant Street, she's combined a base for her thriving catering business with a regular weekend-morning gig. E2, pronounced E Squared, has that casual, drop-in, meet-friends vibe that, to us, is the essence of brunch.
And nary a steam tray in sight -- nor a Western omelet or buttermilk pancake. Romane's chalkboard menu of 10 items changes weekly, but it's always original. It caters to brunch's savory side with plenty of egg and even pasta dishes, while sweet teeth can sink into such confections as brioche with truffle honey or banana-bread pudding. What if full-on dessert-as-breakfast is too much for you, but you're still craving a little sugar with your coffee? A card of "Oh My Gosh Am I Hungry" treats offers a shortcut to, among other things, a $5 bag of fresh, hot doughnuts.
And oh, what doughnuts. They shouldn't even be known by the same name as the one-dimensional rings at the supermarket bakery. Dense and cakey, these combined sourdough tang with ginger zing and sweet, grainy sugar. Romane's beignets were even more exceptional: crusty puffs with tender, airy, eggy interiors sweetened by a soft snowfall of powdered sugar.
Having laid down a base layer of sweet, fried dough, we moved on to eggs. First came an over-easy fried egg atop frisée salad. The simplicity of the name belied the complexity of flavors in this dish: The salad consisted not just of bitter stalks of feathery frisée, but of a variety of tender spring greens, all barely wilted by the heat of the egg and smoky, salty chopped bacon. Sharp yet creamy bleu cheese, rich meaty walnuts and a sweet-tart balsamic vinaigrette rounded out the vibrant flavors of this supremely satisfying dish.
Poached egg with polenta and peppernata -- a chunky, vermilion sauce of stewed bell peppers, tomatoes, olive oil and herbs -- began with a strong base of flavors, but was woefully underseasoned. While there wasn't much we could do about the dense wedge of starchy corn cake, a liberal application of table salt brought the sauce, at least, back from Blandsville, enhancing both the astringency of the tomatoes and the bittersweet, slightly tangy notes of the peppers.
Spicy tomato sauce promised, and delivered, much more intense flavor to another fried egg. Here the tomatoes, a few shades darker than the peppernata but still on the bright side of roasted, were liberally seasoned with red-pepper flakes, parsley and parmesan cheese. The egg yolk bled into the sauce to enrich it without diluting it, and what the egg didn't sop up, a thick chunk of grilled, housemade focaccia did. A small quiver of grilled asparagus wrapped in prosciutto added salt-of-the-earth counterpoint to the dish's other rich and fiery flavors.
Brown-sugar banana-bread pudding consisted of a substantial slice of sweetbread, studded with whole banana slices, soaked in sweet syrup and topped with chopped walnuts. If the banana bread was a little on the solid side, little red gems of strawberries and crisp apple slices balanced it with their juicy freshness.
So much for not overfilling our plates. What can we say? There wasn't a "been there, done that" item on the menu, and we wanted to try it all. E2 is a sophisticated, yet casual, cure for the weekend-brunch blues.