Eggs and the city

Want a real bite of the Big Apple? Then head for brunch in the boroughs. Brian Viner finds the perfect start to the day in Brooklyn

Brunch. It is one of my favourite words. It evokes lazy Sundays with nothing better to do than lie in bed grappling either with a companion, or the Sunday supplements, or both. Followed by an amble to a local café and a huge plate of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, maybe with a toasted bagel on the side and, if it's a classy joint, a sprig of parsley. To drink, a fat cup of cappuccino and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. To read, what's left of the Sunday papers. Perfect.

Brunch. It is one of my favourite words. It evokes lazy Sundays with nothing better to do than lie in bed grappling either with a companion, or the Sunday supplements, or both. Followed by an amble to a local café and a huge plate of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, maybe with a toasted bagel on the side and, if it's a classy joint, a sprig of parsley. To drink, a fat cup of cappuccino and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. To read, what's left of the Sunday papers. Perfect.

With a symbolism that we didn't appreciate at the time, the last time my wife and I enjoyed one of those lazily carefree mornings was 18 June 1993. Later that day she went into labour with our first child and, with the first contraction, brunch - at least brunch as we knew it then - became a thing of the past. In any case, we lived in London then and we live in rural Herefordshire now. If you're going to amble anywhere for Sunday brunch round here then you need to set off around tea-time on Saturday, wearing a pair of sturdy boots.

A few weeks ago, however, I renewed my acquaintance with brunch as I used to know it. Better still, I did so in New York City, probably the best place on earth for it.

New York, of course, is the best place on earth for lots of things. One is gobsmacking hotels, and I stayed in one, the Mandarin Oriental in the sleek new Time Warner building, where there are staggering views across Central Park even from the lobby, which is on the 35th floor. Regrettably, I was only there for two nights and one full day; the main purpose of the visit was to check out the new, softer 6ft flat beds in business class on British Airways, which I can report are exceedingly fine. But a subsidiary objective was Sunday brunch in a typical New York neighbourhood restaurant, somewhere undiscovered by tourists.

Brunch has always struck me as an essentially urban phenomenon, and nowhere is more urban than New York. If I had to match a city to a mealtime, in a fantasy day of stuffing myself, I would choose Dublin for breakfast, Paris for lunch, London for afternoon tea, and Rome for dinner. But it would almost be worth forsaking the Dublin breakfast and the Paris lunch for the New York brunch.

Brunch is treated seriously in New York. All brunching New Yorkers know the hot place of the moment, which is currently Norma's, at Le Parker Meridien Hotel. Someone I know turned up there recently, without a reservation, and was told that she would have to wait in line for two hours. She laughed gaily and told them to forget it, but not before marvelling at the dozens of people who were perfectly happy to join the queue.

The most memorable brunch I ever had in New York was 15 years ago with Quentin Crisp. I'd heard that his number was in the phone directory and that for the price of a meal he was perfectly willing to meet anyone from the old country. So I phoned him and we duly met in a café on Second Avenue. I told him that when I'd informed an American friend who my brunch date was, my friend said "Oh, I've heard of him, isn't he kind of an English Norman Mailer?" This delighted Crisp. He stopped eating in mid-muffin. "Oh, isn't that wonderful," he purred. "I can't think what Mr Mailer would say if someone said 'are you the Quentin Crisp of Brooklyn Heights?'"

I recalled this exchange as I set off for my most recent New York brunch. I was heading for Brooklyn, not that there was much chance of bumping into Norman Mailer. My destination was a place called Bubby's, not in the fashionable Heights, but in a less ritzy neighbourhood, irresistibly named Dumbo. I think it's safe to say that Bubby's in Dumbo is not Mailer territory.

Bubby's had been recommended by Joy, a woman I had never met, yet soon to be my sister-in-law. My half-brother Alexander lives in Brooklyn, and although he was away at the time, I was keen to meet his new fiancée. So I phoned Joy and suggested brunch, somewhere off the beaten track. She said that Bubby's, in a former paper factory in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, would fit the bill perfectly. But she did warn me that it was likely to be full of excitable children. For lots of young Brooklyn families, Sunday brunch at Bubby's is a ritual. Some New York restaurants have limousine parking; Bubby's has parking for pushchairs. Or strollers, as they call them.

Anyway, for brunching purposes Bubby's was indeed ideal, serving a splendid version of the staple American brunch aperitif, a bucketful of Bloody Mary with a celery truncheon. For getting-to-know-Joy purposes, on the other hand, Bubby's was marginally less ideal. Scarcely had we sat down than a Land O Lakes tub of butter came flying over, propelled by a toddler at an adjacent table, and hit Joy on the ear. Still, it broke the ice.

Not that there was much ice, except in my Bloody Mary. Happily, Joy lived up to her name. So did the cheese grits, described on the menu as "Bubby's famous creamy grits broiled to a bubbling golden crust with New York State sharp white cheddar cheese". They sounded as if they might do untold damage to the system and sure enough I could practically feel them clogging up the main arterial routes, very much in the mode of the perennially awful New York traffic.

But then brunch in America is supposed to be unhealthy. It sure as heck is at Bubby's, where Eggs Benedict came "smothered in homemade Hollandaise sauce" and Bubby's Original Sour Cream Pancakes "soak up syrup and butter in their golden brown faces". As if the menu were not lyrical enough, we also had the waitress to contend with. I love listening to New York waitresses; maybe it's because so many of them are aspiring actresses that they always make such a marvellous job of the interminable monologue detailing the daily specials. I especially enjoy the daily special that is completely unidentifiable to a visiting Englishman. There's always one. "Hi guys, specials today include Chappaquiddick winkies with honey-roasted Maryland dipsticks." Or some such.

At Bubby's, slightly more prosaically, I had the $14.95 Lox Scramble, with the heart-stopping cheese grits on the side. Joy had something called Eggsadilla, which was one of those unidentifiables, and remained unidentifiable even on the plate, although I could see that eggs featured pretty heavily.

Afterwards, we strolled back into Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge - one of the world's great walks, especially on a Sunday, when nobody is in a hurry even when they have to get to Kennedy airport for a flat bed home. We walked and walked, and talked and talked, and by the time we reached SoHo, where Joy caught the Subway back to Brooklyn, I was delighted to be acquiring her as a relative, and rather looking forward to looking back, when we are both old and grey, to the day we had brunch in Dumbo and a flying Land O Lakes tub of butter hit her on the ear.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Brian Viner flew to New York with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), which is upgrading its Club World flat bed product across the fleet; the Boeing 777s and 747s used on the New York route will be fully fitted by July. Advance purchase Club World fares start from £1,947. Fares are likely to be discounted for the business-class off-peak months of July and August.

STAYING THERE

Rooms at the Mandarin Oriental (00 800 2828 3838; www.mandarinoriental.com) start at $549 (£293) double with breakfast; a romantic weekend for two, with breakfast, champagne, and two hours of side-by-side treatments in the spa costs $2,120 (£1,132). Bubby's is at 1 Main Street, Brooklyn, New York 11201 (001 718 222 0666).

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