Restaurant Review: Braeburn – A Casual Brunch

100306-braeburn-restaurant-1We recently met some friends at Braeburn for an enjoyable birthday brunch.  It was a sunny day, there was a table big enough for all of us, we weren’t being hurried, the conversation was good.  A very nice time.  I wish I could say that I loved the food.

The vibe I get from reading through Braeburn’s website is that it is a restaurant trying to bridge several genres at once.  A “casual, yet elegant fine dining restaurant,…”.  This, to me, signals a restaurant with an identity crisis.  Restaurants are pretty much either casual or elegant.  It is very hard to be both.  And ‘fine’ dining…?  We’ll see about that.  So what is Braeburn?

100306-braeburn-5For starters, the restaurant space is nice enough.  From the street the interior is glimpsed through window display vitrines full of standing logs.  Birch maybe?  As if secretly peering into a hobbit party in the enchanted forest.  Upon entering one is greeted near the door and then ushered into the bar area. All fairly handsome in dark wood and stone.  So far so good.  But the dining room is just a step to the north, and this is where I see the first clues that there is a discrepancy between what Braeburn says and what Braeburn is. 

Braeburn’s name, taken from the apple variety originating in New Zealand, suggests mental images of warm sunlight on rolling hills patchworked with orchards and farms.  The dining room builds on this reference with reclaimed dark wood on the walls as well as wooden tables and chairs.  And the large painting of a bucolic farm setting on the back wall pushes the reference needle into ‘literal’ territory.  Too bad the painting fell into the ‘almost but not quite there’ category of artistic merit for me.  And also a shame that it is the unabashed focal point of the entire space.  Not a good sign.  But… overall the dining room has a nice ‘casual’ feel to it.  But ‘elegant’?  I don’t think so.  And it only took a glance upward to put the icing on my thinking ‘cake’.  Exposed interior air conditioning units do not exactly say ‘elegant’.  But really, regardless of the level of refinement that Braeburn has labeled itself with, the dining room is a pleasant environment to have a meal in.  Not to mention that we were thrilled to get a table for eleven.  And a spot for a stroller.  Pretty nice!

But in this food town it is food that is king, elegance or not.  And Brian Bistrong, chef and co-owner of Braeburn, has quite the resume.  Most notably his time as saucier at Restaurant Bouleyand chef de cuisine at Bouley Bakery.  The title of ‘executive chef’ is great and all… but heck, I am executive chef in my kitchen.  I think it is being given positions of responsibility by the big names in the business that carries the most weight.  So… eager to sample some of his food we happily dove into a study of the brunch menu.  I immediately zeroed in on the ‘Quail Dog’.  It seems to have gotten a lot of press which can be a good sign.  Also, it sounded inventive… if a bit curious, so I gave it a go.  The boss opted for the ‘Lobster Knuckle Sandwich’.  The friend sitting next to me ordered the burger and other people picked from all over the menu so we were ready for a show.

Unfortunately what showed up at our table was a bit less than what I had hoped for.  The boss’s ‘Lobster Knuckle Sandwich’ was essentially a smallish lobster roll with a pile of coleslaw nearby.  It all tasted fine but I guess that I was hoping for a lobster dish that might have had its roots in tradition, taken the typical lobster roll as it’s inspirational starting point, and then gone further with the dish and blown my mind with flavor.  This did not.  It seemed no marked improvement on other lobster rolls that she or I had had in the past.

Our friend’s burger was pretty straight-forward.  Served with cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato along with a pile of fries    He said it was pretty good.  Hmmm… pretty good.  I am not sure, being only a block away from the Spotted Pig and its legendary burger, that ‘pretty good’ is going to cut it.  His and my fries, both nicely crisped and sprinkled with salt and chopped parsley were exceptionally done.  But still.

The biggest let-down, though, was reserved for my ‘Quail Dog’.  Unlike the version pictured above my ‘Quail Dog’ was served on a brioche roll with ’smoked’ mustard.  Also on the plate was a little dish of diced ‘fall apple relish’ as well as a metal vessel loaded with fries.  Oh and also a little ramekin of ketchup.  My first thought was ‘why did they prop up my fries in a bowl and put my friend’s fries directly on his plate?’  A bit inconsistent.  Upon further relfection I wasn’t sure I understood the restaurant’s plating concept.  Why so many vessels?  Why not put my apple relish directly on the dog in the roll?  Is putting separate elements of a dish in their own container Braeburn’s idea of ‘elegant’?  To me, if the plating of an element feels superfluous or forced, such as fries awkwardly propped in a metal bowl, then don’t do it.  Sometimes adding to the experience of a dish means to not clutter it.

But enough about plating, I had my Quail Dog to contemplate.  Now I am a big fan of sausage and all sorts of force-meat products.  But, as with my plating opinion, I think a preparation or process should be used only if it adds to the flavor and experience of an ingredient.  Having this quail in dog form did not do that for me.  The pieces of quail inside the dog casing were unfortunately a little dry.  And a little big for my liking.  Sausage works because it is typically fattier off-cuts of meat that have been ground into bits and loaded with seasonings.  Quail is not very fatty.  So biting into a larger piece of the bird within the dog gave me no juiciness.  And big pieces of meat leave little room for spices to uniformly flavor every bite.  I ended up feeling that I was eating an under seasoned de-boned quail packed into a tube on a bun.  Of course I ate every bite.  But in the end it seemed like a lot of effort put into a preparation that did not do much for the taste experience.  My ‘fall apple relish’, though, was very good.  Little minced cubes of apple, cornichons and shallot (maybe?) all mingled together with fresh dill.  A nice accompaniment to any ‘dog’. 

Overall our meal at Braeburn was good and we had a very nice time with our friends.  But I couldn’t help thinking that so much of what we ate was close but just missed the mark in one way or the other.  Whether it was the concept of the dish, its seasoning or plating, many of the elements that we tried were good but left me wishing that they would have been developed further.  Of course this was just brunch, of which a restaurant’s full breadth and depth cannot be judged.  I will have to return at some point to try Braeburn’s dinner menu.  But… it has been my experience that seeing how a restaurant executes the little things, even the afterthoughts that get put on a brunch menu, is a good indication of how it treats the big things on its roster.  A consistent eye towards concept, flavor and enhancement of ingredients is the mark of a great restaurant.  Regardless of its atmosphere.
Braeburn on Urbanspoon



restaurant where “we would feel comfortable dining at any day of the week”, and