Great Britain is a nation of doers. Sure, they’ll complain about the task at hand and chide you for not queuing properly, but when it comes to raw human achievement, the British have a history of excellence. Just think about it. A single archipelago 50 miles off the coast of France gave us everything from the Magna Carta to the steam engine. The sheer output alone is remarkable.
But having the energy to change the course of human history when every morning means choking down a breakfast as reprehensible as English cooking? That’s the stuff of legends. English breakfasts are typically heavy, bland, overcooked, and tasteless - a product of their cold and damp environ as much as a societal acceptance that all the good cooks had probably left for France by now. So when I say my new favorite brunch place is a classic English pub with beer on tap and football on tele, well, it's certainly unusual.
After last weekend’s Google-fueled misadventures, I set an early weekend alarm and decided to find this Saturday’s brunch the old fashioned way: with my eyes. I ran an easy 4 miles down Bowery to Canal, mentally noting every brunch spot with a) an open door and b) unpretentious décor. No knocks on the $40 brunch buffets – I just don’t have the budget for it.
Manicured outdoor planters and evocative monosyllabic names (what’s a “Narcissa”?) were dead giveaways that I had to keep looking. So look I did. Outside of the occasional diner, I just couldn’t seem to get away from those darn evocative nouns. “Feast”? “Estela”? Yeesh.
Finally, a mere half mile from home, I saw The Wren. The outside looked beautiful, two bay windows opened directly onto Bowery, and oh yeah, they had the Euro Cup on. Brunch, futbol, and a short walk? Sold. Even if it was British tavern food.
After a quick shower, I changed into brunch clothes and walked over to 344 Bowery. My stomach growled. By the end of my run, I was hungry enough even to stomach an English breakfast. The clock struck 10:30 and I sat down at The Wren.
The Wren is an upscale gastropub right off the corner of Great Jones and Bowery, serving up everything from traditional British favorites to American bar food in an atmosphere that’s equal parts rustic tavern and Victorian treasure trove. The front of the restaurant opens onto Bowery through the two massive windows I saw while running. Just inside, a hardwood bar spans the length of the front room. I sat in the back section of the restaurant, a cozy alcove of booths lit by string lights above and wall sconces above.
I ordered The Wren’s equivalent of a small coffee (a 1.5 cup French press) and eased into my chair. A blue china cup appeared at my place, complemented by a tiny pitcher of cream and shot glass full of sugar cubes. Then, came the press: a personal bodum mere inches tall. Coffee tastes better from a press, and The Wren’s house blend is no exception.
The only issue was space.
My slim table now contained a 4-part coffee set, two cups, one thick glass water bottle, antique salt shakers, a flickering candle, and a pot of dried flowers. On the wall to my left, a collection of odd-size yellowed portraits stared down solemnly. Claustrophobic? A little. Charming? Like a British accent. Many other restaurants adopt the “curated clutter” aesthetic, but The Wren is the first place where it’s felt remotely authentic. Perhaps its the variety. Or maybe it's even the authentically-dated wall hangings. No crossed arrow logos here: even though this is a relatively new door by neighborhood standards (The Wren opened in 2011), it nailed the ambiance of a 19th century public house without sacrificing its gastropub foodie credentials. Now, about that foodie bit…
Over the din of the Euro Cup, I browsed a brunch menu packed full of (gasp) palatable British food. With a bit more table space, I would’ve gone for the “Full Irish”, a breakfast platter packed to the gills with delicious and starchy treats. Instead, I opted for the Maple Sage Sausage Sandwich. Specialties be damned. I simply had to try “maple sriracha.”
Soon, my sandwich arrived. In the center of the plate: an airy brioche bun stacked high with a towering double-decker of egg and sausage.
I set to work preparing a proper first bite. I layered on the creamy maple sriracha, threw in some pickled jalapenos, and got ready to brunch. With the portraits gazing down on me, I dug in. And a little part of me celebrated.
Bite #1 was an itemized bill of some of the best tastes imaginable. You first notice just how good this brioche is – it’s sweet and airy like an angel food cake, but oddly substantial. There’s substance without density; as much pastry as bread. Then, it’s time for the maple sriracha. The classic sweet and spicy flavor combination comes by way of a creamy base that replaces the texture of melted cheese common in most coffee shop breakfast sandwiches.
Next: the big stuff. Egg is egg. As long as it’s not burned, there’s little taste gap between good and great. A restaurant named after a bird unsurprisingly does egg well. That just leaves the sage chicken sausage. Without waxing poetic about ground meat, believe me when I say that it’s really damn good. The Wren makes its own sausage in-house, and like with every other part of my experience so far, the devotion to quality shows. And that was just Bite #1.
With the right condiments applied, The Wren’s Maple Sage Chicken Sandwich becomes transcendental. Throw in some great coffee pressed fresh at the table, and you’ve got all the ingredients for an excellent brunch. Pretty good for British cuisine.
The Wren (344 Bowery) is a neighborhood gastropub that serves great brunch in an attractive, downtown ambiance. This cozy restaurant is built to delight, and unlike many other Bowery staples (with evocative single nouns as names), this charming British brunch costs only a spell. I highly recommend The Wren to anyone looking for their next great downtown brunch.