What is it about the word "Chelsea" that just sounds pretentious? The phrase "brunch in Chelsea" is in even company with some of the ostentatious in the English language: "summering in Montauk"; "rowed at Exeter"; "uncle in finance"; "brunch in Chelsea." It's a combination of words deployed exclusively by a class of people who read Gatsby as scripture rather than fable. Evoking the phrase "brunch in Chelsea" is as close as many will get to owning a racehorse or securitizing mortgage debt. In other words: grade-A Fauntleroy.
However, Chelsea also lies directly north of the West Village. And if you've been following my restaurant reviews, you've probably noticed my steady march uptown, from the Bowery to St Mark's Place. One neighborhood a week - that was the rule. Like a captain steering into a hurricane, a Category 5 douchewall lay unavoidably in my way.
I cringed. My wallet puckered. As long as Yelp rated it below three $'s, the damage would be recoverable. Odysseus tied himself to a mast; the least I could do was enjoy my food.
I fired up every single restaurant resource I could gather, refining my results until I found what I presume to be the least of all evils ("$$ brunch between 14th and 30th streets NYC" - thanks, Yelp). The result was Petite Abeille (44 W 17th St), a Belgian beer cafe tucked between 5th and 6th Aves just north of Union Square. I took a Lazy Sunday, pulled myself out of bed just north of 10am, and set out for food.
For once, the Internet was right: my Chelsea brunch wasn't "rowed at Exeter" so much as "five-a-side in Brussels." The floor was linoleum. The kitchen was open. International flags hung from the ceiling. Above it all, an espresso menu and a TV showing the Euro cup sat side-by-side. Best of all: there were no potted succulents in sight.
This was not your typical Chelsea place.
Instead of meeting NYC in the middle and upcharging you for spreads on toast, Petite Abeille stays strong to its roots. From the Tintin books by the tables to the waffles by the bar, PA is unapologetically Belgian. There's a beer list as long as your arm and nearly everything Brussels but the sprouts. I half-expected that one David Hasselhoff song about the Berlin Wall. Walking into PA felt like stepping into a newly unified Europe circa 1993: it is optimistic, it is aspirational, it smelled like burnt sugar and strong coffee.
I took my table for 1 near the front and watched the France-Italy match on the tele. Allez les Bleus!
Feeling properly European, I started breakfast with a cappuccino. The milk was frothy and comfortably warm, compared to the harshly-scorched foam of a Starbucks capp. I added a pack of sugar to the top just to compliment the fragrant, bitter espresso. The real highlight for me was the danesi bowl mug in which it was served: a brilliant piece of 80's design that only sold the retro-international flair even more. Overall: a good cappuccino and a wonderful start to the meal. It's no Caffe Regio, but PA serves up a delicious drink.
In the time it took to savor my sips, both France and my brunch order were now up. I deferred to my waiter and ordered his favorite: the "Eggs Cocotte", a breakfast platter he promised would be my favorite, too. Some scribbles on a page became meaning, and my eyes drifted back to the game. Until I saw a cook with a skillet. Then a big flame. Then another skillet. Les Bleus were winning on TV, but borderline losing my attention.
The true joy of an open kitchen is watching an order slip become reality. At Petite Abeille, my one-seat high top gave me a courtside seat to that process. Ten minutes later, a cast-iron pan approached my table on a wooden board. Cheese bubbled; steam wafted. "Give it a minute" was both expressed and implied. The solar corona of proteins and fromage in front of me was none other than "Eggs Cocotte." And it looked divine.
After some brief egg-climatization, I took my first bite. Melted cheese topping flooded my tastebuds. Then, an egg base, marbled with whole cherry tomatoes and the occasional bacon strip. Finally, a bottom crust of cheese and egg that had fused against the skillet and turned each bite into something like a pie slice: big, generous, and with just enough structure to go from fork to mouth. It was salty-savory goodness pulled straight from the State Fair - yet decidedly European the whole way through.
For one, there's the quality of cheese: I think Kraft Singles are banned by EU law. The goat cheese and gruyere baked into this ensemble truly steal the show. Each slow bite yielded five seconds of blissful aftertaste, and judging by the game clock on the TV, I took one full half's full of morsels. Secondly, there's the recipe. By mass, the Eggs Cocotte is 50/30 eggs/cheese. The remaining 20% alone is a shoving match between moist cherry tomatoes and crunchy bacon. On this side of the pond, there'd be a Meat Lover's option. Instead, you get a lighter Belgian breakfast that won't knock you comatose for Sunday afternoon.
You may be noticing I haven't mentioned a full half of that wonderful picture above - well, here goes nothing. If I had one gripe with the Eggs Cocotte, it's the choice of side. In fact, I liked the dish so much I can squash that hypothetical and assert that yes, I do have precisely one gripe thank you very much. Theses 1-95 read the same: why on Earth would you serve mashed potatoes with an egg breakfast?
England has bangers and mash - but that's England. There's a reason Julia Child connected through Heathrow rather than staying put. Out of the thousand and one ways to serve potatoes, there's an estimated one thousand that would make better accompaniments to an 11am meal than the one reserved for a Thanksgiving side dish. I appreciate starchy breakfasts as much as the other guy, but good lord, the consistency. It's just not brunch.
Roasted potatoes. Scalloped potatoes. Julienned potatoes. Hell, even home fries. Any of them would be make a more compelling sidekick to the sublime Eggs Cocotte, literally any other than mashed. Grading the dish down as a whole because of its side feels arbitrary and petty, but I do feel like this aspect - this aqueous, context-blind aspect - could be improved. I award it the brunch equivalent of a "technical foul." Charge: unsportmanslike form.
Yet, I still cleaned my plate. The Eggs Cocotte predictably vaporized, and for all my grousing, the potatoes weren't bad - in fact, they were pretty darn good in isolation. As a side, however, they were just awkward.
Not intentionally awkward, no, just perhaps a clumsy choice made by someone who thought you'd like them there. No restaurant group performed market research on whether customers would like these mashed potatoes. Instead, a menu-maker at a petite Belgian cafe just chose so.
In an odd way, I appreciated their faux pas. Like Cameron in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, it was a gauche yet endearing proof of concept. This was my unpretentious Chelsea brunch: good food, good drinks, retro-inspired atmosphere, without the "uncle in finance" levels of polish that make 7th Ave sidewalk bistros a three-figure affair. Who cares if the menu board is a blackboard written in whisper-thin chalk fonts? Why does having small potted cacti justify $20 oatmeal? The true experience we all crave is equal parts food and feeling. If you're at a restaurant (n., "a place where people pay to sit and eat meals that are cooked and served on the premises."), I hope you'll weight your decision accordingly. I tend to shoot for the "eat meals" part.
In conclusion: I didn't just survive Chelsea - I thrived in it. If you're looking for the hole-in-the-wall to beat all hole-in-the-walls, seek out Petite Abeille. My total check for a wonderful cappuccino and a fantastic egg brunch: $23.00, tip included. I'd love to come back for a Leffe Blond and a Euro match once I'm of-age. Maybe they'll deal with the potatoes by then. If they don't change anything else, Petite Abeille will be the best budget brunch in Chelsea.