Restaurant Review - Atlanta gets new Sunday brunch options

Pura Vida, Parish, The Social House rethink Sunday mornings

Hector Santiago is used to surprising people. The highly acclaimed chef had to change Atlantans' perceptions when he opened Pura Vida (656 N. Highland Ave., 404-870-9797) eight years ago.

Not only were diners still getting used to tapas, but they were used to Spanish-style tapas, and Santiago was experimenting with a variety of Latin American approaches to small plates. Now Pura Vida is considered one of the best tapas restaurants in town.

This time around, Santiago wants to change the way we think about Sunday brunch.

"I wanted to do a brunch menu but didn't want to do one like the ones you can get everywhere," says Santiago, who started his tapas-style Sunday brunch in May. "I wanted some familiarity, but not like you were going somewhere to have brunch all over again. I wanted to make it exciting to have eggs so many different ways, not poached eggs over easy.

"Eggs Benedict and french toast were not what I wanted to serve."

Atlanta has plenty of places to go for a typical, and delicious, Sunday brunch, but Santiago and others have learned that the city is ready for some fresh approaches. Sometimes it's as daring as the small-plates approach that comes with tapas. Other times it's taking definitions of Sunday brunch and adding variations to the theme, as evidenced by recently opened restaurants Parish (240 N. Highland Ave., 404-681-4434) and the Social House (1663 Howell Mill Road, 404-350-1938). Both take inspiration from New Orleans, and a New South, local-ingredient sensibility can be found in the familiar options (omelets, grillades, hash).

The result is a variety and depth of dishes that has kept patrons hungry for more. Santiago's tapas Sunday brunch is by far the most inventive approach. His menu is broken down into four tempting sections: "huevos" (eggs), "charcuteria" (meats), "carbs" (plantains, potatoes, breads) and the boldly named "Remedias" (subtitled "hangover busters"), with almost countless combination possibilities. Pura Vida's formidable beverage selections are divided into the "extra leaded" coffees and the rum-dominated brunch cocktails (when the state of Georgia comes down off its high horse at 12:30 p.m.).

Santiago likes to go against the grain, encouraging diners to start with his supremely sweet churros con chocolate: Spanish doughnuts with a decadent Latino chocolate sauce and cocoa nibs that should dismiss the devotion to Krispy Kreme for decades to come. But why eat the churros first, considering they're on the dinnertime dessert menu?

"On the dinner menu, we serve it with a spoonful of toasted coconut for a more Caribbean feeling," Santiago explains. "The brunch version has more of that Spanish feeling, like having chocolate and coffee on the side. So when we do an order, we send out the churros first so they'll want that coffee. When you're in Spain you see a lot of tourists doing that, that's what people are having for breakfast."

But it's the batidos – scrambled eggs – that really showcase Santiago's delicate touch. Whether sunny scrambled (with sea salt and chives) or fluffy scrambled (with queso fresco and Iberico oil), these eggs are feather-light, and worth the $4 average price. Diners also clamor for the other approaches: deep-fried, slow-cooked, even pickled.

This ain't no Western omelet.

Parish's Tim Magee has no problem doing an omelet. He's cool with eggs Benedict, or even grillades, as long as he can play with them a little bit. One of the key ideas behind Concentrics' opening of Parish was to deliver a New Orleans feel. Magee might not have the New Orleans pedigree of the originally slated chef – Two Urban Licks' Scott Serpas, who wound up planning his own restaurant – but he's got the idea. Magee spent 10 days in New Orleans on a whirlwind tour of classic kitchens such as Commander's Palace.

If he learned nothing else, it's that people can take Sunday brunch very seriously, so you don't want to screw it up. Or bore them.

"Sunday brunch," he notes, "is one of those shifts that can be very unforgiving."

So for his Parish Benedict, the poached eggs come with a tomato hollandaise, a smoked ham and Gruyère crepe gateaux, and crayfish.

The Social House is the most traditional of this new crop of bruncheries, but is not without its own twists – including the fact that brunch is served daily. Social House is the third dining project by restaurateur Lorenzo Wyche (Harlem Bar and Rare), and happily, his least chic.

While Wyche has made a point of bringing Harlem soul to Atlanta with his previous ventures, the Social House has a decidedly Southern menu, in keeping with its cottage building home. Yet he balances huge and more traditional brunch-fare menu items with healthy alternatives. Big appetites steer toward the Supreme Salmon Hash – the salmon crispy on the outside and tender in the middle, fried regular and sweet potatoes dueling for attention, capers and fresh herbs lightening the mood. Wyche must have a passion for biscuits; his are as light and fluffy as your grandma's. The five omelet choices not only are massive in scale, but also feature farm-fresh eggs that have none of that heavy-egg density that haunts so many omelets. The spinach, bacon and feta version, in particular, is filling without feeling burdensome.

But you can go totally healthy with the strawberry yogurt with homemade granola and fresh fruit, or dig into a "Big Bowl of Oatmeal," which features cinnamon, raisins and brown sugar with wheat berry toast and more fresh fruit.

The Social House's prices are remarkably modest considering the quality of ingredients and portions; the Supreme Salmon Hash is the most expensive item at $11.75. It's a common theme among the new kids on the Sunday brunch block.

"I try to price the things so that when you put it together, you spend as much as you would somewhere else," Pura Vida's Santiago says. "Our brunch menu is a little upscale. We use local and organic ingredients, but local and organic means mucho dinero; it means a third more. But we want to keep our price point true to where our concept is."

The combination of quality and affordability is a recipe for building a loyal fan base, at the same time moving us beyond the ubiquitous two-eggs-and-coffee. It's about time creativity came to the table for Sunday brunch.