At Peels, A Gracious Breakfast

IMG_8220Rachel OhmThe upstairs dining room at Peels.

At 7:35 on a recent cold, wet and thoroughly lousy morning, I was sitting at the counter at Peels, a clean-well-lighted place at 325 Bowery, at 2nd Street. Peels was empty, as it always is then, and I asked Wendy, the counter waitress, why a restaurant as ambitious and expensive as Peels opened up for breakfast. Wendy had pushed her soft green Mao-style cap to the back of her head, as if to call attention to its strictly decorative function. She batted her eyes at me, and said, “For you!”

Well, yes, that’s what it feels like. There is something wonderfully gracious about proper restaurants, whose real lives take place at night, opening for breakfast. It’s so utterly unnecessary that it feels like an act of community service (why is why, I hear you cynics out there saying, they do it). Downtown, most serious restaurants don’t even serve lunch. Among those that serve all three meals are the legendary bistro Balthazar, at 80 Spring St., which really does get a breakfast crowd, and Vandaag, at 103 Second, whose “cream biscuit” puts all of its breakfast competitors, Peels included, to shame.

I salute them all; but let me sing the praises of Peels. Peels calls itself “a regional American restaurant,” an expression so vacuous as to imply sterile restaurant-marketing calculation. I would have said that it’s neo-Southern roadhouse; the playlist leans to Johnny Cash and “Porgy and Bess,” and the menu includes hush puppies and collard greens. I have never eaten dinner at Peels, in part because it’s very hard to get a table, but you can order shrimp and grits, an andouille corn dog, and a 32-ounce grass-fed Piedmontese ribeye steak for two. I’m told it’s wonderful, but I don’t feel an overwhelming need to know.

The biscuit plays a foundational role at Peels. At my first breakfast there, I ordered a biscuit with scrambled eggs and ham (“local organic scrambled eggs” and “country ham,” that is) from the “Build-A-Biscuit” menu. I was a little flummoxed when it arrived, since the sandwich is too high to be placed directly in your mouth and too small to be assayed with knife and fork without creating a mess. My son Alex faced the same quandary at lunch one day when he ordered the biscuit with fried chicken and red-eye gravy, a great gloppy mass shoveled between biscuit halves. He kept circling it until he finally resigned himself to nibbling away with utensils. The combination of crunchy dark-meat chicken, smoky gravy and chalky biscuit was heavenly. Even his mother, who found the concept mildly repellent, loved the result.

IMG_8240Rachel Ohm

While I’m at it, let me say a word about lunch. Peels is a two-story restaurant, and on a nice day the upper floor, with high windows, is bathed in sunshine. There is a booth upstairs, immediately to the right of the staircase and thus south-facing, which is so bright that whoever sits on the western side of the banquette has to wear sunglasses. There are certain foods which are rendered sublime by direct sunlight–scrambled eggs, for example, or white wine. Go there, and eat sunny food. You won’t regret it.

But back to breakfast. On my recent dismal morning I ordered the pancakes-or, rather, buttermilk flap jacks with a “spring compote” of mixed berries on top. The maple syrup came in my own little glass maple-sugaring house—that’s how good these guys are at the faux-authentic touches. The flap jacks were crisp on the edges and pillowy—not doughy—at the center. In short, perf. The atmosphere was quiet, but purposeful: cooks doing prep work went about their business. Every once in a while someone came in to order a coffee to go. After 45 minutes, a couple sat down at a table behind me. Wendy chatted with an idle waitress. Johnny Cash twanged in the background. I read the paper. It all felt so…generous.

The only ungenerous thing about Peels is the cappuccino, which, while expertly scalloped on top in the manner of the best Italian cafes, comes in too small a cup for breakfast. I mentioned this, ever so gently, to Wendy, and she winced. I wasn’t the first. “Can I top you up with a coffee?”, she asked. I hesitated. Wendy must have thought she sensed distaste. “It’s French-pressed,” she reassured me. Oh well, in that case. I had a coffee, and went back to my paper.