My brunch boycott is over,
At L'Abattoir, with so much savoury succulence, it's not hard to get your head around those cumulus-cloud pancakes
I hate brunch. I especially hate pancakes for brunch. Anything sweet and flabby first thing in the morning is just asking for trouble.
I'm serious. The thought of dragging myself out of bed on a lazy Sunday to line up with chirpy people and their unruly children makes me shudder. Why would I willingly pay through the nose to have a cranky, bleary-eyed junior cook (who probably wants to be there even less than I do) griddle up a doughy mess of sticky flour slathered in whipped cream from a can? It seems not merely pointless, but somewhat masochistic. Thus, I don't normally do brunch. Not if I don't have to.
But then I met a tall stack of buttermilk-ricotta pancakes at L'Abattoir – and it changed everything.
These weren't run-of-the-mill IHOP pancakes. They were impossibly fluffy and slightly tangy. A slow bake in a deep cast-iron pan warmed with brown butter left a golden seam crusted around the edges. They were dressed with pears three ways (poached, compressed in lemon juice and caramelized into rich butter), smoked maple syrup and a creamy quenelle of whipped mascarpone.
Sure, they were sweet. But at the end of a long, leisurely feast comprising so much savoury succulence – white anchovies, smoked pork belly, duck sausage, boudin noir – all washed down with extra brut rosé, those cumulus-cloud pancakes made perfect sense.
I didn't always boycott brunch. I used to do it regularly, back in the late nineties, when I was living in Toronto. Not because I enjoyed eating overpriced eggs or greasy hash made from the previous night's leftovers disguised under a rich sauce, but because everyone brunched. It was a weekend ritual for young workaholics. What else is there to do in Toronto when you're not at the office and it snows?
When I moved to Vancouver, there really wasn't anywhere to go for brunch other than hotel buffets and Sophie's Cosmic Café (both bad ideas). Real foodies went for dim sum. Everyone else did yoga. So I happily gave up the dumb habit without a second thought.
But while I was busy sleeping and jogging around the seawall, Vancouver changed. Good restaurants that I otherwise respected began selling out for the Saturday-morning mimosa markups. Friends who had always seemed sensible suddenly went gaga for mini doughnuts and Belgian waffles. My Twitter feed filled up with eggs. Eggs! One of the simplest, most affordable sources of animal protein, something that can so easily be cooked at home (usually with better results) became a status symbol. Don't even get me started on avocado toast.
Still, I avoided brunch as much as possible – not an easy feat in my line of work. Everyone wants to know the best places for brunch. Feeling increasingly guilty for absconding my duties, I began reading menus online. The brunch at L'Abattoir did look promising the first time I bothered paying attention. That was two years ago. I procrastinated this long.
It wasn't my idea to go for brunch that fateful Saturday morning. And I didn't plan to write about it. But then they brought over the pastry basket and snared me with a flaky bear claw glazed in lemon and filled with pumpkin-seed marzipan.
If you've ever been to L'Abattoir, you'll probably remember the breadbasket. It's the best one in Vancouver – complimentary, all made in-house and filled with a warm assortment of bacon-brioche rolls, anchovy-parmesan puffs and spiced flatbread.
The brunch program is even more impressive (although you do have to pay for it.)
In addition to hefty currant scones with clotted cream, buttery cinnamon buns and Danishes filled with seasonal fruit (all baked fresh each morning,) the pastry team makes several terrific breads.
For the fromage blanc tartine, there is crusty sourdough with a tangy open crumb that is nested high with freshly peeled artichoke hearts, golden cubes of summer squash, pickled shallots and salty white anchovies. It's drizzled with smoked-olive salsa verde and scattered with good greens (the kind you don't find in a plastic clamshell).
A rarified version of Eggs Benedict – one in which plush cheddar sabayon drapes over smoked pork belly that is heavily pressed to force the fat through its many meaty layers – is served on a homemade English muffin. Cooked slowly in a skillet, not baked in the oven, the yeasty rounds are as craggy as pumice stones, but incredibly moist and chewy.
Every crumb was so damn good. The service so nicely paced. The bubbles so tart and creamy. The glass-wrapped solarium overlooking Gastown's cobble-stoned Gaoler's Mews so coolly cozy. I didn't want brunch to end.
So we ordered another dish – a full breakfast with two perfectly soft-poached eggs, sage-flecked duck sausage, creamy blood-baked boudin noir, golden rosti, fudgy baked beans brightened with tamarind, toast and jam.
And then we finished with the pancakes.
Yes, it was gluttonous. But it was a sophisticated piggishness spread over three hours. It felt like a proper dinner, during the day. And it was worth every last penny, not to mention the calories, because it was so transformative, at least for me.
It's not a perfect brunch. Coffee only comes in a French press. And I probably wouldn't have been so happy had I been seated in the cave-like upper level.
L'Abattoir has always been an excellent restaurant. But excellent restaurants don't always use brunch to reflect their greatest strengths. They don't put their restaurant director on the floor to ensure the highest standards of service. They don't feature top-quality grower champagnes with lower-than-average markups. They don't put so much thought into the menu.
Or maybe they do and I just need to eat brunch more often. Now I will.