All words and photos by Nancy Chow.
Some genius may have coined the term brunch in 1896, but for years I was oblivious of this mystical meal. Growing up in a nuclear Chinese household of a parental unit and pair of older brothers, I learned to love eating, talking about and making food — but mostly eating. One thing I didn’t learn about food was that brunch existed. Family, I thought I knew you. To be fair, we occasionally went out to eat dim sum, which translates into “touch the heart” not “sleep in late and gorge on a hybrid of breakfast and lunch.” Dim sum is traditionally meant to be a light snack, a sort of Chinese afternoon tea, but we ate like there was no tomorrow, leaving a trail of ravaged steamer baskets and dishes in our wake; so in a way, we had brunch.
I guess I wasn’t old enough to really embrace and appreciate brunch, but my brother Jason let me in on the secret when I visited him in New York City as a teen and he took me to the East Village staple Café Orlin. It was magical and memorable — a simple plate of doughy, plush brioche french toast with a glass of fresh orange juice at 1 p.m. It was awesome. When I returned back to Maryland, I thought brunch was a New York thing, an exotic meal that amplified the qualities of lunch with breakfasty goodness. Since then I’ve learned brunch is a way of life and a source of derision for fun-killers. I’ll keep the brunch tradition alive, even if Leo Tolstoy may or may not have detested brunch and I may or may not have eaten breakfast already.
Five Leaves sits at a busy yet pleasant intersection between Bedford, Nassau and Lorimer, where Williamsburg ends and Greenpoint begins. This Greenpoint restaurant was opened with the backing of the late Heath Ledger in 2008 and has since become the place to brunch in Greenpoint. On any given weekend between the hours of 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., alternatively dressed folks spill on to the sidewalks waiting to stuff their gullets.
Jason and I arrived around 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning and were told there was 30-minute wait, which is not even the worst I’ve heard for Five Leaves (FYI, 90 minutes in the blazing heat and I was told by the time we would be served, brunch would be over; we went to no-wait Bar Matchless instead). The restaurant has resourcefully provided a coffee take out window that would quell any caffeine withdrawal and anger issues that may come along with it. The wait was less than 30 minutes, and I had not even finished my iced coffee.
Well-caffeinated, I adjusted to the noisy, sceney interior that resembles something that of a faded sea shack. The melancholy pop sounds of The Smiths’ Louder than Bombs weaved in-between conversations of last night’s debauchery and relationship issues. I ordered the sage scrambled egg panini, a breakfast sandwich my best friend from D.C. comes up and demands to consume every visit. It’s a facile concoction; something you can probably whip up in your own kitchen, but Fives Leaves does it so well and only requires you love, cherish and eat the gorgeous sandwich. Open up the crusty bread to find melted liquid gold of aged cheddar slathered on top of a perfectly cooked folded scrambled egg infused with sage. The nuttiness of the cheddar and the earthy flavor of the sage help alleviate the heaviness of the organic egg. Spread some of the tangy tomato jam and you have a heavenly, comforting bite.
My brother, ever the burger aficionado, ordered the Five Leaves Burger, a colossal meat mound with a fried pineapple ring, house-pickled beets, harissa mayo, sunny-side up egg; he also added cheddar cheese for good measure. Not going to lie, I was too intimidated to try the burger, because it looked absurdly messy and I don’t really believe in burgers for brunch (at least for myself). My brother noted that while all the components of the burger sound initially appealing, they don’t collaborate in a harmonious bite that encourages a revisit. I am genuinely impressed that he was able to even fit the thing in his mouth and still lived to express his opinions about it.
Since I couldn’t leave without a bite or two of the ricotta pancakes, I requested that it came after we had finished our sandwiches. Why can’t there be dessert after brunch (bressert)? The waiter came to clear our plates and double-checked that we still wanted to the pancakes (my body is ready; stop the fat-shaming). This dish is so decadent that even if you ordered it as an entrée, it’s difficult to devour the whole thing as quickly as your taste buds would want. If you were hoping for a cheesy breakfast cake, I would suggest the cheddar waffle at Buttermilk Channel; the ricotta in these pancakes is mostly for textual comfort. Stacked in a set of three, the pancakes are fluffy, plump disks that have a slight sweet taste that perfectly complement its accouterments of honeycomb butter, banana, blueberries and strawberries. Pour over some maple syrup and you’ll never be able to go back to “normal” pancakes; you’ll want to use them as coasters.
Five Leaves is a great place to brunch if you want the feel of new Williamsburg’s fauxhemian essence. The food is good and consistent — the hype is extraordinary — but with so many other restaurants in the area (new ones frequently pop up), your energy may be more well reserved hunting for some hidden gems. If you have intense cravings for a delightful egg sandwich and/or ricotta pancakes, Fives Leaves is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. on to satiate those hunger pains.
18 Bedford Avenue (between Lorimer St. and Manhattan Ave.)
How long I would wait: 30 minutes (probably less in extreme weather or without caffeine).
Enid’s (560 Manhattan Avenue between Nassau Ave. and Driggs Ave.)
Recommendation: Salmon cakes, if they have them.
Bar Matchless (557 Manhattan Avenue, between Nassau Ave. and Driggs Ave.)
Recommendation: Scrambled egg sandwich.
Peter Pan Bakery (727 Manhattan Ave., between Meserole Ave. and Norman Ave.)
Recommendation: Apple crumb doughnut.
Nights and Weekends (1 Bedford Ave., between Lorimer St. & Manhattan Ave.)
Recommendation: Bring cash across the street to this bar opened by the same owners of Five Leaves.