November 30, 2011

Crystal Lake Cafe Serves Brunches With a Dramatic Touch

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The sun in the cozy dining room was the best kind of sun. The kind that bursts your curtains open and casts its gentle rays on your blurry Sunday morning eyes. The kind that illuminates the warming steam drifting upward from a cup of hot tea. The kind that tells you it is time for a decadent brunch somewhere beautiful and hidden.

Just last week, I found that sanctuary at Crystal Lake Cafe at Americana Winery, a quaint but accessible brunch spot in the town of Interlaken, a fifteen minute drive from Ithaca. As I whizzed past rows of Cayuga Lake’s gorgeous vineyards, catching occasional glimpses of the tranquil lake, I got into a pensive, almost poetic mood that only an excellent meal would perk up.

Upon arrival at the Cafe, I was greeted by owners Joe Gober and Butch Newhart and a round of pimosas — a twist on mimosas made with pineapple instead of orange juice. The cocktails upped the morning’s chichi factor and whetted my appetite for some really delicious food. My dining companions and I felt like English royalty as we slipped sugar cubes into our tea and warmed up to petite berry scones spread with grape jelly and butter. The menu, however, was true-blue American, featuring classic breakfast favorites like buttermilk pancakes and made-to-order omelets, as well as more adventurous Southern-inspired dishes, creatively conceived but totally accessible.

The barbeque pulled pork was an intense pleasure, tangy with Worcestershire and dripping with hints of smokey char and aromatic lard. Nothing short of careful slow-cooking could have produced such depth of flavor. Indeed, full flavor was clearly the order of the day, from the well-seasoned home fries to the crusty house-made focaccia bread served warm alongside most brunch items.

Head Chef Lindsay Freeman obviously isn’t shy with dramatic nuances in her food — after all, she was a theater major at Ithaca College before swapping her acting chops on stage for meat chops in the kitchen. Her curried chicken salad sandwich is a vaudeville of flavors, with nutty pecans, tart apples, sweet raisins and a creamy aioli accented by slightly spicy curry, served in a colossal heap on oatmeal wheat toast. I’ve never tasted a cheddar and scallion biscuit before, but I thought Crystal Lake’s version not only had that requisite buttery mouth feel that makes a good biscuit outstanding, but it also had a snazzy edge, the sharpness of cheddar adding a heady and pleasant bite. Even a simple dish of buttermilk pancakes was uniquely divine — as fluffy as a feather pillow and as rich as Kim Kardashian after her lightning-quick marriage.

I was not a big fan of the salmon hash since it felt like a pre-marathon carbo-load. It arrived in a metal boat filled with potatoes but dotted only sparsely with thin salmon flakes and capers that had lost their bright acidity. However, I must say Crystal Lake is a master of eggs, which are the soul of any hearty breakfast. Both my omelet and scrambled eggs were clean-tasting, neither overly creamy nor so bland as to require heaps of salt. The chunky ingredients in my ham and pepper omelet, in particular, were nicely bound by a brilliant choice of cheese — Gruyere which was supple and chewy like a Camembert but not so pungent as to kill the taste of the ham and peppers.

Too full from the generous portions, I slumped down on my cushy seat while our amiable server poured another round of tea. I had hardly any room left for dessert. Then, across the small 48-seat dining space, I glimpsed a plate of butterscotch chocolate torte, topped with a delectable dollop of what looked like pumpkin ice cream. It was beautiful and almost surreal. The sun rays hit it at just the right angle, causing both chocolate ganache and ice cream to glisten and sparkle. The kind of sun that makes you want to bathe in it. The kind of food that makes you want to indulge all day.

Original Author: Brandon Ho