Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Does Arlene eat to live or live to eat?

Before dashing off to the airport over the weekend, the lovely Miss Wendy and I took our always wonderful niece Arlene to brunch. Arlene is bright and beautiful, a young woman focused on work, family – and food!

Most of us, of course, enjoy eating. It’s a sensual pleasure that can and should be a healthy part of life. That’s the case with Arlene who manages to both eat to live and live to eat. It’s not stretching the truth to report she has an ongoing love affair with food. When she’s not eating, she’s planning her next meal or reminiscing about a previous feast!

So we were all excited to visit Alon’s, a European-style restaurant and bakery in our little corner of the world, featuring a vast array of artisan cheeses, breads and wines, specialty food items and European-style pastries, cakes and cookies.

Wendy and I discovered Alon’s years ago when it first opened in a gentrified neighborhood close to the heart of the Land of Cotton. Alon Balshan is an Israeli who was gaining fame in these parts as a pastry chef when he decided, along with his father Maurice, that it was time to open his own place. The rest, as they say, is history. Fortunately, part of that history was the opening of a second Alon’s in the northern suburbs. No more schlepping across the city for Sunday brunch!

Despite being indoors, the newer Alon’s has the wide open feel of an outdoor market; one of those happening, high-energy spots you stumble across in Europe and other exotic locales. It’s filled with salads and sandwiches, a variety of meat and fish dishes, specialty coffees, drinks, snacks and tasty treats – chocolates and gelato, freshly baked pastries and other sweets.

Stuff is placed about in what seems to be a haphazard fashion, but my guess is there’s a sophisticated master plan to all the madness. Shoppers wonder about, free to stumble across culinary treats at a leisurely pace. You can pack it all up and take your tasty treasures home, or order up one of the day’s specialties and eat in a small dining area or, better yet, outside on an expansive patio.

That’s where Arlene, Wendy and I ended up for Brunch, after fussing about like kids in a very well-stocked candy store. The Caramel Banana French Toast – custard-soaked brioche with caramel-poached bananas – was tempting; but I had images of my doctor wagging his finger at me and whispering an ugly word – sugar. Well then, how about the Ricotta Soufflé Pancakes – fluffy ricotta pancakes made with spelt and served with Alon’s chocolate hazelnut sauce. Yummy, but filled with carbs. Yikes!

So, Wendy and I settled for the All-American Breakfast – couple of eggs, home-fried potatoes with onions and bell peppers, and wheat toast. Tasty, nutritious and oh-so healthy.

Arlene managed to stay away from the sugary stuff, while pushing the culinary envelope just a tad – smoked salmon and two poached eggs, drizzled with hollandaise sauce and topped with fried capers and baby arugula, all resting on a crispy potato latke. Just the sort of thing you’d expect your yiddishe mama to make!

We sat, and ate, and chatted; then ate and chatted some more. Glancing about, surrounded by others enjoying the day, the whisper of small talk blending euphonically with the sweet and savory smells of the nearby market, it was a little difficult to believe we were outside a strip shopping center and just a hundred yards or so from one of the largest shopping malls in the region.

That’s the magic of tasty food and good company. My hope is there’s a lot more of those things in all of our futures.

TASTES AS GOOD AS IT LOOKS: Smoked Salmon and Potato Cake Benedict (photo above), one of the specialties at Alon’s Bakery & Market.

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