Eggs, Pancakes, Hash and Other Classic Breakfast Dishes Get an Update
The classic diner breakfast is epitomized by images of a lone diner with coffee and toast, or a gum-smacking waitress shouting orders for an Adam and Eve on a raft. But while that comfortable, welcoming diner vibe remains, chefs have given the classic diner breakfast a modern twist while keeping the diner inspiration at the core of their dishes.
As a kid, Molly Mitchell used to keep a Rolodex of diners she wanted to visit. But as chef/owner of Rose’s Fine Food in Detroit, she’s channeling her own idea of what a diner is. “Our food is different than what people associate with diner food,” Mitchell says. “But in my mind, a diner is a place where somebody was making food from scratch, and you could go there, get a big plate of food and feel full, and it was nourishing.” One example of her approach is le Dude 2.0, a socca-scallion pancake served with beans and mixed greens dressed in a tahini sauce ($11, recipe). Working with locally milled chickpea flour was new for Mitchell, and the process involved plenty of trial and error. “We were mixing it up and cooking it right away,” she says. “But we realized it’s a raw thing, and we started soaking it overnight and it got better.” The biggest challenge was nailing the consistency of the batter, because it will continue to absorb the water. Her solution? Adding water incrementally. “You want the consistency to be like a little bit thinner pancake batter, but not quite as thin [as a crêpe], because it will spread a lot on the grill and you want it to have a little bit of body.”
Jonathan Brooks, chef/owner of Milktooth in Indianapolis, was also inspired by his personal history with diners. “I was an angsty high school kid, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in cheap diners around Indy,” he says. “So it’s definitely something that inspired the entire restaurant. We call ourselves a fine diner. I think it’s very diner-esque to have some run-of-the-mill pancakes but also some wild, weird pancakes.” Take his Dutch baby pancakes, for example. He serves a savory option topped with roasted shiitakes, smoked Swiss, shaved fennel, radish salad and pickled mustard seeds ($14, recipe), and a sweet version with sweet local pear, vanilla-rum parsnip purée and brown butter dukkah. To keep the pancake’s signature crispy-crunchy-chewy texture, Brooks cooks the batter on the stove for 45 seconds, to give it some heat, then puts it into a 450-degree F convection oven. He pulls it out when it’s about 75 percent cooked and adds the rest of the ingredients. Aside from adding cornmeal for texture and slight sweetness, Brooks doesn’t deviate much from classic Dutch baby batter—though he does have one tip. “The batter is not as good the first day as it is the second or third day,” Brooks says. “So we’ve learned to just stay ahead and never use same-day batter. I think it emulsifies a little better, or the flour glutenizes a little better with the moisture that’s in the batter. And they just seem to puff up and get a little more caramelized.”
Repurposing With Purpose
The biscuit French toast ($9, recipe) at Happy Gillis in Kansas City began as a way to deal with leftover biscuits. But its popularity has eclipsed the original purpose, and chef/owner Josh Eans and his team now bake biscuits specifically for the new dish. Conceived by Chef Andrew Heimburger, it was originally called biscuit bread pudding. “And that’s what it is,” Eans says. “We crush up the cooked biscuits with a cream custardy mix with spices, let that absorb, bake it in pans until it’s set and let it chill. But it didn’t really sell. I think part of it was the verbiage, people thinking it sounded too much like dessert. So we changed it to biscuit French toast, and literally by just changing the name, it started gaining popularity.”
Eans makes it work with a limited kitchen setup: the front line consists of a couple of butane campfire burners, two toaster ovens, a toaster and a panini grill. But he’s found that a simple panini grill provides the biscuit French toast.
A basic electric griddle also works for the toast served by Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo at Jon & Vinny’s, their diner-style restaurant in Los Angeles. They keep the toppings equally simple, serving Nutella toast, toast & jam and an avocado toast that stands out from the pack (recipe). “The trick?” Shook says. “Good bread and an electric griddle.” For the Nutella toast with olive oil and sea salt, and the toast and jam with salted butter and housemade jam, they use pain de mie, but for the avocado toast they use ciabatta, because the holes and crunchier texture help the bread pick up smokiness. “We always add fat, whether it’s butter or oil, and you have to make sure that fat is edge to edge before you put it in the element to toast it,” Dotolo says. Toasts are a natural fit for their Italian-inspired diner. “A lot of European cultures do toast, jam, coffee, and that’s what they eat in the morning,” Dotolo adds. “I love bringing that into this concept.”
For Iliana Regan of Elizabeth and Bunny, the micro bakery in Chicago, toast is as much about the base as it is the toppings. For the seaweed toast at Bunny, Regan creates a savory bread by replacing part of the bread’s water content with housemade dashi, and adding nori and squid ink ($12, recipe). Though served at Bunny, the toast got its start at Elizabeth, as seaweed sourdough and poke-style salmon—elements in other dishes—were given new life. “After our shift, we had a little of both left over and I took the salmon to the back, marinated it, added the egg yolk, put it on the toasted bread and there you have it,” says Regan. “Most of our items at Bunny have been inspired by after-work cravings at Elizabeth.”
Pie in the Sky
The breakfast pie at Johnny’s Grill in Chicago technically qualifies as quiche. But even though Chef/Owner Sarah Jordan removed the top from her recipe a while ago (because of the unwanted gap between the filling and the top pastry), the name stuck. Her individually sized four-inch round pies feature buttery pastry dough filled with eggs, leeks, cheese and locally smoked whitefish ($10, recipe). “When you build the pie, it’s very important that the structure to begin with is perfect,” she says. “That it’s thick enough but not too thin, that it’s baked perfectly, because if it’s not baked enough, all the moisture in the filling will then soggy up, and then the layering of the ingredients.” Jordan uses shredded Gruyère and fontina, layering them on the crust first, to create a barrier between the moist filling and crispy outside. “Typically you want to use a stronger, more European-style cheese for the flavor,” she says. “Gruyère is delicious but expensive, and fontina has great flavor but it’s a little cheaper. So it’s a good way of bringing your cost down without sacrificing flavor.”
Diner culture dictates that breakfast dishes are good any time, and that was the idea behind the potato and pepper hash ($9, recipe) at Dove’s Luncheonette, a Mexican-inspired diner in Chicago. “We were trying to add a potato element that wasn’t a traditional hash brown or tater tot, and that people could get with their eggs or get for dinner as well,” says Chef de Cuisine Dennis Bernard. He salt-roasts the potatoes to dry them out (so they crisp up better when fried), then breaks them up by hand. Shishitos added flavor but forced him to rethink the spicy aïoli. “It was good when you ate one or two, but shishito peppers are like Russian roulette. If you had the combination of a hot shishito and a hot potato, your mouth would be killing you. So we toned down a lot of the sriracha.” He first topped the hash with charred scallions, but it was hard in a small kitchen. “We have a small staff and a small kitchen,” he notes. “That’s the challenge with the space, and that [affects] menu design. How do we do this and make it great, but only take two or three steps to get it done and onto the plate?”
Many chefs can’t adopt the 24-hour breakfast format, but give a nod to the diner breakfast on their dinner menus. At Café Adelaide in New Orleans, Meg Bickford serves breakfast for dinner, a version of the grits and grillades her parents used to make ($23, recipe). “My dad loved cooking breakfast for dinner,” Bickford says. “This is a heavy dish, so I like it for dinner, and I love to eat it with an egg.” Bickford sets an immersion circulator at 144 degrees F and cooks the egg for three hours. “Circulating the egg creates such a unique texture for both the white and yolk of the egg,” she notes. “Both the yolk and white mix into the grits and sauce from the veal. Almost like finishing a sauce with butter, it turns creamy.” She creates a well in the grits, adds the egg and veal loin, then tops with a sauce that includes veal demi-glace and cane-cured Creole tomatoes, dehydrated in the oven for a chewy texture. “Mom and Dad both make a really heavy roux-based gravy for their grillades,” she says. “We do a rich veal sauce with sherry. In my mind, I am still giving the respect the original dish deserves, just doing it in a more refined way.”
Molly Each’s favorite diner breakfast includes two eggs over easy with hash browns, bacon and white toast with strawberry jam.