EAT, chef Natalie Young’s modest, yet somehow jazzy restaurant, and downtown seem as made for each other as William and Kate. Springtime and flowers. Bacon and eggs.
I went by at lunchtime on the fourth day the restaurant was open and ran into a line halfway down Carson Street. Like its spiritual downtown brethren Le Thai and The Beat Coffeehouse (the few other hip places to get a bite on that popular block until Park On Fremont and Michael Morton’s as-yet-unnamed Latin restaurant open), Eat, “the Breakfast and Lunch Joint,” is filling a niche. In this case, for a fairly priced, high-quality breakfast-and-lunch joint serving food that is familiar, intelligently thought out and well executed. The staff, mostly young and eager 20-somethings clad in black uniforms, is clearly into it, while Chef Nat acts as mother hen, flitting among the kitchen line, the front podium and her customers’ tables.
When last seen, Young was cooking up a storm at P.J. Clarke’s in the Forum Shops at Caesars. She is most at home with the American comfort food genre, and there are hints of the South running through many of her dishes: shrimp and grits (a Charleston fave), a chicken-fried steak to beat the band, and New Orleans-style, made-to-order beignets.
The restaurant makes a big statement in a small space. Reclaimed furnishings such as orange metal chairs and plush green banquettes blend well with the deconstructed duct ceiling and dark cement floor. There is one large communal table for socializing, and an appealing soft color scheme throughout. Eat can get noisy after 10 a.m. but never feels tense.
Eat’s best meal is breakfast. Oddly, the breakfast menu, which stops at 11 a.m., has more variety than lunch. Steel-cut oats come with cinnamon-roasted apples, cream and sugared pecans. Her beignets are soft and pillowy, served with mascarpone cheese fragrant with vanilla bean, and on the day I ate there, raspberry jam.
Shrimp and grits employs quick grits—a mistake, I think, when coarser, more flavorful grits such as Anson Mills are readily available—but the perfectly poached shrimp (three large ones) blend well with the good bacon and sunny-side-up egg that crowns the dish. I loved my truffled egg sandwich, a split croissant filled with goodies including wild mushroom and feta cheese, plus bacon and smashed potato. But the best dish of all is Young’s golden-brown pancakes, light, crisp-edged and springy, served with little jars of Vermont maple syrup.
The lunch menu is composed of soups, salads and sandwiches. If you’re looking for a hot dish such as meatloaf or fried chicken, it’s not on the menu, and amazingly—and I think to her great credit—she’s had the courage to leave burgers off.
There is consolation in one of the city’s best grilled cheeses, though, and an excellent Vietnamese-style banh mi—chicken, tofu or veggie. All of Eat’s sandwiches are served with house-made chips or a complex, mustard seed-driven potato salad, plus in Young’s words, “a really good pickle.” (I concur.)
Both soups—a rich black-bean veggie chili and a green chile chicken posole, which had lots of chicken and diced potato, but very little hominy (posole)—are tasty. I also loved the arugula salad with roasted tomato, roasted Spanish almonds, shaved Parmesan cheese and a delicious lemon herb vinaigrette.
To drink, make sure to try Bruce Cost’s passion-fruit ginger ale, one of the best soft drinks on the market. For dessert, there are cookies and brownies from Chocolate & Spice, Megan Romano’s westside bakery. Young is too smart to mess with perfection.
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