After watching Top Chef this season, I have a new theory on why chefs don't like brunch. Maybe it's not, as many restaurateurs suggest, because the meal is a disruption to the kitchen's regular routine. Instead, could it be that they're secretly afraid of cranking out omelets as brown and dry as the ones served to Wolfgang Puck by cheftestants vying for spots on the show?
Cooking a perfect omelet is admittedly no easy task for even the most experienced chef — as in life, many seemingly simple tasks are anything but — and the pressure must have been intense, but the way the humbled gang applauded after Puck later demonstrated proper technique made his three-egg endeavor appear out of reach to all but the most beatified of chefs.
But it isn't — as the omelets flying out of the kitchen at Early Bird Restaurant, a quaint breakfast-and-lunch spot that opened last summer, can attest. Chef-owner Daniel Cofrades, who runs the place with his wife, Kristen, did cook for Pope John Paul II while at Michel Rostang in Paris, but I'm pretty sure that didn't confer any special status on him. Nor does Kristen's role as an instructor at Johnson & Wales, where much of Early Bird's staff hails from. The Cofradeses, both longtime chefs who share a commitment to organic, locally sourced ingredients, just have a way with eggs.
See also: Behind the scenes at Early Bird Restaurant
These are omelets you can't wait to sink your fork into: puffy and yellow, with a tender skin unblemished by scorch marks. Topped with handfuls of arugula for a fresh, peppery contrast, they're stuffed with quality ingredients but aren't so loaded that they drip or sag. They look good enough to send their creators on to the next episode of Top Chef. Instead, they must do something almost as difficult: move Denverites up I-25 to an out-of-the-way shopping center in Westminster.
There are four omelet choices, ranging from the East Boulder, with goat cheese, mushrooms and spinach, to the Front Range, with avocado and sausage — but good as those are, the delicious Bradburn, with its strong yet harmonious flavors of ham, Swiss, pesto and tomato, is the best. Never mind that it's not a rolled omelet, like Julia Child taught us to make. Never mind that it contains whole milk, a heresy in classic French technique. And never mind that it's finished in the oven, making it more of a frittata than an omelet. On your plate, the only thing that matters is taste, and the Bradburn scores high.
All of the omelets come with fat slices of fried potatoes dusted with seasoned salt, country white toast and the spicy greens. They also come with scratch-made ketchup, which always sounds like a good idea but in practice rarely is, especially here, where the nutmeg and cloves scream over flavors they're supposedly a condiment to — the way I once had to shout over Nirvana played too loudly at lunch. Morning music choices are much more mild-mannered, more in keeping with the sunny yellow walls and roosters painted chalkboard-style above the open kitchen.
At Early Bird, eggs don't have to be in omelets to be worth ordering, either. In the huevos rancheros, they come fried on overlapping halves of white-flour tortillas that are crisp on the edges but pliable in the middle. That's important, because this messy mix of runny yolk, beans, avocado slices and pico de gallo is best tackled like a slice of New York pizza, folded in half and eaten with your fingers. Poached eggs are the most recognizable link to classic eggs Benedict, with citrus aioli and creamed spinach a fine stand-in for Hollandaise. More than fine — fantastic, really — are the braised short ribs that replace the Canadian bacon, with the consistency of pulled pork and flavored with chai and chocolate.
Items from the griddle stand out more for what's on them than in them. Don't expect chocolate chips, sweet potatoes or even blueberries. Pancakes come in one flavor — buttermilk — but like all griddle selections, they can be ordered with toppings ranging from predictable (maple syrup and butter) to surprising (peanut butter and banana). No amount of sliced strawberries, flax and freshly whipped cream, though, can make up for the toughness that sometimes plagues these flapjacks, a common problem at many breakfast joints.
Better are the johnnycakes, with a gluten-free flour blend and more corn kernels than sugar. When doused with maple syrup, they're like fried cornmeal mush, only far lighter — fully satisfying in a hearty, earthy kind of way. French toast, bathed not in plain eggs and milk but crème brûlée batter, sounds decadent enough as is, so you might not listen when your server recommends it topped with bacon and dark chocolate. But the bacon adds texture, and the chocolate melts into the barely browned toast for a delectable sweet-savory combo. Loaded with nuts, seeds and coconut, granola might seem like the healthy option you'd overlook if not for that pesky, two-week-old vow to eat healthier. But with a thick layer of toasted oats above and below a mound of Greek yogurt, as well as a sprinkling of sliced strawberries, the big bowl of granola merits serious attention, resolutions or not.
Sadly, lunch at Early Bird falters as much as breakfast succeeds. Bacon-wrapped dates are fried, not baked, so the inner layer of pork comes out flabby. Parsnip soup is a sorry replacement for the Thai butternut squash soup that preceded it on the previous menu, with the root vegetable's subtle flavor overpowered by prosciutto, leeks and apple garnishes. A kale salad has all the appeal of finely shredded coleslaw, with too much dressing and large chunks of apple and maple-cured bacon. French fries don't always seem freshly fried, so it's hard to appreciate the hand-cut, twice-fried spuds. A dull chicken salad sandwich might be better if it had a few more handfuls of dried fruits and nuts, and a housemade pickle needs more time in the brine. At one meal, I overheard someone take a bite and declare, "Yuck, a cucumber!"
The saving grace of the mid-day meal comes in the form of a short-rib sandwich, featuring the same meat used in the eggs Benedict. This time it's topped with what seems like too many ingredients: pickled fennel, pan-seared Brussels sprouts, creamed spinach, blue cheese, a bacon-wrapped date. An odd couple — extended family, really — if ever there was one, but the tender, sweet, pungent, creamy combination works.
But you don't need to get to Early Bird early if you want to enjoy a good meal: Breakfast is served all day.