The previous night I'd set the alarm for 6 a.m. so I could throw myself together and drive 30 minutes or so from midtown to sample breakfast at The Café at Briarcliff Village. I'd already eaten several dinners and a lunch at the "casual upscale" restaurant — whatever the hell that means — but my friend Jennifer insisted that her favorite meal there was breakfast. She described biscuits and gravy served "in a biscuit that was shaped sort of like a tulip," adding that the biscuits were nice and crispy. "And the French toast is made with brioche."
Well, it certainly sounded good. And honestly, I tried to get out of bed on several different mornings to make the northern trek to Briarcliff. But each time I heard that alarm and started kicking the blankets off the bed, I was suddenly reminded of my favorite Mark Twain quote: "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow." And then I went back to sleep.
That's a long-winded way of saying that even though the ambitious Café at Briarcliff Village offers three meals a day, I've only experienced two of them. Sorry if that sounds heretical for a restaurant reviewer. But honestly, my favorite breakfast is a cigarette and a cup of strong espresso, and not a crispy biscuit tulip. Novelty foods offend me until at least noon.
During more lucid hours, I've dined at The Café four times. And even though it's a perfectly pleasant little place, I can't work up any enthusiasm to go back. It took me a long time to figure out why I had such a halfhearted reaction to a restaurant that's comfortable, reasonably attractive and moderately priced, with a cheery menu of familiar dishes.
Some kind of vital force is missing from The Café's concept, but I didn't make the connection until I logged on to the restaurant's Web page and read a description of the venue that claimed: "We blur the line between restaurant, café, bistro and retail-food shop." I'd venture to say there are times when maybe that line shouldn't be blurred, and a dining establishment should make a conscious decision to boldly state that it's a restaurant, a café or a bistro, and not some culinary Frankenstein that sews together good intentions.
One Wednesday afternoon, I joined Louise and Justin for lunch in the claustrophobic "bar" area (the dining room was packed). The friendly waitstaff paid lots of attention to us, but the food tasted oddly prefabricated. Louise admired the size and heft of her chipotle chicken sandwich, which topped a grilled chicken breast with melted Swiss cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato. But, she said, "Everything's good about this sandwich, except the chicken. It tastes like they grilled it yesterday and stored it in the refrigerator."
"At least it's not pounded into the thickness of a flannel sheet," Justin said, pointing to his plate of flattened "roasted" fowl, lovingly draped in a shiny mushroom and Madeira wine sauce and framed with a few vividly green asparagus stalks. It wasn't the worst Madeira sauce I'd ever tasted, but it still evoked the kind of mass-produced entrée served at a hotel banquet. And Justin is one of those skinny young men who's always hungry, so when he didn't finish his meal, I knew there was a problem.