New York City, October 15 – Breakfast

I don’t know which was the crazier idea: deciding to walk through 32 blocks of traffic and pedestrian-laden New York City streets, or ending that journey by casually strolling into the Hotel Plaza Athenee, sans reservation, for breakfast.

To my surprise, the hostess did not bat an eye at my denim-clad, slightly-sweaty form as I requested a table for one.  She ushered me into the dining room and tucked me away into a far corner, which gave me a full view of the space.  The chandelier lit a high-ceilinged area, yellow with cream accents.  Harp music played softly on an overhead sound system.  As I was presented with the coffee service, I lifted the urn and found it to be silver and heavy in the way that the carafes at IHOP aren’t.

Don’t get me wrong.  Usually, when I find myself solo in New York City, I’d be spending breakfast on the run, with a Krispy Kreme doughnut in one hand and a grande Starbucks in the other.  But today I was lured to the Plaza Athenee by their new Chinese Breakfast, which offered a broad variety of authentic Asian delicacies curated to appeal to the Eastern palate.  Intensely curious, and with no appointment until the afternoon, I decided that a thorough investigation was in order.

The first offering was a bowl of congee, which I had always referred to as jook when I was growing up.  Served with a side of chopped scallion, the presentation could not have been more elegant.  Yet, as is the case with most comfort food from childhood, I found the congee to have missed the mark.  As a preparation, it was textbook – grains of white rice, cooked until they’ve collapsed into a soft, smooth porridge.  The texture was spot-on.  Unfortunately, there was little flavor to be found, even after garnishing with scallion.  In my household, there would always be bits of salted pork or chicken mixed throughout, adding both flavor as well as a certain level of luxurious fat to the dish.  It occurred to me later that maybe it was my responsibility to season the dish, much like when you order grits in the South, but there was little indication that this was the case.

Thankfully, the meal improved from there.  The second course consisted of a two-tiered bamboo steamer, with three steamed buns (bao) on the upper level and a variety of dim sum underneath.  Each bun held a different filling, and I was pleasantly surprised to bite into the first to discover a sweet egg custard inside.  I’ve never had it before, and it was one of the best things that I’ve ever tasted.  From there, I proceeded to finish off the shredded pork bun (a classic filling that was well-executed) and the bean paste bun (never my first preference, but still fairly good).

The dim sum were the standard “safe” options, with three har kow (shrimp) and three shui mai (pork), with nary a chicken foot in sight.  Both varieties were excellent, bearing the expected thin dumpling skin surrounding very fresh, perfectly seasoned contents.  Along the way, the dining captain delivered a tea-boiled egg alongside a small bowl of soy.  The egg looked like an orb of alabaster, with streaks of gray where the tea had soaked through the cracks of the shell.  And yet, for all of that presentation, I still found it to be too similar, in both taste and texture, to a standard boiled egg.

I took my time finishing the meal, watching the servers and the dining captain cater to the small handful of occupied tables in the room.  Each dish may not have looked like a lot of food, but the cumulative effect was quite filling.  I asked for the check, expressed some sadness at the lack of a room number to sign it to, and took to the streets of Manhattan to walk off breakfast.

*the above photo layout is courtesy of Diptic.  Check them out on the App Store!