On Eggshells

 

A few times in my life, I’ve wanted to curl my lip like Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest and bark out, “Don’t fuck with me, fellas, this ain’t my first time at the rodeo.” Most recently, it was at the new breakfast and lunch joint called Eggtc. My initial experience at this pretty little bruncheonette was a complete disaster, and I wound up walking out of the place, nearly knocking over Walt Bodine’s chair — he was having a perfectly enjoyable breakfast — in the process.

To be honest, I must have been out of my mind to go to that restaurant the first week it was open. But I wasn’t there to review the place — I was in the neighborhood with Bob and Alexandra, and we just wanted something to eat on a Saturday morning, you know? I assumed that owner Gregg Johnson, a veteran restaurateur who also runs the successful Osteria Il Centro just down the street, would have the place running pretty slickly right off the bat.

That day, though, the computer wasn’t working, the kitchen crew was overwhelmed and the dining room was seriously short-staffed. The few pitiful servers who were there had been poorly trained; ours had never waited tables before and looked like he was ready to walk out before I was.

I really should have been more forgiving because this wasn’t my first time at the rodeo, as it were. I’ve worked in a couple of pancake palaces, and the breakfast shift is one of the toughest to pull off even when everything’s going smoothly. Morning diners usually arrive before they’ve had a cup of coffee to settle their nerves; they’re hungry, impatient, frequently humorless and, if it’s a Saturday or Sunday, probably hung-over.

One hard-bitten longtime waitress told me her secret to surviving this brutal shift: “I treat ’em all like I’m their loving mother. I smile at them even when they bite my head off. The breakfast crowd is like a pack of snarling wolves. If they detect weakness, they’ll pounce.”

When I did go back to Eggtc. (it rhymes with etcetera and is not pronounced, as a party-loving pal of mine insists, ecstasy), Johnson had fired most of the neophyte serving staff and replaced them with professional waitresses who knew the art of juggling many demands from several different tables. I’ve returned several times over the past three months, and each time I’ve been more impressed with Johnson’s shrewd move to turn the space occupied for 30 years by the old Jake Edward Bar-B-Q into a slickly designed bistro serving only breakfast and lunch.

After all, the nearby Country Club Plaza isn’t exactly glutted with spots to grab a morning meal. Both the Raphael Hotel and the InterContinental serve breakfast, but you’ll pay a premium. The Mixx stopped serving light morning fare last spring. Thank goodness for the Classic Cup, which serves exceptional breakfasts, and Winstead’s, the closest thing the Plaza has to a diner.

When Johnson came up with the Eggtc. concept, he had no idea that the breakfast trade was so damned hard. It looks like an easy meal, but, as Johnson quickly discovered, a majority of customers have culinary eccentricities when it comes to breakfast. Most of them involve unusual directions for cooking eggs. “I had never heard of runny scrambled eggs before,” Johnson told me.

That’s when I had to tell him that my only lingering complaint about Eggtc. is that the omelets tend to be dry and overcooked instead of fluffy and moist. An omelet left on the grill for even a couple of seconds too long can turn to rubber. “Get your kitchen crews some decent whisks,” I rattled on, “and use milk.”

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Unfortunately, most of his customers seem to prefer slightly overcooked eggs (but obviously not the runny scrambled folks). Similarly, when patrons complained that the chorizo he was using in his Ranchero omelet and Despierto burrito was “too spicy,” Johnson started using a more mildly seasoned chorizo (too mild, if you ask me). But he needs to cast a cold eye at any Kansas City egghead who prefers eating rubbery oeufs to a decently prepared soft omelet.

The place is packed on the weekends, but the wait’s not terribly long, and I thumbed through the newspaper one Sunday until a table opened and a friend and I were seated in the second dining room, dominated by a long shiny communal table. Five sight-impaired customers were sitting there that morning, and I watched an extraordinary young waitress tend to this group with humor and patience, sitting down with them to read the menu from cover to cover. They adored her, and I did, too.

My breakfast pizza evoked more complicated feelings. Bubbling Monterey Jack cheese blanketed a crust covered with scrambled eggs, diced green peppers and tomato, red onions and sausage gravy. It’s more of a novelty than a morning meal, but I was intrigued by the flaky crust, which I assumed had been made from biscuit dough. Johnson later told me that it’s a cornmeal-based, deep-dish, Chicago-style pizza dough. I devoured every slice — even as it reminded me of a freezer-case product that I’d once defrosted and baked in my toaster oven.

I prefer the less-frenzied weekday mornings at Eggtc. It’s mellow enough that Bob, Carol Ann, Ned and I strolled in one Monday at about 8 a.m. and nabbed the best table in the sunny, saffron-colored front dining room, which still boasts the original terrazzo floors from the 1920s (when this space was occupied by a little grocery store). Now there’s a long counter for solo diners, and daily specials are written on a blackboard — which customers should read carefully, because even the best waitresses don’t always remember to tell diners about them.

Ned, who’s a grump until he gets his first cup of coffee, snorted at one of Johnson’s decorative details: Each table is dolled up with a china cup filled with coffee beans and a spray of fabric flowers. “Straight out of granny’s garage sale,” he said, rolling his eyes. But the robust brew roused him, and soon he was regaling us with the hilarious romantic tribulations of a mutual friend. Still, Ned grumbled about his Cobb omelet, saying it was “as dry as the Sahara” and needed more avocado.

I wasn’t sure what a Despierto burrito would be, but despierto is wake up in Spanish and I was pleased by a fat tortilla packed with unrunny scrambled eggs, cheddar, onion and that unspicy chorizo. In fact, Carol Ann loved my breakfast, though she was less enamored with the one she ordered. Her Crepes Cena was a trio of papery-thin crepes wrapped around a rather unimpressive spinach soufflé (once again, it’s that fluff problem) and draped in a “spiced Hollandaise” that was more peppery than spicy.

Bob is one of those patrons who has eccentric demands, but they’re not unreasonable. He likes Eggtc.’s fresh fruit compote — a jumble of purple grapes, blueberries, strawberries and cantaloupe — but insists that it be topped with yogurt mixed with honey. It’s a request that can throw off an inflexible waitress, but here he usually gets his way. And he always orders the same main course, a perfectly prepared eggs Benedict made with smoked ham and a velvety Hollandaise.

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And I should note that the kitchen turns out a top-notch pancake. With a little tweaking, Johnson’s joint has the potential to become one hell of a rodeo.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews