Sunday, November 15, 2009

Westville Brunch Wars: The "Lena's" Edition

Before life got a little hectic and my brunch blogging ground to a halt, I found myself in a bit of a bind. Our go-to Sunday establishments, Bella's and Lena's, are across the street from one another in the "village" of Westville, New Haven. When it's been a busy week and I'm in need of a sure thing (that "thing" being typically a french toast souffle), I just can't muster up the curiosity to go anywhere else. I assumed that everyone was as familiar with these mainstays of the local brunch scene as we are, and that blogging them would be akin to putting in my belated two cents on oysters at the Union League Cafe. But, based on a few recent conversations, it seems that not everyone is up on the wonders of Westville, and that's a shame.

We hadn't hit Lena's for a couple of months before today, and I was happy to see that all was as we left it. One of the cafe's selling points over its competition up the road is that there's free coffee and tea if you have to wait (and inevitably, you will). There is an impressive array of flavors to choose from while you settle into a lounge area with well-worn couches and magazines, including my personal favorite, coconut macaroon. The furniture is also positioned for prime viewing of the day's confections.

Lena's has plenty of tried-and-true fundamentals on the menu, including the house special french toast souffle (a hefty slab of challah bread with vanilla, cinnamon and crème anglaise) and a solid range of omelets. The real draw, though, is the separate menu of weekly specials, and this week's was unusually impressive even given a high bar. I was torn between the caramel apple stuffed french toast (which I ultimately went with) and a twist on the usual souffle that included apricots and blueberry crumble. James contemplated a shrimp omelet, but settled on one of the more inventive options: apple and fennel fritters topped with poached eggs, Hollandaise sauce and asparagus with a side of home fries. If we were beef eaters, one of us would surely have ordered a blue-cheese crepe with sirloin.

All of the specials, which typically run around $13-$15, include your choice of bottomless coffee, tea or juice. Since I had already helped myself to a lot of free caffeine during a wait of about fifteen minutes, I ordered some grapefruit juice for the first time at Lena's. Now juice is expensive and it comes with the meal, but I can't say that I wasn't disappointed to see that bright-pink, lots-of-sugar-added stuff that was dispensed from a machine in my college dining hall. It was completely incongruous with the fresh, cozy feel of Lena's, and I'd rather have had to pay $2 more for the real stuff. For $5, I could have had a mimosa or glass of sangria, a fact which was charmingly presented on a blackboard with multicolored chalk.

The entrees were very good, if not the best I've had at Lena's. The apples in the stuffed french toast were cooked just right, slightly mushy but not falling apart, but the mascarpone and caramel filling blended a bit too easily into the whipped cream at the center of the plate. I'm a mascarpone nut and so my opinion might be skewed, but I would happily have tolerated slightly more of it to offset the tartness of the apples. The presentation, as always, was lovely, with green apples in the main dish and red apples as garnish.

James' fritters were moist and chewy, and the fennel paired well with the Hollandaise sauce in what could have been a bizarre combination of flavors. The broken yolks of the poached eggs also made a nice topping for the asparagus, which James sliced up to mix in with the fritter-mush rather than leave on the side. As with the french toast, though, the dish would have benefited from just slightly more sauce, since the fritters were a generous size and quickly sopped up most of what was there.

All in all, Lena's specials fall just a *tad* shy of their ambitious conception. But in a great space run by friendly people and so full of sweet ideas, I'll gladly give an "A" for effort and keep coming back for more.

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