Since I will be moving to Boston on May 1st, I figured it was about time to do a post on Bella's. The reason I haven't yet is that I am impatient, and on most Sundays (unless you show up at an ungodly hour), there is a wait of at least 45 minutes. I would never brunch-blog based on a memory of when I did stick it out so many months ago, and I simply haven't been able to go the long haul as of late. I also mistakenly assumed that everyone already knew about the place, but as with Lena's, I stand corrected and am eager to spread the good word.
Bella's is significantly smaller than Lena's, and they don't give out free coffee while you wait. No bother, because on a nice day you can hang around Edgewood Park up the street until your number is up (I also do this when it's cold and frozen, but then I try to ice skate in my Uggs, and invariably I fall). Until recently, Bella's also left brunch cocktails entirely to its rival: now you can choose between sangria, a mimosa, and either a peach, raspberry or passion fruit bellini. Though I skipped the alcohol on today's visit, this is a promising development.
Brunch basics at Bella's are good--I've been known to get a short stack of french toast with a side of fresh fruit--but nothing to distinguish it especially from Lena's. Where this colorful, cozy cafe really shines is its specials: I have glutted myself on all kinds of decadent french toasts here in the past, and Bella's has a penchant for tex-mex inspired egg dishes. Today, we went for one sweet special and one savory, and in an atypical turn of events, the savory one actually put my towering whipped-creamy concoction to shame.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The specials menu, as usual, demanded some serious introspection on my part. If I got the strawberry-rhubarb crepe with cream cheese AND ricotta, would I be crossing that fine, but sacred line between "brunch that is sweet" and "brunch that is not brunch, but dessert"? And if so, where would my transgression end? Would I get brunch on Saturday? After 2:00 p.m.? At Dunkin' Donuts? A similar quandary emerged in the choice of savory dishes. The pecan-crusted catfish sounded delicious, sure, but the scrambled eggs kicking it into brunch gear seemed like an afterthought. In an effort to maintain some brunch standards and keep from spiraling out of control, we opted for the challah french toast with berries, brie, bananas, candied pecans and rum maple syrup, and a crepe stuffed with scrambled eggs, wild mushrooms and asparagus topped off with truffle Hollandaise sauce and potatoes.
The french toast was jam-packed with fruit and whipped cream, but a bit over-syruped. I would have preferred a thicker syrup but less of it, and with more concentrated flavor--maybe some berries there to round off the assortment of fresh fruit? Otherwise, though I had no complaints, I simply didn't feel that the "special" french toast brought much more to the proverbial table (because there was sure plenty of it) than the basic menu version with a side of fruit. Sure, the candied pecans should have added some texture, but they got lost in the deep pool of syrup and melting whipped cream that took over my plate.
If there were minor shortcomings in the french toast, though, they were made up for by the seasonal awesomeness of the crepe. I am a big mushroom fan in general, and the strong flavor of whatever wild variety Bella's used for this dish really offset the hint of truffle in the Hollandaise. The asparagus that accompanied it was cut into bite-sized, perfectly crunchy pieces, so the crepe's innards didn't just turn to mush as it sat. I would maybe have loved a bit of sharp cheese--parmesan?--cooked into the scrambled eggs to round the whole thing out, but this might be as much a matter of my personal cheese obsession as it is an objective critique of the dish.
I should also add that though these days I don't eat meat, Bella's has a wide assortment of side sausages that would be a satisfying meal in themselves. We used to order the chicken/apple one, and it was difficult not to just gobble it up before even starting in on the entree.
Finally, if I'm going to be fair and attempt an atmospheric comparison of the two Westville warriors, I have to comment on the Jesus paraphernalia that has begun to creep from the bathroom into the cafe itself. Don't get me wrong--I love me some crucifixion art--but the giant rock (?) slab with a quote from John and a quasi-abstract rendering of Jesus' thorn-crowned head pair awkwardly with the two colorful, more fitting paintings of flappers in the bathroom. Today we sat next to a painting of what we think was a woman reaching for the Shroud of Turin, and though its primary colors matched the restaurant decor, a stock van Gogh or Kandinsky reproduction would have worked just as well.
With that, I'll leave you to cast your own vote in the great showdown of the Westville Brunch Wars. I will likely be just as hungry for french toast and ways to procrastinate when I move to Boston, so stay tuned for the brunch low-down from my new home!