"Brunch is probably the most honest meal of the week. It's where you just let it out. It's food, booze, group therapy."
On any given Sunday at Sinema in Nashville, chef Dale Levitski is more than happy to help diners work through their issues, mainly by lovingly swaddling them in soft bread, salty ham, tart apples, sweet shallots, an oozy egg and a crisp cheese halo—chased by a beer, just in case that combo seemed too austere. It all adds up to the croque-madame on which the former Top Chef finalist built his career (see the recipe) and his reputation as one of the most inventive brunch chefs in the country.
"Most chefs think of it as a throwaway meal or a necessary evil, but brunch is my wicked little passion and talent," Levitski says.
The self-taught chef ran a couple of lower-key restaurants in Chicago before being tapped to succeed chef Grant Achatz at the now-shuttered Trio when he left to open Alinea. Many people would likely try to ape Achatz's experimental, upscale bent to audition for the post, but it was the croque that convinced owner Henry Adaniya that Levitski was the right fit for the prestigious position. "The emotion in this sandwich spoke to me," he told Levitski, who has since taken that on as a sacred weekend calling.
"Brunch is the place where I really like to shine and make people happy, because that's where people are most vulnerable," Levitski says. "It's right when you wake up, you haven't had your coffee and you're starting your day, and, here, you get to do it in a magical way." And in keeping with the spirit of his previous restaurants, that magic tends to be reserved for an adults-only audience.
In 2011, Levitski made national headlines for all but banning children under 12 from brunch at his Chicago restaurant, Sprout. It was a practical decision on his part, he says, owing to a narrow, three-star space strewn with delicate stemware and cutlery that could potentially be jostled by strollers. "It was just more of an adult place, not like the pancake house down the street where you can mash your Cheerios into the banquette," he says, adding, "That did not go over well."
One Mother's Day, at least one potential diner threatened to sue, but he stuck to his guns and brought that grown-up ethos to Nashville, bolstered by a boozy "bubble service" featuring make-your-own mimosas.
"I think it's okay to say that adults can have their space on Sunday morning and not have to hold their tongue, because Jimmy or Katie is next to them. Sometimes you really want to drop your Saturday-night story on the table and not have to hold your tongue. I think that's a great sanctuary for adults." The decision has earned Levitski thanks from "a lot of people," he says. (For the record, "well-mannered" children are technically allowed at Sinema brunch, but the patrons are overwhelmingly over 21.)
With that much free-flowing booze and bawdiness, a hearty meal is de rigueur. Levitski's take on the croque in fact hatched one night while he was "slightly intoxicated" and watching a Domino's pizza commercial where cheese was baked to a pan. The next morning making Parmesan crisps, he was suddenly inspired to plop bread in the center of the skillet, pile it high with cheddar and scatter more around the slice, creating a crisp cheese halo that was fused to the bread. From there, he added the signature ham of the monsieur (the addition of an egg makes it a madame), plus the sweet and tangy apples and shallots that along with the salty and rich elements add up to what he calls "flavor math."
"It's this amazing, crazy yummy thing that's like the French classic but kind of in a really terrible American way, being much more fatty and awesome."
While it might not be a prescription for perfect physical health, a brunch like Levitski's may be the ideal mental respite before the workweek kicks in.
He laughs, "Oh, this sandwich will put you DOWN. You will need a nap after this, but it's a happy nap."
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