Brunch below the border

In case you missed it, here is my review of Rio Grill’s new brunch menu that appeared in last Thursday’s Go! section of the Monterey Herald. I’ll be reposting my reviews and stories from my weekly column for the Herald here on my blog along with extra photos that didn’t appear in print.

Brunch is a curiously misunderstood meal. These days, many diners consider brunch merely breakfast on steroids—breakfast bites fancied up with a few savory selections from the lunch menu.

But serious brunchers know a real brunch is something more, a unique meal that pays homage to breakfast while filling the stomach with a hearty savory feast.

Recently, I ventured over to Rio Grill to taste their new brunch menu, available Sundays from 11:30 until 3:00.

The new Sunday brunch menu at Rio Grill offers many enticing selections.

Everything on the menu looked tempting—classic egg dishes infused with chef Cy Yontz’s signature southwestern flair. Unable to choose just a few favorites to try, we figured we’d order one of everything. We meant serious business—only two items escaped our grasp last Sunday! Split three ways, it was a meal that tested our gastronomic endurance.

We started with steak and eggs—wood-grilled hanger steak over traditional chilaquiles and topped with two over-easy eggs ($19.95).

The steak and eggs was a great start to the meal: perfectly cooked steak with flavorful chilaquiles.

The steak was tender and seasoned nicely, with a touch of smoky woodfire flavor. The chilaquiles—strips of tortilla simmered in salsa until they’re tender—were cooked in a flavorful red salsa, perfectly accented by the runny egg yolk.

The omelette was packed with tender carnitas.

The carnitas omelet ($13.95) came with a blanket of fluffy eggs wrapped around a generous portion of pork carnitas, peppers, onions, spinach and cheese. I appreciated the light touch of heat from salsa verde on top. But the accompanying toast and sweet jam felt out of place.

The biscuits and gravy—two cheddar-scallion biscuits topped with chorizo gravy and served alongside skillet shredded potatoes, applewood-smoked bacon and over-easy eggs ($12.25)—was a sophisticated take on a southern classic.

The biscuits were a little too crumbly, but they were quite flavorful.

The flavors were great, but the textures missed the mark: the biscuits were too crumbly, the gravy too chunky.

The classic eggs Benedict ($15.00) was likewise reinvented for Rio Grill’s Sunday brunch. This preparation included two poached eggs over house-smoked tri-tip, watercress and sliced tomato, topped with Hatch green chili hollandaise.

The eggs Benedict included one of the best hollandaise sauces I’ve had in town.

I was surprised how much I liked the hollandaise. I usually find this sauce too rich, but this one was remarkably light. And the chilies added a unique flavor you’re unlikely to find in other Benedicts around town.

Sadly, the chicken and waffles ($15.50) disappointed. And the fault lay squarely with the chicken.

The chicken and waffles were disappointing.

The four country-fried chicken drumettes needed a kick of flavor. If the breading had been spiked with the accompanying maple-chipotle honey, it might have been a different story.

And I was perplexed by the inclusion of the egg—it felt out of place here.

Next time, I’ll stick to a side of waffles ($3.75), which were fluffy and filling, turning out quite tasty in their own right.

We eyed the pancakes and French toast for a sweet finish. Both are available as an entree or a side. We ordered the side portion, which gave us the opportunity to taste a bite without the commitment of a full portion—especially helpful since I started losing steam towards the end of our epic brunch.

The blue corn pancake was light and fluffy.

The blue corn pancake—made with blue corn and piñon and topped with a sangria fruit compote ($3.75 for a side, $11.50 for the full portion)—was light and fluffy. I liked the crunch of pinenuts.

The sangria fruit compote was better in theory than execution—I wanted a juicier fruit topping.

The pecan-raisin French toast arrived topped with wood-grilled agave-soaked peaches and maple crème fraiche ($3.75 as a side, $11.95 for the full portion).

The spicy grilled peaches gave a nice kick to the French toast.

The peaches definitely stole the show. They had a good kick that hit you in the back of the throat. It was an unexpected surprise that made sure we were awake!

I appreciated that chef Cy Yontz wasn’t afraid to bend the rules with Sunday brunch. His menu at Rio Grill breaks the mold of the traditional brunch basics. It’s a menu firmly rooted in tradition, but evolved to integrate unique southwestern flavors to spice up your Sunday.

Rio Grill is located at 101 Crossroads Boulevard in Carmel. 831-625-5436. www.riogrill.com.

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