Brunch is the American siesta as far as I'm concerned. Or at least it's as close as we can get to setting aside the time to be sociable and cheerful.
My favorite of all meals, brunch—a portmanteau of breakfast and lunch, which originated in England to be a next-day meal for those who stayed up too late partying—became popular in America in the '30s.
"It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week," as writer Guy Beringer, quoted in The New York Times, described brunch.
- Photos By Beth Giuffre
- AGHS CLASS OF '08 Meet Michael Avila, Novo's new chef. Avila grew up in SLO County and worked his way up by absorbing the knowledge of his large farming family and by learning from the mentorship of local chefs and his late Portuguese grandma Juanita.
Brunch, it seems, usually involves catching up with loved ones. So if any of you still have your mother-in-law or cousins from the East Coast in town, I suggest you put down those dishes and go to Novo for Sunday brunch.
Novo's new chef, Michael Avila, is a surfer, father of three, and one of the hardest workers I've ever met. During brunch with chef Avila, I learned about his philosophy that the food you eat in restaurants is best organic and fresh, from farmers and ranchers in our own backyard.
Chef Avila sources 90 percent of his produce from the downtown farmers' market, where he and Novo owner Robin Covey find the most seasonal fruits and veggies around—including wild chanterelles and fish and oysters from Port San Luis and the closest shores around. Avila used to work as a commercial fisherman, and even though the menu may not advertise "organic," it's a known fact that Novo sources organic as much as possible from certified and organically producing farmers, many of whom Avila has known since he was a child.
"You build the relationship between the farmers, and I think that reflects in every dish that we put out," Avila said. "It's not just a bunch of people working for a paycheck putting something on a plate. It's family working together with friends in a small community, supporting each other ... supporting our customers. It's just a big full circle, it comes right back."
Avila helped me decide on which dishes to order for the brunch package—a first course, main course, dessert, bottomless mimosas, and Coastal Peaks drip coffee—starting with a mimosa made with freshly squeezed orange juice and the good bubbly (we must never speak of Cook's, dear reader).
For the first course, I wanted to try one of Avila's signature dishes, the lobster Benedict. The eggs were poached to perfection and the hollandaise tasted fresh and well-balanced, and arugula and tomatoes were piled in with the langostino.
- Photos By Beth Giuffre
- BEET SEASON Novo owner Robin Covey, who opened Robin's in Cambria in 1985 (the area's first farm-to-table restaurant), personally selects everything seasonal for Novo's menu from the downtown SLO farmers' market. Right now the beets are fresh and flavor packed. Chef Avila recommends the beet salad for your first course. Garnished with a lovely two-colored beet purée and topped with Central Coast Creamery goat cheese, it will feed your body and soul.
"We have the perfect community," he said. "We have local cattle and farms and the ocean right here. It's just an amazing little goldmine."
Avila grew up in Arroyo Grande, in a large farming and ranching family where both women and men in the family roped horses, grew feed for trade, and grew most of their own food. When he was a young boy, he participated in every chore, but he was drawn to his Portuguese grandmother Juanita's cooking.
"I didn't know how spoiled I was getting home-cooked meals," Avila said about only going out to eat on special occasions and eventually realizing his food from home was the best around.
Under his grandmother's mentorship, his passion for cooking began.
"I was always in the kitchen as a kid and really enjoyed it," he said.
Avila worked in many local restaurants in different food-line and pantry capacities. He worked a stint as a butcher, working his way up to chef positions at Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, Rosa's, and Gardens of Avila. He said his biggest mentors have been local chefs Robert Trester and Gregg Wangard.
- Photos By Beth Giuffre
- POMEGRANATE LOVE Novo's house-made sorbet flavors change by day, so you must ask your server for today's fruit. I could not resist the pomegranate. Look at that rich, natural color straight from the farmers' market crates.
The second component in a good brunch place is, of course, the atmosphere. Situated under a canopy of trees at San Luis Creek, in the old Cigar Factory building, the patio creates natural levels of privacy and fun. The colorful French café chairs and natural woodwork give the place a casual, welcoming feel. Chef Avila said this is the only restaurant he's worked in where he wants to stay and eat. He said he just feels comfortable here, and his staff of 27 and the restaurant's owner Covey are family.
But back to brunch. Diners don't have to choose the three-course brunch package; there's also a full brunch menu, with celebrated Novo dishes including the salmon bisque and calamari made with fresh whole squid. Newer items include the farmers' market vegetable omelet and sweet and savory crepes.
One especially standout dish is the new honey glazed chilled salmon platter—so fresh, the fish had been swimming earlier that morning. I opted for the beet salad garnished with a lovely two-colored beet purée and topped with Central Coast Creamery goat cheese.
In addition to mimosas, Novo's drinks menu also has a bacon bloody mary and a maple bacon old-fashioned.
For dessert, I ended with more coffee, more mimosas, and the house-made sorbet, the flavor of which changes daily—mine was pomegranate. It was not too filling and had just enough balance of sweetness, the perfect way to finish the best meal of the week. Δ
Flavor writer Beth Giuffre is counting down the days till the next Sunday brunch. Send Champagne flutes to firstname.lastname@example.org.