Written by: Ben Phelps
Chai Spiced French Toast at Kiwiana
I’m not very in to sweets. Never have been. That statement usually hits people like a wet mackerel to the face. What – no dessert? Sometimes… But I’m the guy who orders a cheese course when everyone else at the table has moved on to molten chocolate cake and caramel panna cotta. Want sugar with that coffee? No thanks – I’m sweet enough.
So it was with no shortage of surprise that, after taking a bite of Caroline’s order of French toast at a leisurely brunch at Kiwiana in Park Slope, my own jaw registered the incredulous smack of the mackerel. I ignored my own fantastic order of bangers and mash and dove into her plate with such force that the people at the next table recoiled a little bit. The thick cut brioche, slowly soaked in an egg mixture was fluffy, almost airy. The outside, coated in a chai spice mixture and pan fried until a thin crust of caramelized sugar is formed, created an underlying sweetness without being over the top. And that’s where the real success of the dish lies: nothing was cloyingly sweet.
A side of mixed berries brought acidity, nicely cutting through the rich layer of a freshly whipped cream quenelle, while the syrup, served in a small tin cup, was a nice counterpoint to the subtlety of the dish. And it was upon a second trip to Kiwiana when I actually ordered my own plate of French toast, that I used most of it.
When we sat down with Kiwiana chef and Top-Chef alum Mark Simmons on the two-year anniversary of his successful Brooklyn restaurant to ask him why-chai? his response was, “I love chai and I love French toast.” Plain and simple. He went on to let us know that the New Zealand style of cooking isn’t far off from the ethos of Southeast Asian cooking in that, even though the ingredients from the two cultures are different, a good dish should be balanced with sweet, savory and sour notes. When we asked how the New York and Kiwi dining cultures differ, he said, “New Yorkers are extremely savvy diners – and have the strongest opinions. If they don’t like something, they’ll tell you. And that’s great. A New Zealand ex-pat who comes in and doesn’t like something… they just won’t come back.” While Caroline and I are also of the vote-with-your-feet persuasion, I doubt this is an issue the stellar kitchen at Kiwiana faces very often.
Hey – remember that bangers and mash dish I got distracted from the first time around at brunch? Well, that wasn’t fair – because it was outstanding. Mashed potatoes are meant to be topped with charred Chinese sausage and grilled bok choi. Yep – this little piggy ate that too. Guess I’ll do some more time on the rowing machine, and down bowl after bowl of slimming gazpacho or chirashi soba.
An altered version of the French toast is also offered on the dinner menu as an appetizer topped with… wait for it – foie gras. I can only imagine that the decadence level reaches new heights on that one; but also may be a great jumping off point for both the food-adventure seeker – and the diner who is as on the fence as I am about dishes that don’t have at least some salty element to them. And you can rely on the chai to really deliver on several flavor notes because, as chef Simmons says, “Some people say variety is the spice of life – but I believe that freshly ground spices are the spice of life.” So take that plain-old-sugar.
My mind isn’t entirely changed on sweet breakfasts. I’ll always roll way more savory than sugary. But breakfasts like the massively enjoyable chai spiced French toast at Kiwiana go a long way in my mind towards shattering my preconceived notions on the matter.