What is eggs Benedict?



Medical risks



301 Park Ave (corner of 49th St.), New York 10022 (East midtown). (212) 872-4920. 4/5/6 to Grand Central; E/V/6 to 51st St.
Food coma:

My second plate of eggs Benedict at Oscar's, the casual restaurant at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, was the best I'd ever had in my life. Rich, perfectly buttery hollandaise sauce -- with just the right hints of fresh lemon juice and cayenne pepper -- was topped by shaved black truffle, and the sauce itself topped perfectly poached eggs, well-grilled Canadian bacon, and peerless, non-Thomas' English muffins. Three small but thick slices of potato, cooked till soft inside yet very crisp on top, were plated artfully with a couple of asparagus spears plus half a broiled, breading-topped, plum tomato. My mimosa was rich with bubbly champagne. The executive chef even came out to chat about the hollandaise.

I could've eaten another right away without complaint, and I did. Because I'd been invited by a national television show to taste the eggs Benny at the Waldorf, which claims to have invented the dish. Several camera angles required lots of tasting. It needed serious teamwork from not only a patient camera operator and field producer, but also from my gourmet yin and gourmand yang.

That additional delicious dish was my third. I had wanted to try Oscar's before the shoot, so two weeks before, I brunched there incognito. Alas, my first Waldorf eggs Benny, the same one everyone gets, was a terrible disappointment, especially for $16.50. The Thomas' or Thomas'-like English muffins were barely toasted -- soft and steamed in the center. The Canadian bacon was tasteless, the eggs underpoached, and the hollandaise strangely sweet.

Ironically, the crisp, chili-pepper-dusted potato slices, bearing a scrap of onion, had the only pleasing flavor and texture on the whole plate, which lacked any garnish for flavor or color -- and color was needed on that off-white china. A $7 side order of bacon had six paper-thin strips that were well cooked but could've come from any supermarket. The $9 bloody Mary, an attractively poured, cloudy pousse-café of vodka over tomato juice, had zero pepper or horseradish, never mind celery salt or all the other fun ingredients that make a good bloody Mary. I found nothing to note about my $8 mimosa except its wedge of orange. Two diners at a neighboring table -- traders discussing offshore brokers -- didn't even touch their eggs Benedict. I didn't finish mine.

It wasn't the fault of the executive chef; it's unlikely that he was there. As Anthony Bourdain says in Kitchen Confidential, "Brunch is punishment block for the 'B'-Team cooks, or where the farm team of recent dishwashers learn their chops. Most chefs are off on Sundays, too, so supervision is at a minimum."

The Waldorf's claim to eggs Benedict invention is doubly tenuous: the alternate creation myth is more popular, and the Waldorf's own story refers to a restaurant in a building that hasn't existed since 1929. The dish was most likely created by Delmonico's restaurant in the 1860s, when a Wall Street banker, LeGrand Benedict, complained that he was bored by the menu. Chef Charles Ranhofer's answer was this dish, which then became a staple named after LeGrand. But Delmonico's, which has occupied its current building since 1891, no longer serves breakfast or brunch, making the Waldorf the only current claimant that can show off its dish on TV.

The Waldorf's genesis story is that Lemuel Benedict, a Wall Street broker, asked for toast, bacon, poached eggs, and a "hooker" (pitcher) of hollandaise, all as a hangover cure, in 1894 at the Waldorf, where maitre d' Oscar Tschirky -- formerly the headwaiter at Delmonico's -- added Lemuel's invention to the menu.

Evidence for either claim is entirely apocryphal. The second wasn't even in much circulation till after 1998, when Eggs Benedict New York, thanks to feedback from an indirect descendent of Lemuel, dusted off the story, which had appeared in a 1942 squib in the New Yorker. In recent years, cookbooks and other Web sites have been more likely to include the Lemuel/Waldorf account.

But the LeGrand/Delmonico's account still reigns, and the Waldorf in which eggs Benedict was supposedly born was torn down to make way for the Empire State Building. The current, now Hilton-owned Waldorf-Astoria, a twin-towered hotel with fantastic Art Deco lobbies and lounges, serves eggs Benedict in its former coffee shop, which it named Oscar's after Tschirky. Calling it a "brasserie," as the Waldorf does, suggests a Waldorfian sophistication for which Oscar's simply isn't known. It's a milquetoast American hotel restaurant for a lazy audience of upstairs guests too shy to explore Manhattan. On my anonymous Sunday visit, many seats were empty, and there was no street traffic.

Before that visit, I was worried that a Waldorf-Astoria restaurant would be uncomfortably stuffy, a la Norma's at the Parker Meridien or the Knickerbocker Bar and Grill. Ironically, only on my weekday on-camera visit was service formal and reserved. On my anonymous visit, the servers were chatty and cheeky but fast and attentive, serving table bread and drinks in scant minutes, uncapping fresh personal micro-bottles of ketchup and constantly refreshing coffee, yet rushing no one. "Brunch is to relax and enjoy sumptuous food. I expect you to do both," reads a Tschirky quote on the menu. Oscar's is indeed relaxing, but its eggs Benedict, unless Tschirky's successors improve it, can be part of a $40 brunch that isn't worth $14.

If you have brunch at Oscar's, go up the escalator later to explore the lobbies and rest in plush, comfortable chairs. But you're probably better off a few blocks north at Brasserie.

Rest room: Clean and roomy, but small for the restaurant. Unattended.
Handicapped accessibility: All on one floor.

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Food, service

Food coma

Feeling perky
Slight fatigue
Must lie down