GRAZING: If you hate brunch, you might love Belle & Lily’s
‘Each entrée you see looks beautiful’
First, I hate brunch. Second, I like conch. Third, I love Belle & Lily’s Caribbean Brunch House.
I could just leave it there, but I feel obligated to explain what is so reprehensible about the average brunch. It is basically a post-coital ritual that’s been around for a century under one name or another. The deal — at least since the 1980s — is that you get drunk Saturday night, fuck someone you don’t know, and then go have an unsightly meal Sunday before 2 p.m. to treat your hangover, make small talk with your new conquest whom you are putting on display to cause envy among your tittering friends at a nearby patio table who are toasting you with their weak mimosas. You join them at their table. Later they will commend you for fucking and feeding someone with Donald Trump’s image tattooed just below the left armpit. Or, maybe, you just stumbled out of church and need a pancake and a huge mimosa to take the edge off all that scary preaching.
Usually the food, calculated to fuel you for breakfast and lunch, has always been eggs, waffles, pancakes, and somewhat more adventurous dishes like grilled hot dogs atop latkes sprinkled with black beans and chopped morels, plus CBD syrup on the side. It is worth mentioning that if you happen to be gay, brunching is a mandatory part of coming out and, when you eventually cease the habit, you will be presumed dead. My first partner Rick, a foodie, dragged me every Sunday to a post-hippie vegetarian brunch place in Augusta. This was the late ‘70s. I’ve been mainly dead since 1980.
Weirdest of all to me has been the emergence of restaurants that only serve brunch all day, every day. I presume this is a marketing ploy for the most part. My annoyance aside, I’ve learned the truth is that in the right hands, brunch can provide a genuinely creative thing. By the “right hands” I mean good chefs, not former line cooks from Waffle House (even though the super-cheap “All Star Special,” upgraded to country ham, is my go-to pig-out breakfast).
So, all of that said and in praise of good chefs, I can’t recommend the fairly new Belle & Lily’s Caribbean Brunch House enough. The restaurant, located in a shopping center not far off I-85 on Chamblee-Tucker Road, is owned by the folks behind Ms. Icey’s Kitchen & Bar and Apt. 4, both upscale Caribbean spots. The leaders of this new venture are Tasha Cyril (nicknamed Belle), and her cousin Aliyah Cyril (Lily), who is executive chef. The restaurant’s marketing notes that it is black-owned and woman-owned. Not to be a pig, but, my god, Belle and Lily are gorgeous.
The dining room, which is small enough to make reservations a good idea, is informal, comfy, and has some elegant features like a wall from which greenery sprouts, as I used to see in every other fine dining spot in Los Angeles. Okay, the plants are plastic here, but it’s still a great effect. I’m also impressed that a bird of paradise bloom, adorns the restaurant’s logo.
The food is, obviously, Caribbean. Not to brag, but before I met the brunch-loving partner mentioned above, I was married briefly to a Cuban woman whose mother was an outrageously good cook. She opened my piehole to a broader investigation of Caribbean cuisine after my five-marriage. What we ate here in Atlanta until relatively recently was mainly jerk this and that, but you could drive to the suburbs and find tiny weekend diners serving more exotic food, unfortunately mainly from steam trays, but it was a start. I learned a lot.
When you take your seat at the restaurant and look around, you’re going to immediately notice how each entrée you see looks beautiful. I’m talking almost mysterious. Meanwhile, though, you’re going to try out the less glamorously presented appetizers. You’ve probably had most before but the flavor here is going to blow you away. My companion Ms. Rose and I ordered a classic Jamaican beef patty and two empanadas. The immediate zap of both apps was the pastry. It was fresh, it had flavor. There’s no way they could have been sitting in some warm-up device for hours. The empanadas were filled with chicken, cheese, and spinach (beef is available) and you could taste everything. By that I mean it wasn’t baby food dominated by a single prosaic seasoning. Ditto for the beef patty, a yellow pillow that I resisted placing against my cheek as I do with most biscuits. There are other compelling appetizers available, like conch fritters, crab and shrimp tostones, and a “half breed” biscuit with passion fruit butter. (I don’t recall Cher eating a biscuit on her horse.)
Belle and Lily’s is not cheap overall, although the sandwiches – Cuban, fried grouper, and jerk chicken — will run you only $13 to $16. Entrees have a broad cost range, but you’re not going to want to eat the more boring stuff, so plan to spend over $20. As I mentioned above, I love conch and I bypassed the conch fritters to order Lambi, described as “St. Lucian style grilled conch with seasoned rice and mesclun salad.” The great problem with conch, of course, is that it can be chewier than a dog toy. I’ve mainly eaten Italian dishes with it and most have avoided that. I agonized with the server about this. She was clear that the conch was somewhat chewy but not invulnerable to teeth. So I ordered it. The conch was cut into small cubes and, well, I’m sorry to say I found it challenging. I loved the buttery but spicy salad and the almost risotto-like rice. And, of course, I was soon chomping on the conch and ate every bit. But be warned: it ain’t tender. You do get violet petals with it!
Ms. Rose ordered a more conventionally brunchy dish: Big Batty Byal, described as “Halal jerk chicken & buttermilk pancakes with ginger hibiscus syrup (dark meat only).” It was strewn with pink petals. It is probably a measure of my avoidance of brunch, that I was shocked by the pancakes. They were super-thick but fluffy. The chicken retained full flavor under its jerk seasonings and the syrup was tangy with the ginger. I love ginger. In fact, I ordered a bottle of their house-made ginger beer. It could become a serious addiction. (I just weaned myself off a shockingly good, very strong, very cheap, but embarrassingly sourced ginger beer.
I look forward to returning to Belle and Lily’s, maybe on a Sunday, when things get quite lively. I thank them from the bottom of my heart for smashing my brunchophobia and restoring the cheerful optimism that I lost on that afternoon in the ‘70s when I announced I was done with alfalfa-sprout burritos and homemade corn flakes. —CL—
Belle & Lily’s Caribbean Brunch House, 3350 Chamblee Tucker Road, 470-294-2900, belleandlilys.com @belleandlilys