Early Bird wakes up Fullerton diner dishes
Chef Joseph Mahon put a bird on it.
His new Fullerton breakfast and lunch venture, Early Bird, is as hip as anything that might be spoofed on TV's "Portlandia." The chef-driven menu features local, organic ingredients. Each table in the loft-like space is graced with a succulent terrarium, and yes, the coffee mugs are emblazoned with a mod bird design.
It could be painfully hip, but you don't have to be a foodie to enjoy this fare, which doesn't stray too far from its diner roots. Instead, the restaurant hits the high notes of trends, and it's our taste buds that benefit.
One must-order during breakfast: the griddlecakes ($6.95). Even if you're set on another main dish, order these and call it dessert. The dense, soft discs are closer to cake than what's typically defined as breakfast. A forkful reveals a fluffy white center that's sweet on its own – though fresh berries and whipped cream are still a welcome addition.
Savory items are also a hit. In the duck confit hash ($13.50), hefty pieces of duck are so tender they practically wilt at the sight of a fork. They're mixed in with peppery arugula, potatoes, golden raisins, onions and scallions. This medley is fused by the yolks of two sunny-side-up eggs. Altogether, it's a collection of hearty flavors that pairs well with the richness of the duck. This is not basic meat and potatoes.
Tradition is also set on its head in the Frank Floyd Benedict ($9.50), which incorporates roasted spinach, smoked salmon and Bearnaise in addition to two poached eggs. Instead of an English muffin, the base is a Portabello mushroom. The substitution makes it a gluten-free option, though that's lost on me when I order. I'm only interested in the tantalizing ingredients, and as I hope, they come together to make this a memorable dish. The twin stacks are small but mighty, between the juicy meatiness of the mushroom, salty salmon, bitter spinach and the buttery sauce. Eggs are perfectly poached, leaving whites solid with a golden yolk to ooze when cut into.
On the side, hash browns will allay fears built from years of inevitably undercooked diner taters. At Early Bird, the hash browns have a deep brown crust, and inside, the texture is soft. The kitchen adds a semisecret ingredient to the salty starch – caramelized onions, Mahon tells me, though I can't specifically detect anything except startlingly great hash browns.
Lunch service starts a little after 11 a.m., with a handful of breakfast items carrying over into the afternoon. The pigs in the fryer ($3.50) help bridge that gap. The sausage bites fried in pancake batter meld sweet and savory as well as any fair food, but without being overly greasy. On the side, maple mustard sauce is heavier on the tart spice than the sweetness, another juxtaposition that's tastily intriguing.
The Philly cheesesteak ($10.25) is set apart from the typical by quality components. Meat is free of gristle, and cheddar sauce actually tastes like melted cheese. Jalapenos, caramelized onions and shiitake mushrooms ramp up the flavor. On the side, shoestring fries are crisp but a little undersalted.
At lunchtime as well as breakfast, it's the ingredients that stand out, so much that I'm actually inspired to order a salad. The fried chicken salad ($9.95) starts with arugula and sweet long beans in a relatively light buttermilk corn dressing. Radishes add some crunch, and another perfectly poached egg brings gooey richness. Of course, the stars are the boneless strips of chicken that literally crackle at the touch of a fork. The crisp fried crust makes this salad feel like anything but a sacrifice.
The menu changes a bit day-to-day, depending on what's available. Coffee is constantly evolving. Beans in small batches from around the world are roasted in Placentia, then delivered daily to the restaurant. To some patrons, single-origin, craft-roasted brews are an asset. And to those not familiar with the terminology of single-origin beans, it's just an exceptional cup of joe.
Early Bird is doing breakfast at a higher level, something you don't have to be an expert to enjoy.
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