Surrey's Café and Juice Bar seems content in the inconspicuous role it first claimed here last summer: nursing its neighbors on a low-key vibe, healthy lunches and therapeutic brunches. Even during an early-winter drizzle the French doors on the cafe's facade are bound to be thrown open, framing a couple sharing newspapers and eggs like a tableau from Conde Nast's last trip to Europe.
Directly inside, a woman behind the beverage bar will be positioned at arm's length from an espresso machine, an Abita root beer tap and a fresh fruit and vegetable juicer. And when you can't decide what your headache needs more, hydration or caffeine, she'll sample a spot of cider-like, Pink Lady apple juice alongside your mug of organic Guatemalan roast.
That's what she did for me when the late-morning rush meant waiting five minutes for a table to clear -- an infrequent and painless occurrence. At least until today, Surrey's has remained a paradise of uncrowded, leisurely brunches. The unhurried service might not get you to church on time, but food can wait when there are bottomless cups of locally roasted, dark-as-night coffee and neighborhood gossip. One table whispered about how the wide-eyed waitress reminded them of that other blond waitress up at Joey K's. While antsy jocks played rock-paper-scissors at the community table in front, I eavesdropped on lifetime Uptowners discussing the probability that Wal-Mart won't survive in the neighborhood as long as they're around.
I ordered a mixture of vegetable juices that morning, which the counter woman pressed from whole food to marbled magenta liquor in less than two minutes. Then, just as I decided it would be perfect pairing for sausage gravy and biscuits, I overheard a familiar voice behind me hissing about the very idea of sausage gravy. The voice belonged to a vegetarian friend who weeks earlier had confided in me about her Sunday trysts with Surrey's, and her hissings revealed what I find is the cafe's overriding attraction.
Its menu is compact, but it's a menu from which vegetarian environmentalists can stick to their regime; from which Grand Slammers can eat a Montana Plate (bacon, ham, sausage, eggs, sausage gravy, biscuit and toast); and from which people like me, who crave carrot-celery-beet juice with their sausage gravy, can eat like I did. Brunch at Surrey's is a lifestyle choice of its own.
The typical white gravy specked with breakfast link-like sausage and smeared over split, crumbly biscuits hit the spot, but I would wait in line any morning for Surrey's Mexican-style migas and huevos rancheros. The former was an ideal combination of fluff and crisp, a chunky scramble you might concoct from random ingredients at home: eggs, tortilla chips, cheddar cheese and raw green pepper, onion and tomato. Meanwhile, a brown, bittery chocolate-tinged mole sauce with red chile punch took center stage in the huevos rancheros, a dish that seemed to have no beginning and no end. Over-easy egg yolks ran like sunbeams through the dark sauce and mounds of creamy, refried black beans -- all allied somehow with soggy corn tortillas, melted cheddar cheese and fresh pico de gallo. When given the option, choose new potatoes browned with onions and herbs over the grits, which came smothered with greasy cheddar cheese but otherwise unseasoned.
While a sometimes lukewarm waffle unfortunately is the only sweet item offered, and only richer than a rice cake when used as a syrup sponge, two lunchier items had nearly enough pizzazz to compete with Chef Greg Surrey's egg dishes. Thick slabs of salty feta elevated a sauteed spinach and mushroom sandwich on chewy French bread like ripe avocado can transform a simple burrito. And a heaping sandwich of pulled pork slathered in a well-balanced smoky-spicy-sweet barbecue sauce was as therapeutic as a bowl of green chiles on a morning after. If the most exotic creature on the fruit plate was a mango, unusually sweet slices of apple, orange and honeydew melon suggested a fruit source no one else besides Whole Foods seems to have a line on yet.
There's a sketch of a woman's mouth on Surrey's menu; a word bubble protruding from her heart-shaped, pierced lips reads "Let the juices flow!", and a collection of produce and a fried egg seem to jiggle and sweat with anticipation beneath them. The cafe's pistachio-green walls are similarly hung with playful paintings full of cleavage and open smiles. You'd be hard-pressed to find a kinder way to start the day on certain weekend mornings.