Sometimes, while on the search for that ever-elusive perfect brunch, certain restaurants fall through the cracks because you just don't think of them as a "brunch place." So it came as a surprise to discover that Hampden's Corner Charcuterie Bar (850 W 36th St.,  869-5075, cornercharcuteriebar.com)—a place I normally associate with dark nights filled with cured meats and robust glasses of wine—had started brunch last spring. And thank god for that, because it was an absolute delight.
And it seems like I'm not the only one who didn't know about brunch at Corner Charcuterie, because when our party arrived (given, it was a bit late), the only other seated table was an awkward date in the corner (seriously, who has a brunch date?). Hopefully that changes, or it was an off day, because everything with the food was spot on.
Our server, who was both friendly and efficient, quickly sat us at a sun-drenched table in the warm, modern dining room. With walls made of geological-looking stacked slats of wood and jazz playing over the speakers, the vibe fit right into the meal: refined yet comforting.
We started with a round of bloody marys ($7) and were impressed. Made daily, the tomato-based mix was more savory than spicy—almost like an alcohol-drenched light marinara sauce—which I found to be a unique take on the classic. There was still heat in the end, something I usually prefer to be the focus, but the balance was welcome, with the mini cornichon pickle floating near the rim acting as the figurative cherry on top. If you're not into bloody marys, the entire cocktail, wine, and beer menu is also available, something I've had good experiences with in the past.
Food-wise, we started with a couple appetizers to split among the table. A small crock of port onion soup ($8) came out bubbling with a thick layer of Gruyere cheese covering French baguette slices. Piping hot with lovely browned edges of cheese, the soup was as rich and decadent as any French soup we've had in the city, with the port wine adding a hint of sweetness that brightened up its deep umami flavor. A plate of Parisian mushroom toast ($9)— essentially, thick slices of brioche bread used as a vehicle for big, buttery, sauteed mushroom caps—were earthy garlic bombs, with the toast sopping up whatever melted herb butter remained. A hearty plate for sure, but split among friends, it became the perfect antidote to our aching heads.
The arugula and smoked trout ($9) deserves special attention, as it was the standout dish in a meal that had many contenders. Smoked in-house, as our server politely informed us, the trout came crumbled among a small, lightly dressed and salted salad of arugula and thinly sliced radishes. A smear of spicy horseradish dressing accompanied the plate along with a stack of toasted crostini, which we used to make mini smoked trout sandwiches. But the trout could have just as easily been enjoyed on its own. Delicate but with a slightly intense combination of trout and smoke, it may have been the lightest thing we had but was most certainly the heaviest hitter. We'll be back for this alone.
Entrees were just as spot-on. A crab cake frittata ($15) came out as a thin, almost crepe-like, airy saucer of egg spotted with large chunks of backfin crab. Sprinkled with chopped herbs and Old Bay, the frittata was less crab cake and more egg "pizza" with crab topping. Which isn't a dig, as it allowed us to really enjoy each piece of crab on its own merit. Our only quibble (and we really tried to find shit to complain about) was that the frittata could have been a bit thicker.
The Peasant ($14), a recommendation from our waitress, was a beast of cured meat, bread, eggs, and greens that had me smiling before it even reached the table. This is the type of breakfast creation I expected at a charcuterie bar: Take a couple of thick slices of good bread, toast them with garlic butter, throw on some fresh green arugula and a heaping layer of prosciutto, and top it with a couple bright orange sunny-side-up eggs. It's basically a European "everything but the kitchen sink." Eggs dripped down into the prosciutto and arugula, essentially making an open-faced sandwich topped with a yolk-drenched salad of greens and paper-thin slices of salty, cured pork. Yes, it was as good as it sounds, but, remarkably, not too heavy. It made for the perfect end to a soulful, European-inspired brunch that we'll definitely be back for.