Brunch at Benjy's

"I don't want to go to Washington Avenue on Sunday morning. It smells like piss and Jaeger," said my friend Brandi.

Thus we chose the Rice Village location -- and the original, it should be pointed out -- of Benjy's (2424 Dunstan, 713-522-7602) for brunch this past Sunday, after my friends learned that I'd never eaten at the restaurant before. Walking inside the space next door to Antone's, I was suddenly chagrined. How had I never been here before? It was absolutely beautiful inside, all modern deco with a vague Miami feel and high ceilings and brilliantly studded white leather wingback chairs. Even if the food was awful, I was in love with the decor.

Luckily, the food stood up to its reputation as a fabulous brunch spot, as did the Bloody Mary that was set down in front of me along with a cup of coffee. "You brought me coffee and booze at the same time," I told our waiter, Gary. "You're my hero."

That Bloody Mary verged on a bit too thin -- I like to really taste the tomato juice in my breakfast cocktails -- but was vigorously flavored with coriander and bright habanero pepper juice that screamed its way up the straw at me. What a way to wake up.

When it came time to order, I went against the tide of people at our table, 66 percent of whom were ordering some iteration of Benjy's famous French toast. If it was so famous, I could just steal some off my friends' plates. I went with the miso Caesar salad and the lazy shrimp tamale, which matched my mood Sunday morning.

Despite our waiter's claim that it tastes "weird," I enjoyed the miso Caesar. I'll admit to not tasting a whiff of miso in the dressing -- it tasted just like regular Caesar dressing, in fact -- but I liked the crunch of marcona almonds in place of croutons and the citrusy-sour punch of the grapefruit slices that cut through the fatty dressing. I may just start topping my own Caesars at home with some ruby reds.

The lazy shrimp tamale made me laugh when it arrived; I saw then what the menu meant by "lazy." The shrimp were swimming in a rich brown sauce that almost reminded me of shrimp etouffee (although my Cajun friend shot me a very nasty look when I said so) minus the rice. The little ceramic boat the shrimp were in was covered with a thick layer of masa, which had been baked and was now temptingly bubbly at the edges where the shrimp sauce was seeping out. The avocado and crab salad that lay on top made the dish verge on almost too rich, but I managed to heroically make my way through it.

Meanwhile, the others were inhaling their French toast. I snagged a bite from a giving friend and was surprised by how good it was. The stuff didn't even need syrup. And I loved that the thick pieces of toast had been coated with crunchy bits of nuts that vaguely reminded me of Grape Nuts if Grape Nuts didn't nearly break your fillings each time you tried to eat them. French toast at Benjy's is indeed deserving of its "famous" appellation.

I found myself very happy with the brunch, if not the service -- coffee was barely ever refilled, silverware wasn't brought out, no refills were ever offered on mimosas, etc. -- and keen to go back. Now I just need to start working my way down the rest of that "never been to" list...

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