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Brunch at Zelko Bistro: Shrimp and Grits

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It took me a while to get to Zelko Bistro. I'd heard the good reports, read the good reviews, and thought about it many times. Unfortunately, the combination of a rather popular restaurant that doesn't take reservations and a tight, babysitter-dictated schedule conspires against places like Zelko.

Last Sunday, we found ourselves with unexpected babysitting, and plenty of time. Zelko quickly came up as an option for brunch. We arrived to find an actual parking space, always a good omen. The half-hour wait predicted by the hostess ended up being a scant 15 minutes, and we were soon seated inside the charming converted bungalow, already half convinced of what we were going to order. We'd snuck a menu from the hostess stand while waiting.

Serious consideration was given to the Chicken and Waffle (made with that fantastic-sounding Captain's Chicken) and the beguiling Boss Burger, but the promise of grits and brioche won out. If there are breakfast/brunch carbohydrates superior to those two butter-rich gems, I'd like to hear about them.

As I'm a fan of gilding the lily, I ordered my Shrimp and Grits with a fried egg on top. Does anyone not go for that option? The dish was as perfectly constructed as I'd heard. The grits were lusciously creamy while still maintaining enough gritty character to earn their name, a hard balancing act with grits. They were also decadently rich, with both butter and slightly pungent cheese shining through.

The shrimp were seasoned simply but perfectly with salt and pepper, and sautéed just long enough to be considered fully cooked, but barely. They were just firm to the bite, but yielded elegantly under further pressure. They also bore that subtle but unmistakable hint of iodine that sets our Gulf shrimp apart. I'm glad Zelko doesn't shy away from it.

The egg on top was fried to a perfect over-medium, so that the yolk oozed out languidly when pierced, anointing everything with an additional layer of richness.

What really set the dish apart, though, was the sweet agave soy ringing the shallow bowl. The earthy, salty oomph of the soy and the overt but measured sweetness of the agave were a sensory shock. The contrast set the other flavors off perfectly. Taken in one bite, the confluence of flavors reminded me of the Japanese breakfast of rice, miso, and Onsen egg that a friend introduced me to some time ago, yet the dish still bore the unmistakable stamp of its Gulf Coast provenance.

My wife's breakfast didn't fare as well. The Gas House Eggs' promise of eggs in brioche was too hard to pass up. Unfortunately, while the elemental yet elevated version of eggs in baskets came out perfectly cooked, it was chronically under-seasoned, with nary a salt or pepper shaker in sight. With a simple dusting of s&p, this might have been sublime. As it was, it was all the more disappointing for the promise it showed. The dish was, however, paired with some of the most perfectly cooked bacon I've ever eaten (I stole a piece, so sue me).

Despite the hiccup with seasoning, brunch was terrific overall. I think next time we'll both get the Shrimp and Grits. Although I do hear the Cap'n calling my name.

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