Serving breakfast for dinner appeals to discerning customers and chefs alike. "When you look at most breakfast foods, they taste pretty darn good," says, John Nihoff, a professor of gastronomy at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., who points to the growing interest in gourmet variations on breakfast stalwarts, such as the new Iberico ham from Spain, which comes from pigs that are fed only acorns. Meanwhile, more chefs are discovering that serving breakfast foods after noon doesn't have to mean going downscale. "Anyone can serve breakfast food at dinner. If I slapped French toast on the menu that wouldn't mean anything, but paired with figs and foie gras, it's like, wow," says Bill Brodsky, executive chef at the oceanside Twenty-Eight Atlantic (which recently earned a 3-star rating from the Boston Globe) in Chatham, Mass.
Perhaps most important, many people find a good breakfast to be satisfying for the soul as well as the stomach. "Breakfast has a better image than any other meal," says Leon Rappoport, who surveyed hundreds of diners on their feelings about food for his 2003 book How We Eat: Appetite, Culture and the Psychology of Food. He says that people generally associate the morning meal with family, coziness, and casualness, whereas dinner feels formal, heavy and even sad, particularly among young men. Thomas Keller, chef and owner of French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. and Per Se in New York City, (both of which won 3-star ratings from the Michelin guides) says happy childhood memories inspired his gourmet take on toad in the hole, which recently appeared on Per Se's vegetarian tasting menu. "That was what we used to have when we were kids. Mom would take a piece of bread, put a hole in it and cook it," he says. Per Se's iteration replaces white bread with brioche, and the hen egg with one from a pigeon or quail.
Many chefs also enjoy concocting endless riffs on basic breakfast foods like bread and eggs. "Bread goes with anything," says Keller, and "egg is the only protein that you use 24 hours a day in a savory and a sweet." That versatility explains why pain perdu an authentically French version of French toast makes a regular appearance on the French Laundry menu. But it's never ordinary. Cooked with bone marrow, tomatoes or truffles, it is hard to recognize as a variation on French toast in the first place. Other New York chefs' inspired takes on morning food range from the minimalist sable and coddled eggs, served as the second course at Telepan, to the spectacular sea scallops "benedict" appetizer at davidburke & donatella, which starts with a base of two hashed-brown potato cakes, then artfully piles them with sea scallops, poached quail eggs, chives and a cloud of lobster foam on top.
Sometimes what sounds like routine breakfast fare on the menu is really just the chef's way of making a little mischief. The newly renovated Picholine near Lincoln Center in Manhattan serves a dish called "bacon and eggs," in which the bacon is actually smoked tuna belly. And Brodsky once featured "green eggs and ham" in homage to Dr. Seuss, which was actually a truffled spring pea custard served with proscuitto chips and caviar. "I did it to have some fun and not take myself so seriously," he says. For diners too, lightening up about what to eat for dinner definitely hits the spot.