The egg came first. And, oh mon dieu, what an egg this was.
Presented in a ribbed-glass pedestal and sprinkled with fleur de sel, the hard-boiled Chinese Herbal Tea Egg wore a rich mahogany crackle, like raku-fired pottery, and an exotic fragrance of cinnamon and star anise. It seemed almost too pretty to eat, as with most things that emerge from the kitchen at Eggshell Bistro, Carmel City Center’s sweet daytime cafe. Here, the bubbly French juice Orangina is treated as a design element in vintage signage and tabletop bud vases, and a simple fruit mix du jour might, on any given jour, include pomegranate seeds, a slice of starfruit, or a blackberry as fat as your thumb. You want to sit back, admire the work, add it to your mental Pinterest board. And then, maybe, eat it.
At a time when restaurants are jumping on the gourmet–comfort-food bandwagon, Eggshell Bistro is not. Owner Larry Hanes’s tight menu of barely a dozen breakfast and lunch choices shows restraint. An order of sweet-potato hash turned out to be a rather small nest of shredded potatoes cooked to a hash-brown crunch, the starchy sweetness countered by nubs of chorizo, black beans, jalapeño, two delicate poached eggs, and a dollop of creme fraiche. I cleaned the plate in a matter of minutes, feeling like Andre the Giant at my wrought iron–and–marble bistro table so small that the server set the water carafe off to the side, on the windowsill. “To give you more surface space,” she explained.
The austerity can be off-putting, of course. Diners who consider small portions almost unpatriotic might not immediately realize, for example, that just a tiny ramekin (a “tasting” in Eggshell terms) of creamy, robust Anson Mills stone-ground grits topped with Grafton cheddar is enough to evoke Southern nirvana. And that a few select bites of smoked lamb bacon make the sweet, gamey, full-mouth flavor of the meat all the more enjoyable. Plus, that’s all you get.
Hanes, a voracious collector of vintage industrial accents and retro restaurant equipment, has tastefully outfitted the small space inthe image of a French flea market set up in somebody’s Tribeca loft, most notably with well-worn Tolix chairs that he imported from a cafe in France and a gorgeous 1950s manual Italian Gaggia espresso machine with elaborate hand levers and a grill as polished as the front end of a Cadillac.
Since opening the restaurant, Hanes’s first such venture, the Cincinnati transplant has gone on a quest for vendors who mesh with his “glocal” food sensibilities. That has included an Oldenburg wood-fired bakery that uses organic ingredients; Indy’s Lick Ice Cream; and Mast Brothers Chocolate, a cottage-industry chocolatier that brings its Cataula beans into New York Harbor in the hull of a wind-powered boat. There are also the expected nods to local purveyors: Traders Point Creamery cheeses in the brioche-based Trifecta, and Capriole goat cheese in the Mixed Heirloom Potato Frittata and (warmed) in the Bistro Salad. “I see myself as a curator,” says Hanes, who has a background in branding and graphic design. “I go out and find these products, and I bring them all together here.”
A tiny cup of white bean–and-chorizo soup has the soul of a cassoulet—with fresh kale tossed in just before serving, so that the leaves gently cook in the fragrant steam coming off the soup. The Quintessential Quiche is dense yet fluffy, every bite a cheesy souffle of applewood bacon, bits of tomato, and sauteed leeks. A reverence for the poached egg shows up in a grilled pancetta crostini as well as a pork-belly panini with pickled onions. The truffled-egg brioche places the gently steamed egg atop a layer of softened fontina topped with chopped asparagus. Eggshell’s small kitchen, hung with mismatched copper-bottomed pots and obscure cooking utensils (is that an English toast-warmer?), might be pioneering a new food genre in this town. Call it short-order Julia Child.
Eventually, Hanes will add evening prix fixe spreads to coincide with performances at the Palladium. He also wants to do some French intensive gardening on the roof of the building, and start an outdoor movie series come summer. And maybe he can’t stop curating. After all, it’s easy to plan for the future in a place where the day is always young.
51 W. City Center Dr., Carmel, 317-660-1616, eggshellbistro.com
HOURS 7 a.m.–2 p.m., Tues.–Sun., plus select evenings
This article appeared in the April 2012 issue.