Esca Vitae is now closed.
I’ve been working on a review of Esca Vitae’s breakfast for longer than necessary.
“I just need to go back one more time. For research,” I whisper to myself, because I’m creepy. “Just one more.”
It’s easy to stop going to a restaurant when it lets you down. Food doesn’t even need to be bad; it just needs to be meh. A meh meal won’t put you off a restaurant forever, but it doesn’t have you planning a return engagement.
Esca Vitae hasn’t given me a meh meal yet. Every time I go in I get something different. And every time I go in I find myself deeply delighted by something new.
Any one of the dishes I’ve had would be enough to keep this restaurant on my mind. But everything has been so good that it is an actual challenge to keep this from being an every single day indulgence.
Part of that credit goes to the team who opened the shop in the hollowed out bones of Prairie Thunder Baking Co. From the beginning the baked goods have been on point. Loaves, rolls, pastries — all of them excellent.
But the new breakfast menu is also the purview of general manager Mitchell Dunzy, who has blazed a trail across Oklahoma City’s restaurant scene with stints at Saints and Meat Market Refectory among others.
Dunzy is an extremely talented chef and, it turns out, a teacher. He’s trained his staff to make some truly decadent breakfast items built on the solid foundation of excellent breads.
There are a few dishes that I am legitimately obsessed with. I will travel to New Mexico to eat really real carne adovada. I am powerless before the might of a great Philly cheese steak. And there is no breakfast I love more than a croque madame.
To paraphase Shakespeare, a croque madame by any other name would taste as sweet and Esca Vitae has such a beast under the heading “ham and swiss toast.”
The “Toasts” section of the menu is killer, thanks in large part to the wonderful bread Esca Vitae makes. Ham and swiss toast ($9) starts with a thick slice of toasted bread, topped with real ham. Oh what a difference real ham makes.
I have eaten plenty of deli hams and processed ham steaks and what have you and they are, by and large, okay. But those chopped and reconstituted hams are usually pumped full of water, salt and sugar to boost the flavors that you get naturally in a shaved-off-the-bone ham. Look at the striations in the meat. That’s how you know you’re getting the good stuff.
Swiss has a funky, umami flavor that pairs well with ham’s sweetness and melts like a dream on the toast. On top, of course, is a pair of gently fried eggs with whites clearly struggling to hold back the gushing torrent of egg yolk.
Are you feeling kind of amorous right now or is it just me? Just me. Yeah, I kind of figured. I’m a weird guy.
While I knew the ham and swiss toast would be up my alley, the mushroom toast ($7) lobbied the traffic commission to get the alley changed into a thoroughfare of flavor. Does that analogy makes sense? I guess I don’t care.
Sourdough toast is topped with a mushroom cream gravy and a perfect fried egg. It’s decadent to the extreme. Eat this with the full understanding you’ll be taking a nap sometime soon. Pure luxury on a plate.
If you’re in a hurry, check out the pastry counter to the left of the register. There you’ll find a couple of my most favorite breakfast treats.
The morning bun ($3.50) is like a popover made love to a cinnamon roll under a waterfall of orange zest and powdered sugar. It’s sweet, but not pucker-you-up sweet. It’s chewy in the center and flaky around the edges. Goodness me. I don’t know anyone who’s ordered one of these and left anything less than enchanted by the magic of the morning bun.
For a savory twist on the morning, the spinach and cheese croissant ($3.25) is a wonder of engineering. Outside, it’s all croissant — airy, buttery, crisp and flaky with a nice pull — but inside you get this creamy spinach and cheese mix painted on the inside walls of the pastry. If this thing showed up on a dating app, I’d swipe whichever direction indicates I want to spend the rest of my life gently nibbling on its lacy, buttery crust.
The croissant is a workhorse at Esca Vitae, as evidenced by the croissant sandwich ($6). A “plain” croissant (as if such a thing could be considered plain) is sliced lengthwise and filled with cheddar eggs and bacon so thick it’s basically cured pork steak. It’s steacon. I don’t know how many slices come per pound, but I’m guessing it’s six. Ridiculous.
Keep some napkins nearby, because this is an incredibly buttery dish and some of it will end up on your hands.
Another one of those “obsessive” dishes for me is shrimp and grits ($15) and I think Esca Vitae has some of the best in the metro.
The grits are thick and slightly toothsome, not the thin mush too often served in restaurants, and the cooks have deftly used the spice rack to give it just enough flavor to keep you engaged through a pretty weighty meal.
The poached eggs are gorgeous and when the yolk mixes into the grits, it creates a new, rich yellow flavor that reminds me of my childhood. There’s bacon strewn throughout and, of course, five perfectly poached shrimp. There’s a pop and snap to each of these beauties and it’s a task to space them throughout the meal, because they’re so excellently done you’ll want to devour them all in an instant.
Lunch deserves (and will receive) its own review, but if all Esca Vitae did was bake and make breakfast, they’d be a success. Why this place isn’t packed every morning is a mystery to me. Maybe that will change now that you know about it.