It's noon on a Sunday and all seems well at Top Knot. A man sits at one of the marble tables on the patio; his date appears to be a newspaper, a bowl of fresh fruit and a cocktail. Girlfriends catch up over glasses of freshly squeezed juice and plates of Thai French toast. A chicken sandwich goes half uneaten due to its dubious state of doneness.
Okay, scratch that. All is mostly well at Top Knot.
Top Knot occupies the second floor atop its sister restaurant, Uchi. Whereas Uchi’s focus is contemporary Japanese cuisine, at Top Knot the dishes are influenced not only by Japan but by Southeast Asia and Latin America as well. The brunch menu in particular also dips into Western-style fare with things like biscuits and gravy ($5), sour cream cornbread ($4) and fried chicken Benedict ($12).
Our table opted for a starter of miso-caramel pull apart nabe ($9). Nabe (short for the Japanese word “nabemono”) refers to something in a pot. Typically, one might think of a hot pot dish: a burbling, ceramic bowl teaming with broth, noodles, vegetables and the like. Here, Top Knot uses hot ceramic as the vessel for pull-apart sweet rolls. Fun to eat and to share, these rolls pack a punch of sugar. Diners wanting nuanced pastry will find these buns lacking: Whatever miso is there becomes lost to the sticky caramel and bites of candied pecan. But they are sure to hit the spot for those with a serious sweet tooth.
For something on the more savory side, try the onigiri ($7). Onigiri is extremely popular in Japan – most convenience stores carry these portable rice balls. In its traditional form, plain or salted rice is formed around some kind of filling (typically fish) before being cloaked in nori. Top Knot’s spin on this Japanese mainstay is far from portable: A small cylinder of rice supports a poached egg and a bird’s nest of razor-thin scallions. The rice is fried until the exterior develops a crispy layer, providing a nice contrast to the white, glutinous interior. There is no filling, so the rice relies primarily on the tangy red sauce that accompanies it for a boost of flavor.
Due to its portion size, diners would be advised to order something to accompany the onigiri. The hot fried chicken bun could, theoretically, be a nice accompaniment. Two bites into this five-bite sandwich, we realized that the chicken was not done. No Parker House roll or cornichon gastrique can compensate for wet, pinkish chicken. Had they been made aware of the situation, the kitchen would undoubtedly have made it right. With or without correction, instances like these may give diners pause.
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An order of katsudon ($12) fared better. The slightly chewy pork cutlet makes for the kind of hearty start to the day that a lumberjack could truly appreciate, particularly in combination with the accompanying rice and fried egg. Nestled between the cutlet and the rice is kimchi caramel: tangy, hot, slightly sweet and full of umami, these flavors make the dish more memorable than if the pork and rice were left to their own devices.
Diners might opt for one of the aforementioned freshly squeezed fruit or vegetable juices ($4-$6) to pair with brunch or choose from the selection of boozy libations ($5-$12). Skip the Vietnamese iced coffee, which proved pitifully weak and could not be remedied by sweetened condensed milk, no matter how much one stirred.
At Top Knot, the prices are on the higher side. The portions are on the smaller side. When these two facets intersect, diners naturally expect masterful results. Top Knot’s brunch proves less masterful and more conceptual. Some of these concepts work and some simply need work. Others, still, just need more time in the fryer.
Top Knot, 2817 Maple Ave., is open for brunch every Sunday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.