The greatest hits of brunch can turn into a tired playlist, if you make the same restaurant rounds often enough. Eggs Benedict, omelets, chicken and waffles, avocado toast, quiche, granola and pancakes on an endless loop will put you right back to sleep.
However, a new Caribbean-themed brunch in town is reason to wake up on a lazy Sunday and drive to North Hills Shopping Center in Embry Hills.
An overhead sign reads Havana Soul Cafe, but you have, indeed, arrived at Belle & Lily’s. Despite having been open for nearly four months, the Caribbean brunch house still awaits signage. It’s the only glitch at this restaurant where most everything else — atmosphere, décor, food, drink and service (Rochelle!) — is in sync.
Belle & Lily’s has a sign ready to hang, but apparently DeKalb County has a backlog of permits awaiting issuance. Co-owner Tasha Cyril’s workaround is to tell patrons to look for the Havana Soul sign, as part of reservation confirmations sent via text message.
“We’re going to have to embrace it,” said the industry veteran, who also co-owns Ms. Icey’s Kitchen & Bar in Decatur and Apt. 4B in Buckhead. Likewise, Cyril (nicknamed Belle) “embraced” the 40-seat space sandwiched between a laundromat and a temp agency when she first laid eyes on its clay-tiled floor. Reminiscent of her grandmother’s clay yard in St. Lucia, it was the perfect location for a brunch spot that celebrates her St. Lucian roots — and those of her chef cousin, Aliyah Cyril, who helms the kitchen and answers to the sobriquet Lily.
Tropical design elements — faux foliage hanging on one wall, a colorful floral patterned banquette, a bar front fashioned from corrugated metal with two djembe drums as bar stools — whisk you away to the Caribbean, as does a refreshing glass of house-made sorrel or, for the drinking crowd, a mimosa made with the same syrupy hibiscus elixir.
Little touches conjure Cyril’s childhood, like the modest aluminum plates that her grandmother used to serve food. Enjoy that experience with an order of a nicely seasoned, generously sized beef empanada, which comes with a mojo sauce so magical that they’re going to bottle and sell it soon.
That same herbaceous, olive-oily, citrusy, spicy sauce is what makes the seafood fritters stand out. It’s used as both marinade for the lump crab and shrimp mixture, and as a finish after the seafood is piled on top of crisp tostones with a scattering of microgreens.
Belle & Lily’s also has embraced the heritage of the space’s former occupant, by keeping a Cuban sandwich on the menu. Its Cuban is serviceable — especially compared with a jerk chicken sandwich that offered more vinegary tang than spice — and an accompaniment of crisp plantain chips and fresh mango salsa hit the spot.
Still, what Belle & Lily’s does best is brunch. One of the brunch entrees, the Rude Bwoi, certainly is a stunner. Whole parrot fish, fried to the point of curling, is perched upright as if still alive and swimming. Chef Cyril deserves kudos for partially filleting the fish into strips, so that forkfuls of snapper-flavored flesh don’t come with bones.
Belle & Lily’s strives to appeal not only to the brunch crowd, but also to folks with ties to the Caribbean. A dish like the Mango Season — a skewered stack of French toast made with thick slices of coconut bread topped with fresh mangos and a caramel rum sauce — marries a beloved fruit from island nations with a familiar brunch offering that somehow is light and airy, instead of sugar coma-inducing.
On another visit, I ordered a St. Lucian classic: saltfish and bake. I imagine this beloved breakfast staple might make ex-pats go bananas, as they cut a slit in the warm puffy rounds of puri-like bread and stuff it with a terrific sazon-seasoned orange-red blend of cured cod and sautéed onions, peppers and garlic.
I am going bananas for Belle & Lily’s, too. I’m eager to give the jerk chicken another try, but this time paired with buttermilk pancakes and ginger hibiscus syrup on the Big Batty Gyal plate; to spoon into the Dominican national breakfast dish of mashed plantains, aka mangú; to repeat orders of French toast, and saltfish and bake. And, I want to experience the chill vibe, the quiet conversations, the welcoming, adept service staff and the gustatory pleasures from a talented kitchen.
There’s no danger of this original brunch spot putting me back to sleep.
BELLE & LILY’S
Food: Caribbean brunch
Service: efficient, knowledgeable, welcoming — in a word, exemplary
Best dishes: beef empanada with mojo sauce, seafood tostones, mango French toast, St. Lucian breakfast (saltfish and bake)
Vegetarian selections: plantain chips and mango salsa, cheese and spinach empanada, Half Breed (biscuits and passion fruit butter), mango French toast, Ital Vital (ackee, rice and callaloo), buttermilk pancakes, salad with hibiscus vinaigrette
Alcohol: yes (try the hibiscus mimosa)
Price range: $$-$$$ (20% automatic gratuity on weekends)
Credit cards: all major cards accepted
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays
Parking: free in expansive strip mall lot
MARTA station: no
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: low
Takeout: yes; delivery via DoorDash, Uber Eats
Address, phone: 3350 Chamblee Tucker Road, Atlanta; 470-294-2900
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