Egg-ceptional Dining

Written by R. Jill Fink, Food Editor | Photography by Chris Red

Ah, breakfast… there’s something luxurious about waking to the smell of savory bacon, sitting down to perfectly cooked eggs, and a mug of fresh coffee. But who wants to get up, schlep to the kitchen, cook and then clean up the aftermath? With the trauma of tax time and the impending summer heat, why not take a little break? The place to do that is located virtually in the center of town.

The Egg & I, owned by brothers David and Stephen Casper, is the perfect place to treat yourself to a magnificent breakfast. It’s the 12th fastest-growing chain in the country and 3rd on the list of fastest-growing restaurants. Newly opened March 2nd of this year, The Egg & I is the 114th location for this franchise in the U.S. and one of nine in Florida.

The Casper brothers grew up in the restaurant industry; their mother owned several eateries and they decided to follow in her successful footsteps. Their decision to open this beautifully decorated establishment created 45 jobs in Ocala. The company itself was started in Fort Collins, Colorado back in 1987 and is now owned by E & I Holdings, Inc.

But what makes it so different? Breakfast is breakfast, right? Not really. It’s not just the smiling employees or the gorgeous artwork on the walls of the lobby, the freshly squeezed orange juice, or the stellar service. The space offers comfortable seating and a lovely patio dining area. There’s also a free wi-fi and a free, private meeting room that seats up to 35 guests and includes a big-screen HD LCD TV. Best of all, though, is the elevated approach to the elegantly crafted, healthier food they serve. They also offer wonderfully fresh and tasty lunch options.

Based on a philosophy instilled at inception, the focus for the corporation is upon fresh, healthy ingredients. I was shocked to find there are no deep fryers in the restaurant. Steve Casper explained, “It’s healthier for our customers as well as our cooks.” They also make their soups and dressings from scratch. Steve explained the way they roast seasoned Roma tomatoes in-house for the savory, bright flavors of their vegetarian Tomato-Basil soup with crunchy, homemade sourdough croutons and a sour cream drizzle.

They offer an entirely gluten-free menu as well as a kid’s menu. Children can choose “Smarter Choice” options like fresh fruit, sliced apples with raspberry yogurt for dipping, or a small salad with choice of dressing. All of the kid’s meals are $4.99. Their little faces will light up when “The Hooper” hits the table. This mega-slice of French toast, decorated with fresh apple wedges for eyebrows, halved fresh grapes as the eyes, a button of butter for the nose and a big slice of crisp, delicious bacon as the mouth is a visual delight. The “Alli Baba” is an adorable, fluffy pancake in the shape of a cute bear’s head. Fresh grape eyes, a whipped butter nose, and a juicy, perfectly-cooked sausage patty mouth creates a fun and engaging treat for the little ones.

While you can certainly call ahead and get an order to go, I highly recommend visiting when you have the time to enjoy the surroundings and impressive service. For me, a great breakfast starts with quality coffee. I’m a bit of a java nut, so I know my coffee, and the brew at The Egg & I is spectacular. Gourmet beans, ground fresh for each and every order, are offered in four mainstays and a “seasonal blend,” which the restaurant changes with… you guessed it… each season. You get your own personal carafe of coffee at the table so it stays hot while you enjoy that first amazing cup. You can choose from the House Blend, Hazelnut, Dark Roast Rainforest Bold (my favorite), Seasonal Blend or Decaf. Seasonal blends include flavors like Vanilla Nut, Southern Pecan, and Pumpkin Spice.

Menu offerings are plentiful, but one of the dishes I highly recommend ordering is the crisp and light Patriotic Waffle. This red, white and blue delight arrives decorated with ruby-red, jewel-like raspberries and plump, fresh blueberries along with a good shake of powdered sugar. Another great choice is the massive bowl of Berry-Ola Steel-Cut Oatmeal, garnished with crunchy granola and those phenomenal raspberries and blueberries. This comes with a bowl of fresh, juicy honeydew melon, sweet strawberries, and sliced apples.

Feeling indulgent? A must-try is the Crab Cake Benedict, served on a huge platter. On a base of English muffin halves, two succulent, grilled crab cakes rest on tangy slices of fresh tomato. Each is topped with a perfectly poached egg and a hollandaise sauce that is somehow light and lemony, yet creamy and rich at the same time. Ranch Potatoes accompany this amazing dish, and I have to say they are the best potatoes I’ve had in a restaurant setting.

The Apple-Cinnamon pancake is a meal all by itself: a mammoth multi-grain pancake embedded with thin slices of red apple is pretty much like Thanksgiving on one plate. If you’re in the mood for an omelette, you can try offerings like the Philly Cheese Steak or create your own. One of my favorites was from the lunch menu: the Chicken Salad Sandwich on Cinnamon-Raisin toast. Its sweet, crunchy exterior pairs perfectly with a generous portion of cool and savory chicken salad. Other offerings include a plentiful Breakfast Burrito topped with sour cream and guacamole, Corned Beef Hash & Eggs with a side of that luscious hollandaise, and a unique Greek salad packed with pitted kalamata olives, feta cheese, and expertly dressed with a tangy homemade vinaigrette.

“We like to be very involved in the community,” Steve said. The Casper brothers made the decision to align with a charity before the doors even opened. On March 1st of this year, the day before their official opening, they did a “mock opening” and offered free food for the entire day. There was a catch, though: patrons were encouraged to leave donations for the Ocala Domestic Violence Center, resulting in $3,800 for the local charity.

Melissa Whitaker, the General Manager, couldn’t be more thrilled with or proud of her restaurant. She was ecstatic while explaining her intensive two-month training experience in Denver before the grand opening. Everyone I met, from the sparkling Floor Manager, Chastity Walters, to the gracious and humble James Jones, one of their talented cooks, seemed genuinely delighted to serve their guests.

The Egg & I is located at 303 SE 17th Street in the Churchill Plaza in Ocala. Close to the downtown hospitals and the Historic District, they are open Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. and every weekend from 7 a.m. until 2:30. They give a 10% discount to all military personnel as well as seniors, aged 60+. You can call in your order to 352-236-7094.

So, what’s next for the brothers Casper? They love this franchise so much they are planning on opening as many as four new locations in Lake, Sumter, Citrus and Marion Counties. I think that’s “egg-cellent.”

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