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The Joy of Excess

If there really can be too much of a good thing, then breakfast at Norma's ought to be against the law.

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Have I ever kept a secret from you? Never. I confessed to my weakness for Fritos and habanero pretzels and an unseemly (but not impeachable) dalliance with Jujy fruits. So if you've forgiven, or even shared, my more bizarro cravings till now, you may trust my word on Norma's -- the all-day breakfast lounge/luncheonette/freakout station at Le Parker Meridien. I must tell you, it was no problem at all getting my pals to eat breakfast for lunch. Nor even for dinner.

"Breakfast is my favorite meal," crows Bob with his usual exuberance. Then, while I am still brooding about the shabby vagrant fumbling with his brown bag lunch in the hotel's public lobby space, Bob is marveling at the design ("Gregory Stanford," says the well-schooled hostess). "Look how the plastic mats overlap, making a dark square," Bob points out. "And that's where the coffee cup goes. See this, the salt and the pepper fit together. And every leather seat is a different color, subtle but different. Ingenious. Ingenious." Sure enough, what looked at first to my nearsighted eyes like a coffee shop tossed into what was once the padded luxe of the defunct Maurice restaurant is downright spiffy -- rather like a svelte cruise ship.

As for breakfast at 1 p.m.: a sample sip of the day's smoothie is good to the last dribble, prologue to quite commendable plunger coffee. An overstuffed croissant of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs is not merely overstuffed -- it's two croissants, exploding with salt, gentle smoke, and butterfat, a risky ménage à trois I happen to like. The Alabama buttermilk biscuits have lost a bit of character on the trip north, but the savory pulled-chicken-and-mushroom mess they sit on is better than it ought to be. What did the kitchen do to reduce the corned beef to rubbery stubble in Bob's hash? But never mind, I have to force myself to cease and desist from eating my own mountain of caramelized confit-of-duck hash with impeccably poached eggs. Every dish is a portion for two or three or even five. And most come with Sophie's home-fry potato trio or sweet-potato hashed-browns or a mix of sun-dried tomatoes and smoky sweet peppers. Thank heaven the peach cobbler is too sweet, because I've already had four tiny nibbles of the silky berry breakfast pudding. And I am only tasting the sweet oven-dried orange crisps that arrive with the check because that's my job.

Bob is moaning and groaning in pain: "I just got back from the Golden Door. How could you let me do this?" He gives me a plaintive look and adds, "Call me if you need to come back and I'll join you."

"Breakfast is my favorite meal," says Joan, my lunch guest at Norma's a week later, "but I can't really eat because I have to lose ten pounds before my book tour."

"We'll both just take tiny tastes," I promise. Joan, a design seer, spots the Rube Goldberg device on the ceiling over the entrance that cleverly casts a shadow clock on the floor, and identifies the weighty ceramic tableware that I'm clearly nuts about as Sasaki. And what a saint she is, refusing even a tiny taste of my mountainous wedge of "super cheesy French toast" with thick and irresistible slabs of Applewood-smoked bacon. Joan's egg-white-shrimp frittata with oven-roasted tomatoes and spinach makes her feel thinner with each bite. "Why aren't you eating your red-berry risotto 'oatmeal'?" she asks, forking away at it. (Calories don't count if you're filching from somebody else's plate.) She announces that she'll have all her business lunches here from now on.

"Would you mind eating breakfast for dinner tonight?" I ask my pals the Broadway producers. "Breakfast is my favorite meal," cries Fran. They arrive at a near-empty Norma's after a long day of casting. "Did you notice the clock on the floor has eleven where most clocks have twelve?" says Barry. Is this White Rabbit time, I wonder?

Fran studies the menu listings under the headings EGGS-CELLENT, LATER THAN BREAKFAST, CRÊPES WITH STYLE, AND MOM CAN'T MAKE THIS. "I want the 'melted, gooey, four-cheese omelette,' she says. "But someone has to have 'a serious stack of strawberry-rhubarb cakes.' " Her husband rolls his eyes. He's drawn to the menu addenda of pasta and sandwiches titled and there is more.

"This is breakfast, Barry," she reminds him, ordering a serious stack to start and the ratatouille-and-bocconcini omelette after. I've been waiting to try Norma's eggs Benedict on buttermilk pancakes with bacon and asparagus -- a heavenly Monday-night supper, though the Hollandaise could be hotter. Fran's fine pancake skyscraper comes with its own small bottle of real maple syrup. If only every hulking treat were as delicious as Barry's pepper-roasted beef on olive-cibatta rolls (yes, two of them, lacking just an essential pow in the horseradish crème fraîche) and the marvelous sweet-potato fries (with a mini-bottle of ketchup). Alas, the savory sweet-potato pancakes are so undistinguished and the Caesar such a wilted dud, my own mate, the Road Food Warrior, wonders if perhaps my judgment has been warped by the outrageous excess. I suppose uptight aesthetes might be daunted by a monstrous ratatouille-and-mozzarella frittata big enough to park your bulldog on, but I actually like it.

What with the twelve layers of gravlax Napoleon on bagel chips, the creamy crab-and-prawn-salad sandwiches (yes, plural) on toasted pumpernickel, the recurring ratatouille rat-a-tat and so many fries, we sit stunned. I am only grudgingly permitted to order two desserts -- a shockingly normal-size apple-and-pear crêpe and the reassuringly gross molten-chocolate French toast. "Don't you think Norma's could become a mecca for after the theater?" I ask. Fran agrees: "I can see this room full of people eating apple pancakes. Remember Reuben's." The Road Food Warrior is silent, but I can tell he thinks we've drifted into delirium.

Fran has persuaded our most agreeable waitress to mix her some cocoa in the house's glass teapot (yes, they brew real tea). "I'd like some marshmallow fluff," says Fran. "Don't you love marshmallow fluff?"

"Why are you doing this, Fran?" asks Barry.

"It's breakfast, Barry. I like cocoa for breakfast."

"Thank you, Fran," I say. "In my house it was peanut butter."

Breakfast will do that to some people.

Norma's at Le Parker Meridien, 118 West 57th Street (708-7460). Monday to Friday, 6:30 a.m. to midnight. Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to midnight. Prix fixe brunch Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m., $42. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.


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