Cafe SJ7 co-owner Heather Riddle is a mother to five who opened the restaurant with her husband, Mike, in May — two months into a pandemic. Around the same time, a construction project began on Lake Ave. in the St. James business district, where they are located. But none of that has stopped people from flocking to the cafe for its speciality coffees and sandwiches.
As you might imagine, Riddle has been running on coffee herself.
“She knows good coffee,” laughed Apaar Verma, who Riddle hired as chef in October. “Breakfast was when everyone came together [in her family].”
So when Verma started as chef, Riddle came to him with the idea of adding a brunch menu. Verma had previously worked as a chef at a brunch-centric restaurant in Wisconsin and loves eggs. He was all in.
Riddle, who spent much of her life in Florida, loves Southern food. Verma’s parents immigrated from India, and he is a first-generation American. “I grew up with Indian spices,” he said.
You can find both influences on the menu — often in the same dish. Verma loves that he’s able to bring Indian flavors to brunchers on Long Island.
“No places offered an Indian brunch,” he said.
Cafe SJ7 is open for dine-in, take out or delivery, and the brunch and lunch menus are both served all day long, plus a dinner menu on weekends. Verma says the restaurant will introduce a marketplace soon, too. To help you figure out what to order, he dished on some of his favorite menu standouts.
Tandoori Fried Chicken Sandwich
Verma feels this sandwich epitomizes his style and influences. He marinates the chicken thighs for 24 hours in ginger garlic paste, cilantro and a blend of Indian spices. For a Southern twist, he uses a buttermilk marinade instead of a traditional Indian yogurt one. “It has that crunchy, crispy exterior,” he said. “When you bite into it, you get a burst of Indian flavor.”
This dish has quickly become a customer favorite, and it’s something new. Much of the food found on Indian menus in the U.S., including Tandoori chicken, is inspired by Northern Indian cuisine. But the dosa waffles have Southern Indian roots. “It’s still a growing thing in the United States,” Verma said. Dosa is a fermented rice and lentil crepe. “The natural fermentation leads it to being such a perfect batter for a waffle iron,” Verma said. “It rises naturally and creates this airy crisp on the outside, airiness on the inside.” He tops waffles with two sunny side up eggs.
Brussels Sprouts with Whiskey-Bacon Jam
Verma has loved these veggies since his parents told him they were “mini-cabbages” as a kid, and he said winter is the perfect time to order them. “They’re an amazing winter vegetable,” he said. He pan-sears them with butter to give them “a nice crispiness,” then tops them with a whiskey-bacon marmalade he makes in-house.
Biscuits and Gravy
You can’t have a partially Southern-influenced brunch menu without biscuits and gravy. “It’s one of those comfort food things,” Verma said. The dish is made-to-order with eggs and sausage gravy on top. As for the biscuits, they’re flaky, warm and soft.
Verma has noticed Long Islanders have an affinity for TexMex. Del Fuego opened in Babylon Village in 2013 and was such a hit it how boasts four locations in Suffolk County (including one near Cafe SJ7 in St. James). On the North Fork, people flock to spots like Mattitaco and Taco Bout It. Verma is a fan, too, and wanted to put his own twist on the trend with breakfast tacos. “We do hash browns inside the tacos, cheese, eggs, sausage, house-pickled onions, homemade salsa,” he said.
Cafe SJ7 is located at 262 Lake Ave, St James.