Sunday, August 19, 2007

Beyond "Baby Food": Comfort Restaurant

Comfort foods have gotten a bad rap in the past. Unsophisticated, mushy, and invalid are all words I’ve heard to describe foods like meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes. In a piece included in the Best Food Writing of 2001, William Grimes denounces comfort food as “baby food for adults” citing its universally soft texture and neutral color scheme (usually brown, white, yellow, dull green, etc). However, a new restaurant in Richmond, Virginia is giving restaurant goers a venue to relax and enjoy a meal as comforting as pink bunny pjs with footies. Appropriately named, Comfort is an unpretentious space filled with smells of home.

Richmond is an old city, marked by horse-and-carriage sized traffic lanes and a painted-brick downtown. It lacks finesse, but retains a certain charm that encases a budding restaurant scene. Comfort is a restaurant that maintains the kind of charm that reverences old tradition while showcasing a cuisine that brings traditional classics to a new level. The restaurant is painted a pale yellow and features an antique exposed brick wall behind the unpretentious bar area, which serves traditional cocktails like Sidecars and Mint Juleps. It only seats about 60, situated in a corner storefront complete with creaking glass door. Oak tables line the front of the house with a few intimate banquettes closer to the kitchen.

After being shown to the“fishbowl table” (the exact one in the picture above), we were given a simple piece of paper outlining our choices of appetizer, entrée, and side items. I quickly downed the sweetest of sweet teas, served in a classic Mason jar with straw, and ran off to the bathroom. Antique linen chests dot the individual restrooms, and a chalkboard with eraser and chalk tempted me. Scribbling a hurried, “Don’t miss!” after washing my hands in the porcelain pedestal sink, I hurried back to my dinner companions, my heels clicking on the ceramic tile floor that reminded me of the kitchen surfaces I used to play on as a little girl while my mother stirred her famous goulash at the stove.

After gazing into the soft eyes of Sunday dinner on the face on the menu, we finally decided on our fare. One friend chose the baked trout, wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon. Accompanying the trout would be mashed potatoes and a generous helping of macaroni and cheese. The other friend chose a large porkchop, surrounded by green beans (Comfort would never be so pompous as to call them haricot verts) and creamed spinach. I chose meatloaf. I personally believe that meatloaf is harder to perfect than the most delicate of classical dishes. It is far too easy to end up with a dry, flavorless meatloaf that has to be doused with gravy or ketchup to retain any kind of integrity. I thought that by ordering the meatloaf, I would be putting the restaurant to the ultimate test. If you can make a good meatloaf, you can cook – at least in my book.

Everything was fantastic. It was pure and unfettered food that spoke volumes about the way Americans like to eat. The trout was perfectly flaky and, aided by the bacon, tender and moist. Pork chops, to me, are a difficult sell. They are often overdone and dry. This one was crusty and brown from searing with a pretty pink center that oozed juice and flavor. The crunchy green beans were blanched and then sautéed with bacon and its fat. Perfection. I don’t know why I love creamed spinach as much as I do. I wanted to ask for seconds. I was happy with my meatloaf as well. The two thick slices stood tall on my plate, ladled with a modest amount of mushroom gravy. Moist and flavorful, the meatloaf was a testament to Americana. The star of the show, though, was dessert.

I have had my share of banana pudding horror stories. I once spent eight hours assembling forty individual banana puddings in ring molds, Nilla-wafer crust lined with paper-thin long slices of banana and filled with banana-liqueur-spiked pastry cream and topped with whipped cream, for a Cypress Restaurant wine dinner. The one we ordered at Comfort was much less painstaking and equally – if not more – delicious. Served in a shallow ramekin, cookies and sliced bananas were placed on the bottom, and covered with vanilla pudding. It wouldn’t have been as exciting as it was if it hadn’t been bruleed. A thin coating of caramel was torched on top of the ramekin in the style of crème brulee. The crunch of the caramel against the silky pudding and tender bananas was almost too much to handle. Why didn’t I think of this?

Comfort is great food for a moderate price. Drinks, dinner, and dessert came to about $25 each for the three of us. If you, like me, grow tired of the hoity-toityness associated with fine food, stop by Comfort on your next road trip up I-95. It’s fuzzy slippers and Saturday morning cartoons.

Comfort: 200 W. Broad St. Richmond, VA 23220 (804) 780-0004

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