Comfort food in a new zone

The old, familiar favorites take on upscale twists

Sunday Gourmet

October 13, 2002|By Diane Stoneback | By Diane Stoneback,Special to the Sun

Plates piled high with four-cheese macaroni and burgers garnished with onion straws and chipotle mayonnaise represent the latest stage in America's love affair with comfort foods.

The move to comfort was triggered by the approach of the millennium, then fueled by the tragic events of Sept. 11. It seems to be picking up speed with reports of a faltering economy. It's also evolving.

At first, the comfort renaissance simply meant rediscovering the basics: old-fashioned meatloaf, roast chicken, apple pie and the like. But that apparently got old. Now cooks at all levels are taking the basics upscale.

Earlier this year, two national food magazines featured hamburgers on their covers. Restaurants reshaping the all-American burger are taking it to the max. Consider Red Robin in Allentown, Pa. The restaurant's Bonsai Burger includes lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, cheddar cheese, grilled pineapple and teriyaki sauce.

In fact, the restaurant's definition of burger has changed to mean anything sandwiched between the halves of a bun. Pot roast burgers with caramelized onions and slices of roast beef are on the menu. Pulled pork sandwiches have made it, too. Could a meatloaf burger be far behind?

At many restaurants, mashed potatoes aren't just potatoes, milk and butter anymore. They're garlic-smashed or even flecked with little morsels of lobster. Plain toast? It's just too plain when a BLT can be served on a croissant.

Chicken to chocolate

Chicken and waffles, made with light Belgian waffles, are the signature dish at the hot new Philadelphia restaurant Jones. The latest concept from famed restaurateur and idea man Stephen Starr also features Chicken Wing Lollipops, an easier-to-eat, upscale version of Buffalo chicken wings; a shrimp cocktail with Bloody Mary sauce; and a meal called Thanksgiving Dinner, turkey and all the fixings, which is on the menu every day.

Adam DeLosso, chef at Jones, dishes up healthy slices of comfort for dessert, too. Imagine curling up with a blanket, a cup of tea and a take-home portion of the chef's warm Berry Crisp (blackberries, blueberries and strawberries under an oatmeal crumble topped off with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream) or any of his other comfort treats, including Jell-O parfaits, Duncan Hines chocolate cake and rice pudding.

Anyone still in need of comfort can schedule a therapy session with the hot chocolate sommelier at the Ritz Carlton, Philadelphia. Beginning Nov. 1 and continuing through the holiday season, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednes-days and Saturdays, the specially trained Hot Chocolate Sommelier will soothe ravaged nerves by offering assorted hot chocolates from Hershey's to Valrhona, plus homemade flavored whipped creams and ribbons of pillowy fresh marshmallow sold by the inch.

Other hot-chocolate specialties for those seeking solace include Gianduja, a classic French concoction of milk chocolate with toasted almonds and hazelnuts, and the Liquid S'more, hot chocolate with extra marshmallow melted on top and served in a graham-cracker-rimmed mug. The hot chocolates also can be spiked.

The pages of Nation's Restaurant News chronicle the trend to enhanced comfort foods in almost every issue. Writer Carolyn Walkup reports: "Amid widespread worries about economic calamities and terrorist threats, neighborhood restaurants have become welcome havens for people seeking comfortable meals away from home. These concepts share certain characteristics that the public seems to be seeking today. They include a friendly atmosphere where regulars are recognized, familiar American foods, serving as a gathering place for family and friends and attractive price-value attributes."

Ron Ruggles writes about how the nation's chefs are hatching new ideas for chicken sandwiches. Examples? TGI Friday's menu offering of blackened Cajun chicken on toasted ciabatta bread with melted cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, or Subway's sweet onion chicken teriyaki sandwich and the grilled chicken club sandwich at the Hershey Golf Club in Hershey, where the sandwich is enhanced with portobello mushrooms, smoked bacon, spinach, provolone cheese and a balsamic poppy-seed dressing.

During the American Culinary Federation's national convention in Las Vegas this summer, observers noted that Americans are looking not only for comfort and simplicity, but also for greater value in their restaurant purchase as they lose it in their 401Ks.

Touching the soul

If restaurant renditions of comfort foods fail to lift a person's spirits, upscale home remedies are suggested in new cookbooks such as The Ultimate Brownie Book by Bruce Weinstein, The Maple Syrup Cookbook and Apple Pie Perfect by Ken Haedrich, 125 Best Cheesecake Recipes by George Geary, 125 Best Quick Bread Recipes by Donna Washburn and Heather Butt, and Ice Box Pies by Lauren Chattman.

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