Comfort Food

There's nothing like the perfect burger, grilled cheese sandwich, or roast chicken to cure the winter blues. We scoured the city to find the comfort you crave.

Food for Thought, by Christopher Kimball

Hear the good news! Comfort foods are back! Again!

If this siren call to meatloaf sounds familiar, well, it just means that you’re old enough to remember Julia Child in black and white and Howard Johnson’s fried clam dinner. We are doomed, it would seem, to continually rediscover what we’ve left behind as we race down the culinary road to geoduck clams, pho soups, and miniature towers of watermelon-and-tomato aspic drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Even dressed in Prada and Armani, we can’t seem to shake off the timeless appeal of mashed potatoes, fried chicken, and sides of cornbread. And then, feeling ashamed at the gastronomic ecstasy evoked by a perfect grilled cheese sandwich, we refer to comfort foods as “guilty pleasures,” as if pot roast were the culinary equivalent of extramarital sex or listening to a Little Walter harmonica solo on your iPod during an evening at Symphony Hall.

Here’s a thought: Let’s just give in and admit we are in love with the girl next door, the one who used to invite us over for coffee and a big sweet square of Blueberry Boy Bait. She’s flannel, not cashmere; kisses on the mouth, not the cheek; and she’s mac ‘n’ cheese, not wild-mushroom risotto. Even if you forget to write, she’ll take you back with a welcome-home supper of smothered pork chops, each as big as your fist. And when she smiles, it’s all milk and cookies. You can check your big-city attitude and your cell phone at the door.

I grew up on pot roast, potatoes, molasses cookies, and milk from the cow out back. But since that’s not always possible for city dwellers, restaurateurs have come to the rescue. They know the truth: You can’t run from meatloaf and fried chicken. And if you try, well, it’s just a matter of time. Sooner or later you’re going to want a short stack of buttermilk pancakes with a bottomless cup of coffee. It’s always a good time to pack your bags and head home, thinking of that apple-pie blonde—the one still waiting for you at the kitchen door.

Christopher Kimball is editor and publisher of Brookline-based Cook’s Illustrated and host of the PBS program America’s Test Kitchen.

So we’re out for a fancy-ish meal and scanning the menu. There’s the obligatory truffled whatsits and the fruit-glazed something-or-other. Nothing strikes our fancy, until we see it: the burger. The craving is sudden, and strong. And just like that we’ve gone from undecided to impatient for the waiter to take our order. Now, if we’d known before we left the house that we wanted a burger, we might’ve headed for one of those flame-broiling dives. Instead, we’re in some swank boîte where opting for barbecued fare can feel a bit transgressive. Unless the boîte in question is Caffé Umbra. Chef-owner Laura Brennan says her burger ($13)—a half pound of organic beef, Vermont cheddar, mustard aioli, and grilled red onions on a lightly toasted sesame roll—is the best in town. And after our first bite, we can’t argue. / Caffe Umbra, 1395 Washington St., Boston, 617-867-0707.

Fries are good, even when they’re bad. We confess to liking them soggy, cold, even from fast-food windows. But when we crave real comfort, we seek out the handcut pommes frites ($6.50) covered in salt and rosemary at Sel de la Terre. Presented in an elegant cone of parchment, they’re the size of skinny green beans. Not that we’re partial to skinny—we also love the flat, chunky fries ($4.25) at Chez Henri, where chef Paul O’Connell’s sprinkle of paprika, cumin, cayenne, and dried garlic promises red-stained fingers. And the handcut darlings ($7) at the Metropolitan Club, dusted with aged Parmesan and fried sage and served Belgian style with a truffled mayonnaise dip, might make fry snobs of us yet. / Sel de la Terre, 255 State St., Boston, 617-720-1300; Chez Henri, One Shepard St., Cambridge, 617-354-8980; the Metropolitan Club, 1210 Boylston St. (Rte. 9), Chestnut Hill, 617-731-0600.

When we were kids, if we were very, very good, Mom would cook us pancakes for dinner. Out came the big mixing bowl, the skillet, the butter, and, um, the Bisquick. Okay, so Mom wasn’t your happy-homemaker type. But she taught us an important lesson: Pancakes always make people happy. Now, nothing makes us happier than Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe: Alongside a cup of coffee and the paper, the plate of golden griddlecakes—plain ($5.65) or studded with cranberries, wild blueberries, or bananas and pecans ($6.65-$7.80)—is so big it barely fits atop the narrow counter. But trust us: The bigger the better. For a more ethereal experience, tuck into the signature lemon-ricotta pancakes ($13.75) at the Bristol Lounge at the Four Seasons. Lighter than air and topped with tart candied lemon zest and juicy blackberries, these are lovingly homemade. Not that it would matter, Mom. / Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, 429 Columbus Ave., Boston, 617-536-7669; the Bristol Lounge, Four Seasons Hotel Boston, 200 Boylston St., Boston, 617-351-2053.

Gordon Hamersley recently asked, “Am I only going to be known for my chicken?” True, there’s rarely a mention of Hamersley’s Bistro in local and national press that doesn’t praise his melt-in-the-mouth bird. But when we tried to find a recipe better than his, we were foiled by dry or flavorless facsimiles. The Fireplace‘s pit-roasted half chicken ($19) with sage brown butter was a worthy contender; but sorry, Gordon, you’re still the chicken king. That crispy skin seasoned with tarragon, rosemary, fennel, lavender, and lemon zest and rubbed with olive oil and whole-roasted garlic cloves makes your bird ($25) pure chicken heaven. That’s small comfort to Hamersley, who roasts as many as 80 birds a night and still can’t always keep up with demand. So do the chicken run: Go early and get one while they last. / Hamersley’s Bistro, 553 Tremont St., Boston, 617-423-2700; the Fireplace, 1634 Beacon St., Brookline, 617-975-1900.

Forget boxed or canned. True macaroni and cheese is homemade: a pile of buttered noodles with real, gooey cheese that’s browned crisp on top. Where we go from there depends on the chef. Silvertone takes the recipe upscale ($8), filling pretty soufflé dishes with fat spiral noodles, creamy cheddar sauce, and a crust of buttered bread crumbs. At the Publick House in Brookline, chef Jim Sklaver makes his mac ‘n’ cheese ($10) even better with cheddar, mozzarella, Gorgonzola, Asiago, and Swiss, plus milk, cream, butter, and, of course, pasta. We may opt to doll it up with andouille sausage or spinach, but the dish itself needs no improvement. / Silvertone Bar & Grill, 69 Bromfield St., Boston, 617-338-7887; the Publick House, 1648 Beacon St., Brookline, 617-277-2880.

Pork chops and applesauce: They always seemed such a well-suited pair. Celebrated by stay-at-home moms and The Brady Bunch alike, theirs was a relationship unlike any other. They propped each other up, combated each other’s ailments. Together, they were the ultimate meal. But lately (gasp!) pork chops have been lying in somebody else’s bed. At Chris Schlesinger’s East Coast Grill & Raw Bar, roasted figs and grapes have deliciously replaced applesauce. First the aptly named “monster chop” ($21.50) is rubbed down with sage, rosemary, thyme, and garlic, creating an herbed crust. Then it’s pierced by a spit and smoked for hours over hardwood. The result is a flavor-packed, smoky chop covered in seasoned skin with a succulent baby-pink center, surrounded by a couple of tart little figs. Looks like applesauce will have to learn to stand on its own. / East Coast Grill, 1271 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-491-6568.

If “winter warmer” were in the dictionary, there’d surely be a picture of chili and cornbread beside it. What could be better on a blustery day than a steaming bowl of spicy beef and tomatoes and a hunk of golden cake? But chili and its trusty sidekick are not staples here in New England (where, arguably, we need them most). So we’re lucky to have Steve Uliss, a northeastern native with a southern soul. At Firefly’s Bar-B-Que & Beyond, he serves Texas chili ($4.99) over gooey macaroni and cheese—a decadent combo—but we suggest ordering it straight up so you can savor the chunky, lean meat bathed in a tangy red broth that’s perfect to mop up with—surprise, surprise!—moist cornbread. / Firefly’s Bar-B-Que & Beyond, 235 Old Connecticut Path, Framingham, 508-820-3333.

Poor mashed potatoes. They don’t get the respect they deserve. Always on the side. Always in a supporting role. The lumpy best friend to the golden-girl roast chicken or the studly sirloin. Much like character actors, mashed potatoes have a depth and subtlety that’s too often taken for granted. And when they’re not up to snuff, the plot—er, plate—just isn’t satisfying. On a mashed-potato tour of Boston, we tasted dozens of B-list purées—the watery, the lumpy, the flavorless—at restaurants, including steakhouses, that frankly should do better. Then, at Aquitaine, the Parisian-style bistro that helped launch the South End restaurant boom, we found the real thing: a plate of buttery, velvety-smooth potatoes ($6) that could not only make any main dish shine, but also stand on its own. Call it the Philip Seymour Hoffman of mashed potatoes: unassuming but powerful. Now that’s respect. / Aquitaine, 569 Tremont St., Boston, 617-424-8577; Aquitaine Bis, 11 Boylston St. (Rte. 9), Chestnut Hill, 617-734-8400.

A mother we know made meatloaf with what her daughter remembers—wrinkling her nose—as “white stuff in the middle.” Sour cream, chopped mushrooms, Worcestershire sauce, and scallions, the mom said, made her version “truly gourmet,” which it was . . . in the ‘50s. Thankfully, we didn’t find anything similar anywhere in town. But we did find a damn good meatloaf ($18) at Eastern Standard. Chef Jamie Bissonnette grinds beef, eggs, ketchup, onions, and celery with three other key ingredients that make it a winner: pork belly, which adds a subtle meatiness; carrots for texture; and a loaf of brioche for a touch of sweetness. “Growing up, I loved meatloaf at my friends’ houses,” Bissonnette says. “But the one at my house was inedible.” Now he’s one-upped moms everywhere by elevating meatloaf to haute cuisine. / Eastern Standard, 528 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-532-9100.

Pot roast is cooks’ magic. Take a cheap cut of fatty beef, vegetables, stock, and seasoning; throw them into the oven for a few hours; and—ta-da!—unveil hearty, cut-it-with-a-spoon beef that’s perfect on top of buttery egg noodles or whipped potatoes. Even the most amateur cook can pull off that stunt. So just imagine its potential in the hands of a professional. Executive chef Jeff Fournier of the Metropolitan Club uses meaty veal stock, a dash of cream sherry, and some artistic vision to conjure up a “deconstructed” pot roast ($20) for his chic clientele: 12 ounces of brisket, a sculpted roast potato, and sweet carrots, artfully arranged side by side, then drizzled with unctuous gravy. The best trick of all: the way it magically disappears. / The Metropolitan Club, 1210 Boylston St. (Rte. 9), Chestnut Hill, 617-731-0600.

There’s a time and place for avocado. But not in our grilled cheese. Which is why we generally reject souped-up adaptations of this classic sandwich (apples, Brie, goat cheese, oh my!)—and why we love Picco. Chef-owner Rick Katz butters slabs of sourdough, sandwiches melty Gruyère, then browns it to crisp perfection in the restaurant’s $30,000 state-of-the-art pizza oven ($7.95). A pregrill smear of Mornay adds that special something extra. / Picco, 513 Tremont St., Boston, 617-927-0066.

The finest restaurants boast dessert lists drowning in molten-chocolate soufflé and raspberry-truffle cheesecake, but nothing turns a table of adults into giddy gradeschoolers faster than a stack of freshly baked cookies. At Great Bay, we elbowed one another out of the way for triple-chocolate, oatmeal-cranberry, and white-chocolate cookies ($9) still warm from the oven, served with ice-cold milk. Varieties change at the whim of the pastry chef, offering the perfect excuse to visit often. We could have dunked all night. / Great Bay, 500 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-532-5300.

If we couldn’t live in Boston, we’d want to live in Bologna, the stunning Italian university town where they’re smart enough to have invented one of the greatest dishes of all time: pasta Bolognese. The sauce of ground meats, tomatoes, and cream manages to be richly layered and unbelievably homey all at the same time. No. 9 Park‘s Barbara Lynch learned to make her showstopping rendition ($19) from an Italian couple in nearby Tuscany. Lynch starts with mirepoix (diced onion, celery, and carrot), then adds chicken livers, veal stock, red wine, cream, sage, veal, lamb, and pork—”never beef,” she says. Served over handmade tagliatelle, the dish remains true to the town that inspired it. / No. 9 Park, 9 Park St., Boston, 617-742-9991.

If it’s true that anything good is even better deep-fried, chicken tops the list—a sinful treat that (bonus) you can eat with your hands. Mind you, we’re not talking fast food. As fried-chicken connoisseurs know, the trick is in the thorough preparation, with ample time set aside for the prefry buttermilk soak. At Chef Lee’s II Soul Food, the tender-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside chicken ($9.45) can make even a displaced southerner feel at home. Never pink or dry, the (white!) meat is as good as the lightly spicy batter. And for fans who prefer to keep their hands clean, the Paramount offers a neat and tidy fried-chicken sandwich ($7.50). / Chef Lee’s II Soul Food, 554 Columbia Rd., Dorchester, 617-436-6634; the Paramount, 44 Charles St., Boston, 617-720-1152.

It’s little known today, but one of the older definitions of the word “Yankee” was “one who eats pie for breakfast.” “What [else] is pie for?” Ralph Waldo Emerson retorted when a European (impudently) asked him why. Despite its historic importance, finding a perfect slice—with flaky crust and al dente, lightly sweetened fruit—isn’t always easy. Thankfully, there’s PÄ”tsi Pies, where Renée McLeod serves up traditional apple, blueberry, and—our favorite—sour cherry crumb ($2.95 a slice) at three small tables or for takeout. (If you need a breakfast fix, McLeod starts baking at 3:30 a.m. and the pies go on sale at 7.) In town, Tremont 647 chef-owner Andy Husbands honors Yankee roots with a pie of the day ($7). The filling varies with the seasons but the crust is always buttery perfection. / PÄ”tsi Pies, 285 Beacon St., Somerville, 617-661-7437; Tremont 647, 647 Tremont St., Boston, 617-266-4600.

Reported by James Burnett, Erin Byers, Alyssa Giacobbe, and Julie Suratt.

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