John Zucker sneaks down-home dishes like mac and cheese onto his upscale menu at Cru Café
Food is a complex social mechanism — it embodies emotions, places, and times, conjuring up memories of the happiness and love that were served up by grandma at her weekly Sunday supper. The food that we associate with family and friends and special moments can hold rich meaning. Just think of the turkey at Thanksgiving — who would dare host the annual feast without it? Food also serves a pretty simple function too — sustaining and satisfying us as we get on with living our lives. But who has time to cook up the dishes that we associate with home and hearth? Chicken fried in a skillet? Collards simmered for hours? Pudding that's not out of a box? Forget about it. While dishes like country-fried steak, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, collards, meat loaf, and the like may provide deep comfort and satisfaction and even embody "home cookin'," how often do these dishes get cooked at home anymore? For comfort, we may not be able to replicate grandma's speciality, but there are restaurants that can serve it up, perhaps without the love of grandma, but with all the taste and then some.
Mashed Potatoes & Four-Cheese Macaroni
Downtown. 18 Pinckney St. 534-2434
John Zucker's Cru Café is a homey little place with a cozy dining room and a pleasant porch, and the food is quite inspired. The menu has gourmet fare like duck confit, pâté, and mesclun goat cheese salad, but hidden within it are some simple dishes like mashed potatoes and mac and cheese that provide their own little bit of comfort. The mac and cheese is made with four cheeses (pepper jack, aged cheddar, fontina, and mozzarella) to assure its rich deliciousness, and the mashed potatoes are whipped with heavy cream and butter and are guaranteed to make you feel safe and warm. The smooth and creamy potatoes change flavor on a regular basis — sometimes you'll find herbs thrown in and other times you might get the pepper jack potatoes, which are so good you'll be hard-pressed not to lick the bowl clean.
Jimmy Dengate's fried chicken is good and cheap, which is how comfort food should be
$8.95 comes with a dinner salad andtwo sides
Downtown. 5 Cumberland St. 722-1541
Fried chicken is the ultimate symbol of Southern cooking, one that's been exported to the rest of the world thanks to the Colonel. When it's done right, boy is it good. Lots of local restaurants do fried chicken, but few hit the mark as closely as Jimmy Dengate's, who must have someone's mother back there in the kitchen making sure this chicken is given the proper care. The batter is seasoned just right, the skin is perfectly crisped (and impossible not to eat, even though you know you shouldn't), and the meat is moist and tender. A plate of chicken at Dengate's served with the appropriate array of Southern sides is one way to warm your heart on a cold, winter day.
Downtown. 207 Rutledge Ave. 937-0930
Who knew how comforting chocolate pudding could be? Hominy Grill's little pot of chocolate is richly dense and wonderfully light all at the same time. Once you've had a spoonful of this sinful yet simple pudding, you will never forget it. For the generations who have grown up on Bill Cosby's boxed Jell-O version, Robert Stehling's pudding is an epiphanic delight. It's so good that it beat out countless other items on Hominy's menu that were considered for inclusion on this page (chicken pot pie, braised country steak, pimento cheese sandwich, to name just a few). Apparently, there's a list in Hominy's kitchen of customers to call when butterscotch pudding shows up on the dessert list. We can only imagine how good that one is, based on the chocolate.
The star of Boulevard Diner's veggie plate is the collards
$8 as part of a four-side veggie plate that comes with corn bread
Mt. Pleasant. 409 Coleman Blvd. 216-2611
Many people were queried for this feature to find out their favorite comfort foods, and Boulevard Diner's collard greens showed up with great frequency. Collards take a while to cook at home, so they're not prepared all that often by your average home cook. Who's got time to simmer greens in a pot of pork bones for a couple of hours? When collards are done right, as they are at Boulevard Diner, they retain some of the greens' inherent bitterness (which can be overcome with pepper sauce or vinegar) and are dotted with bits of the pork they've been cooked with for extra flavor. Collards and cornbread are one comforting combo, especially when there's pot likker to sop up.