New Comfort Levels

Comfort food is synonymous with the nostalgia of childhood — food that transports you to simpler times and away from the realities of life, if only for a fleeting, albeit delicious, moment. The fact is, however, that not everyone grew up eating the same dishes, so definitions of comfort foods vary. For Tory Miller, executive chef and co-owner of Graze and L’Etoile restaurants in Madison, Wis., late-night cravings include noodles with flavors similar to those his Korean ancestors ate. Other times he prefers burgers, a treat that reminds him of working at his grandparents’ diner in Racine, Wis.

“I grew up eating cheeseburgers for breakfast,” Miller quips.

Deviled eggs

Deviled Eggs, along with other small plates at The Cedars Social, pair well with mixologist Michael Martensen’s classic cocktails, prompting guests to try different comfort foods with a variety of unique libations on the menu.

Because “comfort food” means many different things to Miller, he offers an array of dishes at his restaurants to satisfy the equally diverse tastes of his guests. However, the burgers sell best, and Miller says it’s because burgers are the first thing that come to mind when people are drinking. Miller offers two kinds of burgers: The Pub Burger ($10) is prepared with “pastured highland” beef and served on a house-made English muffin with the works — bacon, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, mustard, mayo, ketchup and fries — while the Roasted Beet and Walnut Burger ($9) comes with smoked blue cheese, arugula, sweet onion, pepita brioche, honey-balsamic mayo and fries or mixed greens.

Comfort foods are now the highlight of some bar menus, but at The Cedars Social, which opened this February in Dallas, they are actually the very reason for existence. Billed as a “cocktail den and comfort-food kitchen,” the new hot spot features “classic American comfort food with a modern transforming twist.” The twist comes in the form of Chef John Tesar, who uses local ingredients and new interpretations of old classics.
“Comfort food is appealing to today’s typical drinker/diner at the bar because it is easier to consume small bites while conversing and drinking,” Tesar says. “Additionally, the quality of (comfort) food is better than standard bar food. I really think that the ability to try many things with different beers, wines and/or cocktails is so much more fun and contemporary than the old-school dining experience.”

Cedars Social

Chef John Tesar from The Cedars Social in Dallas creates classic American comfort foods with a twist.

Tesar’s small-plates menu is a hit at the bar, where noshes such as Sliders — featuring short ribs, crab cakes and pepper-crusted tuna — Lollipop Lamb Chops with Blue-Cheese Butter and Deviled Eggs pair well with mixologist Michael Martensen’s classic cocktails. Tesar and Miller are not alone; operators across the country are giving comfort food special treatment at the bar.

Global Grazing, Local Attractions
For slightly more adventurous palates, Miller’s Off-Hours Menu is available late at night and between lunch/brunch and dinner and features a Ramen noodle bowl, pork buns and bibimbap, all Asian favorites. But unlike traditional bowls, he pan-fries sushi-style rice to form the crunchy crust traditionally found on the bottom, thus simplifying dish preparation.

“It makes it easier for late-night cooks, and we don’t have to buy the heavy stone bowls,” Miller says.

Beyond Asian foods, two French-inspired dishes fill out Graze’s snack menu — steamed mussels with crème fraîche ($15) and Croque Madame ($11).

In a large cheese-producing state, many guests favor cheese-focused dishes, so Miller fries up local Sassy Cow Cheese Curds ($7) with a vodka batter and house-made ranch dressing. Graze’s Mac n’ Cheese ($8) features Hook’s 10-year-old cheddar and herbed breadcrumbs. Graze also features local cheeses on a five-cheese board ($14). Truffle-oil popcorn ($4) is finished with aged Wisconsin Parmesan for a comfortably upscale twist.

Pop Goes the Popcorn
Because it’s a whole grain, popcorn is hot with nutritionists, and many wise barkeepers find ways to charge the familiar snack with interesting flavors. Thomas Keller may have started the trend: He offered truffle popcorn when he opened Per Se in New York City 10 years ago.

The trend spans the nation, with Mistral Kitchen in Seattle serving a “popcorn of the day” ($2) on its happy-hour menu; a recent daily popcorn iteration featured truffle salt. Lush Wine & Spirits in Chicago, a “wine shop with snacks,” cooks up popcorn in duck fat, while deep in the suburbs between Baltimore and Washington D.C., Victoria Gastro Pub combines white-truffle popcorn with Parmesan cheese, $4 on the pub’s Late-Night Bar Menu.

Cutting Costs, Raking in Profits
Victoria’s owner, Randy Marriner, says his limited bar menu allows him to decrease kitchen staff from 17 during prime time to five when he closes the main dining room in his 250-seat gastro pub, which also has a 75-seat bar. Being one of the only dining/drinking options in the area gives Marriner a competitive advantage from 10 p.m. to midnight on weeknights and 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on weekends, he says. However, building a casual concept with “upgraded” food is the major reason Victoria is still in business.

“We would have failed if we were fine dining,” Marriner says. “We opened in 2007 — not a great time. To attain success, we wanted to have something for your everyday person. We didn’t want to be high end or low end.”

His most profitable example of a fancy take on comfort food is his lobster grilled cheese with brie and Maine lobster ($16). But the pub’s best seller is its Victoria Pub Black Angus burger ($10) served on brioche with aioli, house pickles and smoked paprika fries.

Treehouse Bar

Treehouse Bar, located in The James Hotel in New York City, serves “pop tarts” filled with anything from foie gras to pickled cherries.

The same is true at P.J. Clarke’s original location in midtown Manhattan, established in 1884, where a classic hamburger ($9.30) outsells all else. There, the entire menu is served from 11:30 a.m. until 3 a.m. — an hour before the bar closes. Maine Lobster Macaroni and Cheese ($20.10) was added this year as a Friday special. Vintage Chocolate Pudding ($7.55), which comes in a large Martini glass, is served every day.

Further downtown at the new Treehouse Bar, located above David Burke Kitchen in The James Hotel, the Kitchen Burger ($15) comes with jalapeño and fries. One of the bar’s “pop tarts” is filled with foie gras and pickled cherries ($9). The playful tarts are wrapped with puff-pastry dough and toasted at the bar, creating an alluring aroma. A second “pop tart” is filled with wild mushrooms and ricotta cheese ($7). In fact, Chef David Burke is best known for adding twists to familiar foods, a habit that has served him well. It might do wonders for your bar food program, too. NCB


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