I don't remember where I first heard the "all food is comfort food" mantra (was it from Nigella Lawson?), but even the tiniest bit of reflection unearthed a whole list of discomfort foods (many of which I have enjoyed, but at the right time, in the right place; I can't imagine turning to these when I want soothing): cold jellied eels, pickled pigs' feet, chitlins, brains, blood pudding, sea cucumber, and anything involving insects. For starters.
With seemingly even less reflection (I like to eat), I put together a list of my personal comfort foods that grew to rival Mark Twain's famous one in A Tramp Abroad of more than 80 American specialties he'd missed during his European travels. (In some cases our choices overlap: Southern fried chicken, for example, which I have down merely as "fried chicken," but after all, Twain specifies 10 of his dishes as "Southern style." He also includes at least a couple of discomfort foods: possum and coon.) When I glanced through my jottings, most of which were savory, I discerned a textural thread: Sometimes I want resilience -- like warm, bloody, fibrous, chewy flesh, whether steak or lamb chops or ribs -- and sometimes I want slumping softness, meat braised or stewed until it falls apart. The textures that recurred the most in my catalog, however, were creamy, pillowy, soothing: spaghetti carbonara, or, in a lazier mode, just noodles sauced with lots of butter, grated Parmesan, and pepper; creamed spinach; chicken à la king (don't laugh if you've never made it from a good recipe and a good bird); stinky cheese, "more running than standing" (as M.F.K. Fisher says), which might be on another's discomfort list; and mashed potatoes, beloved of both Twain and Fisher, who liked hers "whipped to a firm cloud with rich hot milk, faintly yellow from ample butter" and garnished with ketchup, a preference she also attributed to Twain, but that is too jarring for me. I prefer Nora Ephron's method, using heavy cream, as explicated in Heartburn: "In the end, I always want potatoes. Mashed potatoes. Nothing like mashed potatoes when you're feeling blue. Nothing like getting into bed with a bowl of hot mashed potatoes already loaded with butter, and methodically adding a thin cold slice of butter to each forkful." Much more satisfying, I think, than getting into bed with a chilly bowl of ice cream.
Then I had a revelation. On the whole, my list was a generic one. Some specific dishes, fewer than I would have imagined (because going out to a restaurant is less inherently comforting than eating at home), came from homey restaurants: the vanished Tick Tock, a Midwestern farmhouse kitchen magically transferred intact to Hollywood; the equally long-gone Swiss Echo. But the longest list of comfort foods, which I can happily still savor, came from my mother's kitchen. And not the fancy dishes, but the daily fare -- corned beef and cabbage, brisket, spaghetti sauce -- prefaced in every case with "her." Nobody can duplicate (I've tried!) her special way of quickly sautéing chicken livers, then serving them rare and still melting-soft on a bed of rice faintly colored and flavored with a few threads of saffron, sided with a crisp green salad dressed with her equally special thick, mustardy vinaigrette.
All these thoughts led, inevitably, to a desire for a dinner of comfort food, and I asked my friend Peter to make reservations at a spot I like for Sunday-night supper, as I'd be in a movie when the place started answering its phones. But "[t]hey told me they've stopped serving dinner on Sundays," Peter said, "so I booked at this other place that sounds like what you had in mind: Chenery Park."
"You're psychic," I said. "That's a place that's been on my list for ages."
On a chilly dark night, we enter a warm and bustling oasis on an otherwise quiet street; we're greeted with equal warmth and guided up a couple of flights of stairs to the third level, then tucked in a corner at a simple wood table and chairs. From our perch we can gaze out over the whole restaurant, which is nearly full with chattering people in a celebratory mood (we hear "Happy Birthday" sung three times).
There are lots of things on the menu that we want to try, both comforting (starters of bourbon butternut squash soup with pumpkin seed praline, baked macaroni and cheese) and, shall we say, challenging (P.E.I. mussels with spicy rouille, smoked beef carpaccio with fried onions, lemon and garlic crostini). We begin with braised pork belly for Peter, a big, thick chunk sitting in a lovely reduction, graced with plump, sweet muscat grapes, reminding me that melting fat and suave mouth-feel are comforting. I get a beautiful pâté plate: creamy pork rillettes, the shredded pork blended with the cool, silky fat; a faintly peppery rabbit terrine; and a lush slice of foie gras pâté with crisp crusts and cornichons and two tiny pots of mustard, smooth and grainy. We share a crock of the mac and cheese, soft pasta swimming in a sauce that combines Gruyère, white cheddar, jack, and Parmesan to good effect, and baked under a blanket of crunchy bread crumbs.
We couldn't be happier with our main courses. Peter goes straight for the Sunday special, supple beef brisket in several thin slices bedded on strongly horseradished mashed potatoes and bourbon braised red cabbage. I think about panko-crusted catfish with french fries and rémoulade; or lamb sirloin in a red wine and rosemary sauce with gratin potatoes and sautéed spinach; or the comfort-food express of medallions of turkey with chestnut bread pudding, Brussels sprouts, and a Campari cranberry sauce (even knowing that I have two Thanksgiving dinners coming up in the near future). But I end up with Chenery Park's grilled double-thick pork chop, which is so miraculously tender that I wonder at it; grilled pork chops are so often tough, even if tasty. "At the very least, it's brined," I say, and our server tells me this luscious piece of meat has been brined, braised, smoked, and then grilled. Almost as miraculous are its happy accompaniments: three perfectly roasted German Butterball potatoes and escarole sautéed with bacon and strips of sweet, tangy dried apricots. As with my mom's best dishes, Chenery Park's recipes and execution are unique and uniquely delicious.
I finish strong with a round lemon pudding cake of such divinely melting consistency that I'm amazed it holds its shape, anointed with fresh raspberries and whipped cream. Peter finds his chocolate angel food cake a trifle dry, though he loves the tart blackberry-cabernet sorbet it comes with, but this is his only quibble with our long, voluptuous meal. I leave in love with the restaurant, its street (we linger outside the antique store next door and the cheese store across the street), its neighborhood. All is right with the world -- such a happy effect that when I get home I immediately try to book my parents for a second meal there.
But it's a short holiday week, and even the thought of fried chicken on Monday or chicken-fried steak on Wednesday (or that pork chop any night of the week) can't draw them down from their hill before my deadline. I'm sad. "Look," my dad says, "if you like it that much, I can take us to dinner there any old time." Which, I find, is a very comforting thought.