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Five Best Comfort Foods 

Warm, soft, simple foods have been pleasing the paunches of humankind for millennia, but only a few salubrious victuals are as satisfying to the soul as they are soothing to the stomach. Pale, creamy, and tepid are important culinary adjectives here, but there's another more intangible ingredient. The five comfort foods that follow have at least one thing in common: They make you feel relaxed, restored, and renewed from head to toe.

Matzo Ball Soup at East Coast West Delicatessen

1725 Polk (at Clay), 563-3542

Chicken soup, the classic culinary cure for what ails you, attains new heights of salubrity when silky dumplings of egg, schmaltz, and matzo meal are thrown into the kettle. East Coast West, a Polk Gulch deli that combines the soulful flavors of the Lower East Side with fresh, bright California accents, ladles up a matzo ball soup sure to soothe your soul and spirit. The fragrant broth is rich with egg noodles, crisp vegetables, and chicken so tender it melts in your mouth, and the matzo balls are like velvet: soft, yielding, and infused with absorbed flavor.

Polenta Con Funghetti at Pinocchio

401 Columbus (at Vallejo), 392-1472

Of all the soul-warming hot cereals on the planet, polenta is our favorite -- soft and creamy but with the faint crunch and sweet-savory taste of cornmeal. The excellent polenta served at Pinocchio is infused with a jus of wild game and truffle oil, giving it a marvelously earthy flavor; fenugreek adds another more exotic but surprisingly complementary dimension. Served with braised quail and a ragout of wild mushrooms, it's a memorable snack.

Ochazuke at Takara

22 Peace Plaza (at Geary), 921-2000

Among the many delicious and unfamiliar Japanese specialties prepared at Takara is ochazuke, or rice cooked with tea. What began as a means to polish off leftover rice has evolved into a rather elaborate subcuisine with a variety of toppings and flavorings, but the basic ingredient -- the warm, juicy, tea-scented rice, an inspired fusion of complementary comforts -- remains the dish's reason for being. The six creamy-dreamy tuna sashimi fillets strewn across the top can't hurt, though. (Plums and seaweed are among the other available toppings.)

Bread Pudding at Street

2141 Polk (at Vallejo), 775-1055,

Any dessert born and raised in chilly Great Britain and brought to maturity in tropical New Orleans is a comfort for all seasons, but Street's version takes this nourishing classic to a whole other level. Not only is the house rendition richer and silkier than any other around, the fresh dates and crunchy pecans that ribbon the cream, sugar, eggs, and bread add marvelous textural accents; a thick, buttery caramel sauce is the crowning touch. Street's corn chowder and sour cream corn bread are close runners-up in this category.

Butterscotch Pudding at Redwood Park

600 Montgomery (at Clay), 283-1000

George Morrone's elegant new temple to luxurious flavors and intricate presentations is at its best when simplicity is the subject: viz., a stellar butterscotch pudding that's nothing but cream, butter, brown sugar, and spice, served in a deep bowl with a big spoon. Six tiny cookies accompany the pudding, adding to its revert-to-childhood appeal. This dessert is especially comforting in the restaurant's more casual upstairs venue with its lovely view of Sequoia sempervirens out the windows.


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