By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
I had to stop and think about my own rediscovery of scalloped potatoes, macaroni and cheese and meat loaf. Grimes was right -- it was about the time that I started having kids that these dishes came back into my life. But I think his reasoning about why it happened was a little flawed. It wasn't nostalgia, as I remember it. I wasn't trying to recapture my youth. I was just trying to cook something my kids would eat.
Yes, we started eating baby food again. But we also bought a station wagon and read books by A.A. Milne out loud. That kind of thing happens when you allow small underage people to live in your house. It suddenly seemed obvious to me that William Grimes didn't have any kids. So I called him up to see if I was right, and he was nice enough to call me back. No, he doesn't have any kids. He sounded a little weary about the subject of comfort food, as if he had been beat up about it before. He said that his position has been misunderstood.
"I like the food, who doesn't?" he said. "It's the cooing and sentimentality that I bristle at the food writer baby talk. Food writers get very sentimental about the whole thing." Besides, in New York, there was a fashion component to the comfort food trend. It wasn't enough for cool, sophisticated New Yorkers to eat the stuff, they had to take a step back and see themselves eating it, Grimes attempted to explain. He lost me there somewhere. "The whole thing is wrapped in several layers of irony," the Times reviewer concluded.
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Meat loaf: $13.50
Chicken potpie: $12
Pork chop: $14.75
Black Angus strip steak: $17.50
Caesar salad: $6.50
I told him I didn't think we had much irony-wrapped food down here in Houston and that he ought to stop by for a visit sometime. (It turns out Grimes was born in Space City and has some family here.) I also tried to explain to him that the comfort food thing looks a little different to those of us with kids.
I cooked a lot of comfort food during the toddlerhood of my children. But since I was also a food writer, I tried to educate my kids' palates at the same time. I followed French chef Alain Senderen's recipe for macaroni and cheese, which called for whole cream and lots of Gruyère. And instead of scalloped potatoes, I made gratin savoyardwith Beaufort or Lyonnaise potatoes with Comté and garlic. It was comfort food all right, but it was damn good comfort food. The kids are teenagers now, and they still love it. So do I.
Adventurous eating, Grimes argues, is adult eating. And as a dedicated chowhound, I am just as eager as he is to dive in to the most exotic of foodstuffs with a vigor that "sends off sparks" with my fork. But just as there is a time for racy R-rated movies and hot times on the town, there's also a time for G-rated movies I can watch with the kids -- and for restaurants that coddle the senses rather than challenge them.
After my conversation with Grimes, I did become determined not to resort to baby talk in describing the Daily Review. Claire Smith founded a restaurant that succeeds on many levels. She didn't allow the pork chop and chicken potpie to slouch into "slob food," as Grimes describes the typical comfort fare. There is a classicism in the cream sauce and the buttery pastry of the potpie. The excellence of the pork chop and the apple sauce depend on the high quality of the ingredients. There's an edgy intelligence about the cooking here. But now there's also a disturbing new health food sensibility creeping in.
A year ago, when I ate lunch with hairdresser Melissa Noble (Lunch With , September 7, 2000), she told me that while her friend Janice Beeson intended to keep things more or less the same at the Daily Review, she did plan to "lighten things up a little." Beeson has recently instituted a "Low Carb Dinner Menu" that features grilled "proteins" served with plain vegetables. You can also get a new low-carb Caesar salad, in which the croutons are omitted for no extra charge. I asked her if she's lightening up the regular menu too.
"Yes, definitely," she said. "The previous regime used a lot of cream and butter and cheese on everything. We're trying to add some balance."
"Have you cut some of the cheese out of the macaroni and cheese?" I asked her.
"No," she shrugged. "It's not the way my mom made macaroni and cheese either."
The lightening of the menu has been accomplished by adding some lighter dishes, like fish prepared Asian-style, for balance, Beeson insisted. The old standards are made the same way they always were.
The low-carb menu, the croutonless Caesar, the Asian fish -- it sounds to me like Beeson is inching her way toward Baba Yega. I'm not an old regular, so it wouldn't be very convincing if I started whining for the good old days. But if Beeson is going to tinker with the successful formula at the Daily Review Cafe, I suggest that she fix both sides of the menu. Add some lighter dishes if you must, but please put some cheese in my macaroni and cheese.