The anemic macaroni and cheese, crusted with its clever little bread crumbs, ruins the whole thing. What were they thinking? It was such a great start: meat loaf, sliced thick and served with stewed tomato sauce, a hot and hearty entrée for a cold winter night. The plate was adroitly classed up with a neat woodpile of haricots verts (a.k.a. skinny French green beans). But then, instead of the rich and gooey pile of macaroni and cheese that the menu seemed to promise, somebody substituted these pathetic naked elbows.
They sit there in their milky apartness, unconnected to one another. What happened to the cheesy blanket of gratin? The bread crumbs are trying to pose as a chewy crust, but they're doing a terrible job. To add further insult, the bland noodles are barely lukewarm. I send my plate back to the kitchen for a warm-up. But I doubt they'll add any more cheese.
Meanwhile, I'm eyeing my dining partner's big, juicy, medium-rare Black Angus strip steak. Crisscrossed with perfect diamond pattern grill marks, the steak is leaning on a haystack of hot fried shoestring potatoes; a disk of chef's butter, flavored with red pepper and cilantro, lies beside it. My eyes go large and plaintive. I sigh a little. If I don't actually let out a low hound-dog sort of whine, then I do so telepathically. Eventually, he gets the message and passes me his bread plate with a big piece of steak and some fries on it. I set in with glee.
Why did I feel compelled to order the meat loaf? Probably because it's the Tuesday "Meat and Potato Night" special, and that seems like the sort of thing that made the Daily Review Cafe famous.
There was a lot of buzz about the Daily Review Cafe when I first started writing about restaurants in Houston in the summer of 2000. Claire Smith, the founder of that much-beloved institution, left town about the same time I arrived. She sold the restaurant to its general manager, Janice Beeson, in July of that year, setting off a lot of speculation about the fate of the place. Beeson vowed to stick with the status quo, according to an article in the Houston Business Journal, but regulars wondered if things would ever really be the same without the charismatic founding chef.
The Daily Review, as I understand it, managed to be both fashionable in its New American sensibility and down-home in its unpretentious ingredients. Smith's little cinderblock cafe was quite a sensation, receiving accolades in the local and national press. I am sorry I never got to sample the cooking while she was there. But I have remained curious about the place ever since.
And so, at this time of the year when we tie up loose ends, I decided to pay a visit and see how things are going. Obviously, I make a poor judge of how well the Daily Review Cafe has succeeded at staying the same. So on my first visit, I called in a long-standing regular of the joint, former Houston Press columnist and editor Lisa Gray, to testify as an expert witness. Lisa thought that a few framed awards that used to hang on the wall were missing. Other than that, things looked pretty much the same, she said.
At her suggestion, we sampled two of the Daily Review's signature dishes for lunch. They both tasted exactly as Lisa remembered them, and they were both terrific. "DRC Chicken Pot Pie with Fennel, Carrot and Celery in Rich Cream Sauce" was served in a deep dish with a spoon, so I resisted the temptation to eat it the way I usually eat chicken potpie, which is to turn the whole thing over on the plate. The buttery crust was wonderful pushed down into the gravy, and the mild creamy flavors coated my whole mouth. I shoved my nose in to see if it was really "redolent of fennel, carrots and celery in rich cream sauce," a description repeated in every review of DRC I've ever read. It smelled more like creamy chicken soup to me.
The other Daily Review classic was a "Grilled Pork Chop with Potato, Yam and Leek Gratin and Housemade Apple Sauce." The apple sauce was more like a pile of warm cooked apple chunks on top of the thick bone-in chop. The pork was rosy pink and incredibly juicy -- by far the best pork chop I've eaten in several years. The gratin, like the macaroni and cheese, was short on cheese, but the soft root vegetables blended pleasantly anyway. These two simple dishes were so good that I instantly understood the Daily Review's appeal. Comfort food, after all, was one of the most popular culinary trends of the last decade, and here the genre's nostalgic meat and potatoes were twisted and tweaked into something excitingly modern.
"There's a place -- a small place -- for insipid old favorites, just as there is for beach novels and syrupy pop songs," writes William Grimes, the New York Times restaurant critic in an article titled "Into the Mouths of Babes," his rant against comfort food. "Worst of all is the name itself, a damp, sticky, therapy-derived, feel-good term that should be resisted, like elevator music and television evangelists and holidays created by greeting-card companies." Grimes credits the comfort food trend to the 1950s nostalgia of baby boomers who had kids. The menu is a list of "profoundly regressive" dishes that recall "the tastes and textures of infancy." It's baby food, he says. "Macaroni and cheese, no matter how well it's prepared, ranks very low on the food chain." And the best meat loaf you can imagine still isn't very good.
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.
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 savoyard with 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.
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