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International Comfort Foods

© Kang Kim International Comfort Foods

Photo: Kang Kim

Everybody comfortable?

Apparently so, judging from what’s on our plates. For more than a decade—since truffle-sprinkled macaroni-and-cheese reared its gooey, toasted head in the trendiest of urban kitchens—Americans have been caught in the narcotizing embrace of old-fashioned comfort food. You’d think we’d have finally grown up and out of the stuff, but it keeps coming back: stronger, more expensive, gooier. Now it’s all over your neighborhood bistro, your room-service cart, and your seat-back tray table. We have donned the proverbial sweatpants, people: every day is Thanksgiving, every meal an excuse to "feel good." Pass the chicken pot pie! Save me that piece of lasagne! Let’s order more Kobe sliders!

Nobody doesn’t like comfort food. It’s the perfect balm after a breakup or a tonsilectomy. It’s regressive yet satisfying, like chewing a cotton blanket: one bite and you’re a kid again. (Think of that poignant scene in last summer’s Ratatouille, when the snooty restaurant critic samples the titular dish and is catapulted back to his mother’s kitchen.) There’s a reason the British call this stuff "nursery food"—meaning bangers-and-mash, beef stew, shepherd’s pie. Like mobiles and lullabies, traditional comfort foods are calibrated to make you fall asleep as soon as possible, with generous amounts of fat and refined carbs. They’re the indulgent foods we probably shouldn’t crave but do—a guilty pleasure, the culinary equivalent of a Knight Rider rerun. They’re our silly little reward at the end of a stressful day.

Obviously we’re all having exceptionally stressful days, because we’re eating like a nation of nine-year-olds. What used to be the province of the coffee shop, the lunchroom, and the infirmary is now behind a velvet rope, selling for $33 a plate. And the national comfort trend shows no sign of slowing—especially when its wholesome, retro appeal can be coupled with the wholesome, retro farm-to-table movement. So instead of mom’s fried chicken with mashed potatoes, we can order ale-battered free-range game hen with purée of Edzell Blue potatoes, and somehow feel more pious for it.

The retro-comfort craze takes many forms. There are the countless purveyors of "luxury burgers," inexplicably enamored of Wagyu beef (you might as well use toro tuna for cat food). Or the innumerable upmarket pizza parlors, with their slow-simmered ragùs and biodynamic pepperoni. Or that ultimate retro-comfort bastion, the steak house, which continues its inexorable march across the country, turning our culinary clock back 40 years and turning talented cooks into hucksters of creamed spinach.

Even our most forward-thinking chefs feel compelled to dress down their menus in comfort-food terms. At Cuvée in New Orleans, what Bob Iacovone calls "spaghetti & meatball" is actually spaghetti squash with caper berries, tomato brunoise, and sea scallops. ("Blecch!" cries one’s inner kindergartner.) At French Laundry in Napa Valley, Thomas Keller gives his inventions cutesy names like "Surf & Turf," "Peas & Carrots," and "Coffee & Doughnuts," which is the only thing I dislike about Thomas Keller.

And don’t get me started on Los Angeles—always the most childish of cities, but now the capital of kid-friendly, id-friendly cuisine. At Simon L.A., in the swank Sofitel hotel, former Iron Chef Kerry Simon dishes up meatloaf, pizza, onion rings, and, yes, mac-and-cheese—the premium denim of the food world—before sending you to your room with a bellyful of Rice Krispies treats, cotton candy, and cookies with milk. Over on West Third Street, the clubby new Food Court L.A. spoils you with lasagne, fish and chips, and "Mom’s Spag & Balls." And at the ever-popular Jar, Suzanne Tracht elevates home-style classics like pot roast and chocolate pudding (both of which are admittedly delicious). Back in the 1990’s, Tracht worked at Campanile, where then-chef Nancy Silverton was glorifying the grilled cheese sandwich. Campanile’s Grilled Cheese Nights still pack the house every Thursday—and that iconic sandwich has since become a citywide obsession. (A dozen variations are on the menu at MeltDOWN Etc., which opened last spring in Culver City.) Silverton, meanwhile, has partnered with Mario Batali on—surprise!—an upmarket pizza parlor, Pizzeria Mozza.

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