I conjure a memory of my grandmother—bent over a stainless steel pot of salty potatoes, holding an electric mixer and a jug of milk—every time I cook mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving and, like anyone who has a favorite comfort food, it warms me. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Because scent is tied to memory, just the smell of a familiar dish can help us feel less alone, which is why we reach for a bowl of pasta or a cheeseburger on a bad day. This issue delivers those divine comfort foods as they’re interpreted locally, from a Turkish casserole to a twist on huevos rancheros. Savor every bite.—C.W.
By Shea Gibbs, Kathleen Herring, Dan Testa and Caite White
Pot roast may just be the perfect recipe for this diner-cum-gastropub—it’s homey and comforting but a blank slate for adventurous flavors. Once the weather starts to cool, Bizou’s menu runs the gamut of profiles and preparations for beef pot roast, from Italian-style to traditional Americana to Asian-inspired.
“What we’ll use as a garnish depends on the season,” chef Brett Venditti says. That will likely mean starting with the Italian, braised for several hours at about 300 degrees in red wine and tomato and served with polenta. Then, “as the weather gets cooler and cooler, we’ll go heartier with roasted or smashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts and carrots.”
The secret to the dish’s success—whatever the preparation—is a nice piece of meat. Venditti says Bizou starts with a chuck roast and portions individual servings, tying them with twine to create a uniform shape. “They hold together and it promotes more even cooking throughout all portions,” he says. Then it’s off to a hard sear before going in that luxurious low-temperature bath.
at Michie Tavern
Juicy, perfectly seasoned and fried till dark, Michie Tavern’s chicken is out of this world. Or, at least, out of this century. The Colonial Revival-era house once served as the social center of its community and, today, boasts tours of the tavern and servers in period dress to authenticate the experience. In the winter months, hit the buffet (with other 18th-century fare like stewed tomatoes and black-eyed peas and, yes, chicken), then find a seat by the fireplace to warm yourself—both inside and out.
WHAT A HANDFUL
at South Fork Food Truck
Here’s what we’d call a comfort-food sandwich: Two slices of sourdough bread piled with smoked jalapeño meatloaf, garlic mashed potatoes, green tomato salsa, chipotle barbecue sauce and bacon. The local food truck has a menu filled with twists on Southern classics, but it’s the meatloaf sandwich that’s become owner Phillip Gerringer’s signature dish. Find it at local festivals and events, plus every Thursday night at Champion Brewing Company.
Grilled cheese (and tomato soup)
at Revolutionary Soup
In 2013, NPR published an article asserting that cookies taste better when they’re dunked in milk or, even better, hot tea. The wetness and heat releases more cookie flavor, the article said, according to the findings of a British chef who used a high-tech gadget to measure food flavors before and after dunking. Could the same principle apply to the combo of grilled cheese and tomato soup? We’d wager yes. Especially at Rev Soup, where the duo of grilled cheese and creamy tomato bisque is a no-brainer.
TRIED AND TRUE
at Blue Moon Diner
How do you make diner eggs cooked to your very own specifications even better? Add Blue Moon Diner’s zesty housemade salsa with fresh and stewed tomatoes, tomatillos, sweet and jalapeño peppers, onion and spices. And lucky for you, the line cooks will even do it for you in the form of the Huevos Bluemoonos, the local favorite’s take on huevos rancheros.
With two eggs any style over hash browns with melted cheddar, salsa and toast, the Bluemoonos may not be traditional, but they’re simple comfort at its best. “The Bluemoonos lack the beans and tortilla to be a true rancheros, but our regulars might riot in the streets if we change our beloved version,” owner Laura Galgano says. “We sell more Huevos Bluemoonos with over-easy eggs and sourdough toast than any other way, but the best part about breakfast in the U.S. is the variety of egg preparation.”
WITH A TWIST
at Paradox Pastry
The Glass Building bakery’s take on the classic cinnamon bun is the sinful hybrid of a warm, flaky croissant and ooey gooey cinnamon bun. Made from croissant dough rolled in cinnamon sugar and twisted into a circle, the fresh-baked delights are drizzled in maple cream cheese frosting. Be prepared to share (or take some home for later!), as these treats are larger than your average cinnamon bun or croissant, and, between crumbs and sticky frosting, you’ll need more than one napkin to avoid making a mess. That’s not to say the mess isn’t worth it (it totally is).
at Fellini’s #9
Fellini’s takes all the things you love about meat lasagna and then does you one better. Yes, the slow-cooked pork and beef Bolognese, layered with ricotta, Parmesan, mozzarella and herbs, are rich and comfortingly familiar in the ways you expect. But the ground lamb lends the dish an earthy, rustic flavor that takes it to another level.
The marinara complements the meat and cheese, but it also has a bright, sweet quality that offsets the savory elements. And the pasta is skillfully cooked: Firm and chewy, its layers serve as the infrastructure holding the lasagna together so you can tuck into it with the side of a fork. The dish pairs well with a medium-bodied red wine, like the 2013 California Merlot on the menu.
And the comfort extends to the atmosphere at the downtown institution, too. On a recent Saturday evening, the pianist played a jazz-inflected version of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and a server rushed drinks to a table where, as she had informed the bartender, a “really awkward” first date was underway. Bad date or no, hopefully they ordered the lasagna.
at Kardinal Hall
Even though it has a fancy-sounding French name, Canadian poutine is typically a fast-food item served in greasy-spoon diners. But at beer garden Kardinal Hall, the cheese curds and gravy snack get an upgrade with the addition of (eater’s choice!) toppings like sweet peppers, caramelized onion or garlic mushrooms. All that over fries? Mais oui!
GET YOUR OATS
at Oakhurst Inn Café
Toto, we’re not eating Quaker Oats anymore. At Oakhurst Inn’s popular café, baby beets, curried yogurt, avocado, black beans and harissa unite over warm, creamy steel-cut Irish oats for a Southwestern take on the breakfast staple.
HILL OF BEANS
at South Street Brewery
There’s no point in eating chili if there isn’t a little kick to it. And this vegetarian version at South Street brings the heat. Topped with green onions and cheddar cheese, it’s an autumn staple. (Bonus: The veggie chili takes center stage in the brewery’s woncho dish, too, over crispy wontons topped with smoked gouda cheese sauce, cilantro sour cream and fresh herbs.)
CUCKOO FOR CAKE
at Chandler’s Bakery
Cakes on cakes on cakes—that’s what you can expect at Chandler’s. Cheerily displayed alongside cookies, pastries, breakfast croissants and other delectable chocolate-covered or sugary goodies is the chocolate cake with Oreo buttercream filling—creamy pudding sandwiched between thick, chocolatey cake layers. Or, if you’re looking for something a little lighter, go for a yellow cake with raspberry and cheesecake filling and buttercream frosting—all the creamy melt-in-your-mouth flavor of a dense slice of cheesecake, but made much fluffier by the yellow cake. For coffee-lovers, there’s a “checkerboard” cake: squares of chocolate and yellow cake, filled with a strong mocha buttercream and topped in an almost-too-decadent fudge frosting. The choices are endless.
Chicken and dumplings
at The Whiskey Jar
The aroma from a bowl of chicken and dumplings evokes memories of being a kid called in for lunch on a cold day. Bright green chives float atop a golden broth that is the star of the dish: savory, light and flavorful.
Like other dishes here, chicken and dumplings, a Southern staple, shines for its simplicity. At The Whiskey Jar, you’ll find in the broth a hearty portion of shredded mostly white meat chicken joined by handmade, irregular dumplings that resemble gnocchi in size and shape. But as they absorb the broth, the dumplings grow more pillowy, starchy and creamy.
The dish pairs well with a dry Chenin Blanc, or a pilsner by the St. George brewery in Hampton, Virginia. Depending on one’s condition, and the weather outside, consider also pairing a cup (or a bowl) of the chicken and dumplings with a ham biscuit. After a session of ice skating at the Main Street Arena across the mall, a bowl of chicken and dumplings at The Whiskey Jar offers the makings of a pretty perfect autumn afternoon.
FOR THE SOUL
Chicken noodle soup
at Ace Biscuit & Barbecue
The key to good chicken noodle is from-scratch ingredients: rich, flavorful stock with no shelf life-enhancing preservatives, rustic hunks of pasta dough, crisp-tender vegetables and juicy, never-frozen chicken. Lucky for lovers of the original comfort soup, Ace Biscuit & Barbecue owner Brian Ashworth and his team don’t cut corners. Ace’s chicken noodle soup, available sporadically, occasionally features the extra kick of house-smoked chicken simmered alongside handmade fettuccine noodles and fresh onion, celery and carrots.
“Sometimes it’s smoked chicken noodle soup and sometimes it’s just chicken noodle soup, but it’s always awesome,” Ashworth says.
Indeed, according to Ashworth everything at Ace is made from scratch—other than Duke’s mayo (“the only mayo in the world”) and Martin’s potato rolls (“they are the best”). You know what? Add a roll slathered in Duke’s to our soup order.
I SHALL WANT
at Tin Whistle Irish Pub
The beauty of a shepherd’s pie rests in its simplicity. It doesn’t require a lot of ingredients, especially when one of those ingredients is tender ground lamb, sourced, as the Tin Whistle Irish Pub does, from a local farm. Carrots, celery and onions complement the lamb, along with the occasional seasonal vegetable (leeks, on a recent visit).
This being an Irish dish, the next essential ingredient is potatoes. The Tin Whistle tops its shepherd’s pie with a generous layer of salty, creamy spuds and bakes it to a golden crust on top. Scallions scatter amid the contours.
This being an Irish dish, it pairs rather well with a beer: Try a Smithwick’s (pronounced “smiddiks”), a dark red Irish ale from Kilkenny. Not as toasty as a stout, nor as hoppy as a pale ale, Smithwick’s is balanced and drinkable. You don’t want a beer that’s too heavy. After all, you’ve got a steaming shepherd’s pie presented in its own cast iron skillet before you. Armed with just a spoon and a napkin, it’s everything you need.
WHIP IT GOOD
While the list of sides at Maya reads like the Dictionary of Delicious Southern Foods (cheddar biscuits, collard greens, cornbread…), it’s the whipped potatoes that define “comfort food” for us. Chef/co-owner Christian Kelly says the recipe is “pretty simple, like most of our food”: Red bliss potatoes are boiled in salted water, then mashed by hand with “a ridiculous amount” of butter and rosemary-infused heavy cream. Double orders aren’t uncommon. “I need a sign that says, ‘Keep hands and feet away from face while eating,’” Kelly says. “Might lose a digit.”
at Timbercreek Market
It’s a pretty simple concept: Melt cheese over turkey, put on bread. But at Timbercreek, where the turkey—like all the restaurant’s meat— is conscientiously raised and sourced from namesake Timbercreek Farm and smoked in-house, it’s anything but ordinary. Cheddar cheese meets garlic mayo, alfalfa sprouts and housemade pickles on Albemarle Baking Company pain de campagne. Your new favorite lunch option? That’s an easy yes.
Chicken tikka masala
The origins of chicken tikka masala are hard to pin down definitively; immigrants in the United Kingdom are said to have modified Indian chicken tikka, adding the sauce for an island that likes its gravy. And Maharaja executes the dish elegantly. Pieces of marinated white meat chicken are grilled in a clay oven, then finished in a tomato cream sauce. It arrives on the table with a burst of bright, orange-red color. A halved tomato rests at the center of the dish, accompanied by a pinch of cilantro. Spooned over buttery basmati rice, with a piece of soft, charred naan to sop up the sauce, it warms to the core. But that oversimplifies it: Notes of coriander, onions and chiles are present as well. On that last note, if you ask for “medium heat,” that is no less than what you’ll get, and the cream offsets the chiles so the heat builds gradually over the course of the meal.
Perhaps pair the chicken tikka masala with a bottle of cold Kingfisher, an Indian lager. In a cozy corner booth of Maharaja’s warmly lit dining room, it’s easy to feel transported.
WHO LOVES CHEESE?
at Sultan Kebab
Sucuk. It’s a little hard to pronounce (“su-juk”), but not at all hard to love. Cooked and served in a small ceramic ramekin, the spiced Turkish beef sausage is baked with tomatoes and kashar cheese (similar to cheddar when hot and melty). The dish comes with a small loaf of fresh-baked bread, but you’ll want a fork to scoop up the delicious gooey cheese, which nicely balances the slight spiciness of the sausage. The distinctive flavor comes from the garlic and spices in the sausage but is made perfect by a generous sprinkling of paprika over top of the dish. Also recommended here: hummus casserole, which the restaurant makes fresh every day.
SECRET’S IN THE SAUCE
Biscuits and gravy
at The Pigeon Hole
If you’re having second thoughts about braving the Corner this fall, take a moment to consider the unctuous warmth of The Pigeon Hole’s Biscuits and Red Eye Gravy. Two flaky, buttery homemade biscuits are the perfect vehicle for the Hole’s rich gravy and two eggs over easy. (You can substitute other egg styles, but why would you want to?) What makes the gravy red eye? It’s cooked with ham fat and has coffee grounds and brewed coffee for tang—not to mention a convenient boost of energy.
“Typically [red eye] used to just be a pan gravy made with leftovers,” kitchen manager Corwyn Sergent says. “But it got to the point where, to make it look good and hold on the biscuit, we’ve adapted it to more closely resemble a sausage gravy.”
According to Sergent, adding cream at the end is the secret to getting that hybrid red eye-sausage effect. And we all know hybrids are delicious.
Fish and chips
at Shebeen Pub & Braai
Traditionally an English dish, fish and chips is as straightforward as comfort food comes: fish, battered and fried, served with hot fries. And South African pub Shebeen does the meal up right. Crispy battered cod is wrapped in newsprint (read your C-VILLE!) and accompanied on a plate by fries, tartar sauce and a slice of lemon. No muss, no fuss.
Warm, sweet, a little bit sticky—just the texture alone would be enough to make you say “mmm.” And we know the menu at Bang! has plenty to drool over, but don’t overlook this $3 side. Perfectly proportioned in a small dish for one, the coconut rice should be savored on its own (with a martini, of course).