Every cuisine has its own “comfort foods” — dishes that whisk eaters back to childhood. They can be rich and gooey a la mac & cheese or steamy and delicate, like Vietnamese Pho. You might not think about eating another culture’s staples when you’re feeling nostalgic or just plain freezing, but you could discover a new favorite comfort food. It should make a bad day turn into a good one, and make cold weather feel downright cozy. So now that temperatures have dropped, we could reach for earmuffs and scarves. But we’d rather go for hearty stews, pancakes, and fried things. Here’s our favorite comfort foods for winter 2013. Seize the season before spring rolls around…
La Sirene’s Cassoulet
558 Broome St., Btwn Varick and 6th Aves.
A classic French cassoulet is not as easy to find as a French bistro, perhaps because it’s laborious to make, old school, and not exactly diet-friendly. Dukan, Atkins, and Dr. Oz, avert your eyes because sometimes beans are decidedly not healthy and deliciously so. Sometimes, they are the bearers of “noble” duck fat, slab bacon, pork sausage, duck confit… we could go on. The “Kasulet Toulousain de la Maison” is unambiguously heavy. It’s the kind of dish you want to eat in front of a huge fireplace in the French countryside. And while La Sirene can’t quite transport you there, it’s a good antidote to the winter blues replete with a candle-lit, romantic ambiance perfect for a soulful tête-à-tête. And more importantly, you can bring your own bottle of red to drink with it. Really, what is more comforting than a good but reasonable bottle of red?
The Queens Kickshaw’s Mac ‘N’ Cheese
40-17 Broadway, Btwn Steinway and 41st Sts.
No matter how open-minded we are to foreign foods, sometimes we really just want mac’n cheese. And not (necessarily) the blue box kind, but something that satisfies kiddy cravings while recognizing that we’ve cleared elementary school. We want a mac’n cheese with a depth of flavor that can’t be achieved with just Velveeta. So often, restaurant versions don’t satisfy. They can dry out in the baking process, their noodles become limp, or they get just a little too creative and take the comfort out of the dish. But Queen’s Kickshaw nails it with their elbow pasta version. They meld cheddar, gruyere and smoked mozzarella, bake it up, then refrigerate it, slice it, give it a good sear on the griddle, and finally another bake in the oven. Sound like a lot for Mac N Cheese? It’s unabashedly gooey with a crispy crust (no breadcrumbs required!). Not only does The Queen’s Kickshaw offer a novel solution to mediocre mac’n cheese, but this coffee shop has a different musical theme every night of the week. We happened to stop by on R&B night, so we enjoyed our favorite childhood food with a side of 90’s jams.
Chez Sardine’s Breakfast Pancakes with Fish Tartare, Salmon Roe, and Yogurt
183 W 10th St., Btwn 7th Ave. and W 4th St.
We don’t think that comfort foods are so sacred they can’t be tweaked. Afterall, most are pretty damn simple. (Think French fries, waffles, and chicken soup.) So while no one’s mother is going to serve Chez Sardine’s idea of pancakes, these flapjacks are innovative without being, well, weird. If you think about it, pancakes are just overgrown blinis, so it makes sense to serve them with salmon roe and yogurt — a playful a riff on caviar and crème-fraiche. The silver dollar-sized cakes at Chez Sardine arrive stacked in a tower, and layered with fish tartare. Dollops of crème fraiche and salmon roe dot the plate. But meals at Chez Sardine have two crucial factors that make them a lot more comforting: All fish is responsibly sourced and dinners end with free dessert. And not just any dessert, but one that also draws from childhood memories— Maple Pudding with Rice Crisps.
Parm’s Baked Ziti with Meat Gravy
248 Mulberry St., Btwn Prince and Spring Sts.
Parm, from the uber-talented chefs behind Torrisi Italian Specialties, specializes in red sauce Italian-American served in a diner-like setting. And while we love all three of their namesake parms (chicken, eggplant, and meatball), there’s something even more comforting about spaghetti and meatballs. What kid doesn’t love that classic combination? At Parm, those flavors come together brilliantly in their Baked Ziti with Meat Gravy. This more authentic Italian-American translation, with spoonfuls of fresh mozzarella and ricotta, is just grown-up enough. Parm’s killer baked ziti is sliced into a brick with an incredibly crunchy top and moist interior, laden with tangy tomato gravy. With sides like house cauliflower and crab arancini, a meal here is guaranteed to satisfy both your inner child and your inner foodie.
Red Farm’s Pork & Crab Soup Dumplings
529 Hudson St., Btwn Charles and W 10th Sts.
What’s more comforting than a steaming bowl of soup? Maybe really rich soup inside of a plump dumpling, which is exactly what you get with a Chinese soup dumpling dubbed Xia Long Bao. These are little miracles, wherein gelatinous broth is steamed in a dumpling skin until it melts. A good soup dumpling never arrives limp, or even worse, ruptured. The beauty of the dumpling is that you can dip it in dark soy sauce, then delicately pierce allowing the luscious liquid to spill into your mouth, right before digging into the delicate exterior. New York boasts several dim sum palaces known for their authentic Xiao Long Bao, but Red Farm offers an atmosphere far-removed from Chinatown and a dim sum menu far more creative. Chef Joe Ng stains his rendition of this classic Chinese dumpling with saffron and tops each one with a ruby-red goji berry.
Wong’s Taro Tater Tots
7 Cornelia Street, Btwn. Bleeker and W 4th Sts.
Over the past few years, we’ve spied a few tasty riffs of the tater tot, reminding us that these oft frozen, cafeteria treats have got a lot of potential. Sure, they’ll never compete with their more famous cousin, the French fry, but they’ve come a long way. Wong takes it to a whole new level this season with their Hakka Pork Belly with Taro Tater Tots and Pickled Turnip. Cut from taro root and crusted in panko, these tater tots are an earthy, crispy foil to this meltingly tender pork belly. Maybe, just maybe, the tot’s time is coming. A quaint West Village eatery with funky food and flavors, Wong is the perfect place to ponder such questions.