Life is especially tough these days...does anyone else have a hankering to dig into some meatloaf and mashed potatoes tonight while trying to ignore the news?
Yep, when "the new normal" is freakishly abnormal, we all want comfort food. At some of the Bay Area's most prominent restaurants, even chefs accustomed to fine dining understand the need for homey, rustic cooking, and now tasting menus and elaborately plated dishes are giving way to family-style meals with braised meats, burgers, and chicken pot pies.
While more than 80 percent of San Francisco's restaurants are temporarily closed (with a small fraction already shuttered for good), many of the eateries that chose to pivot toward the takeout and delivery model happened to already specialize in the comforting foods that also travel well—think pizza, pasta, burritos, sandwiches, noodles, curries, and soups.
But closure due to the pandemic has forced many restaurant owners and chefs to re-evaluate their signature styles—for instance, how does Lord Stanley offer its exquisite tasting menu when the more elaborate dishes, typically built to be delivered only by a trained server to a nearby table, will die inside takeout boxes stuffed into your car's backseat or the little carriers on DoorDash bikes.
A few ambitious chefs are still trying to offer elevated menus for takeout. The abbreviated tasting menu from Anomaly is outstanding and, over at Boulevard, Nancy Oakes and her team are doing a great job of creating dinner kits that satisfy the desire for a proper three-course dinner at the restaurant (gem salad, grilled king salmon with jumbo asparagus, and Meyer lemon cheesecake), minus the Bay Bridge views and Pat Kuleto decor.
But for the most part, a clear theme has emerged: Top restaurants, from Healdsburg to Los Gatos, are shifting gears to offer what Lazy Bear's chef/owner David Barzelay calls "food that centers you."
For Barzelay, that means roast chicken with gravy and biscuits; french fries; and the corned beef hash of his childhood—and he certainly isn't alone in evoking that nostalgic fare.
"I knew that, in this scary and unfamiliar time, I wanted to eat the simple foods I grew up on," says Tim Stannard, founder and president of the Bacchus group, which manages Spruce and The Saratoga in SF and The Village Pub in Woodside (among others).
At Spruce, two of the restaurant's signature items are also its simplest and are well suited to Covid-19 times: The burger and the epic chocolate chip cookie remain staples on the menu alongside daily family meals of barbecue half chicken; osso bucco; classic chicken pot pie; beef bourguignon; and New Orleans–style gumbo. Each three-course dinner comes with some kind of salad or veg, a comforting main course, maybe some bread, and a simple dessert; it's now a popular format for higher-end restaurants to follow.
Perhaps the most surprising name to take on the comfort food trend is Manresa, chef David Kinch's famed three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Los Gatos, which typically serves some of the most elaborate tasting menus in the country. These days, Kinch and his team are slinging daily family meals featuring such soul-satisfying plates as braised short ribs, egg noodles, garlic Parker House rolls, and cornmeal cake for dessert.
Mägo in Oakland, Ron Siegel's Madcap in Marin, Gap Year at Nico, Cotogna, and Healdsburg's Single Thread are all following suit. Over on Divisadero Street, Che Fico Alimentari is even offering free family meals to people in need
A close cousin to these family meals, meal kits, which require customers to do some finishing touches at home, are also trending. Few are doing them as beautifully as Dominique Crenn, whose Crenn Kits put a vegetarian (and very elegant) spin on comfort cuisine, utilizing produce from the restaurant group's own Bleu Belle Farm. Expect the likes of leeks fondue en croute, spinach and ricotta canneloni, sliced brioche, soups, and desserts to come with handy reheating instructions (you know, in case you're not an Atelier Crenn–level chef).
Meanwhile, back at Lazy Bear, the extensive Camp Commissary menu feels like an elevated take on the country potluck, with everything from homey staples (pickles, hot sauce, cultured butter, pimento cheese, and take-and-bake cinnamon buns) to hearty breakfasts, soups and salads, and the "dinner kit w/ fixins" for two, complete with the likes of grilled sticky ribs, jerk chicken, or meatloaf. The vastness of the offering feels astounding—and it is—but by virtue of having all kinds of special ingredients on hand or regularly produced at the restaurant, plus staff members who specialize in coffee, pastries, and myriad styles of cooking, Lazy Bear was well positioned for a big pivot towards the commissary concept.
Among Lazy Bear's upscale peers that are shifting toward rustic cooking are hoity-toity Saison and its oceanic sibling Angler—the group has launched a barbecue concept called Saison Smokehouse. Birdsong, meanwhile, is ramping up the comfort fare factor with "Birdboxes" of fried chicken, cornbread, and pie. Fried chicken, along with burgers, are in high demand these days—The Morris has unveiled its own versions with burgers on Wednesdays and fried chicken on Thursdays. Homey desserts from unexpected sources are also a major hit nowadays, from carrot cake by Palette at Home to bake-your-own Wagyu tallow dark chocolate chocolate chunk cookies from Gozu's A-5 Meats pop-up butcher shop.
While customer cravings are largely driving what goes on the menus, some chefs are also taking grocery shortages into account. "When we first decided to pivot," says Lord Stanley's Carrie Blease, "we started trying to make what people couldn't get in the grocery store, like pasta, which was selling out everywhere. We wanted to cook dishes that are familiar and comforting and might spark a memory of a happy place." And to be sure, the restaurant's lobster rolls, available on Fridays, do take us to a brighter frame of mind; also look out for Liberty Farms duck cassoulet on Saturdays. These recipes might be a far cry from Lord Stanley's usual fare, but they are composed with the same stellar focus on preparation and ingredients.
"The reaction has been very positive and supportive," says Blease. "We are seeing a lot of familiar faces, and lots of our regular neighborhood folks. It's been so nice to see everyone."
Want to try your hand at cooking restaurant-grade comfort food at home? Try these recipes from Lord Stanley, Lazy Bear, and Spruce. If you do, we hope you'll post pics and tag 7x7 on Instagram.
Recipe: Lord Stanley's Duck Cassoulet
Always wanted to learn how to cure and confit your own dug leg? Lord Stanley can help with that. (Courtesy of the restaurant)
4 cured and confit duck legs (If you cannot find cured and confit duck legs, you can do it yourself. See below)
For the beans
1lb dried Tarbais or butter beans, soaked overnight in cold water to hydrate slightly and loosen skin
1/2 carrot, peeled
1 stick celery
1/2 white onion, peeled (not chopped)
2 tbsp salt
Preheat oven to 200F. Place beans in a heavy lidded casserole/dutch oven and cover with hot water. Add the carrot, celery, and 1/4 white onion peeled to the pot. Do not add salt right now because it will make the beans wrinkly. Put in oven with foil or lid on top, and cook for 2.5 hours. When the beans are soft all the way through, and you can bite through the skin easily and can't differentiate between the skin and inside of the bean, they are done. The texture should be the same all the way through the beans. Take beans out of oven and then season the liquid with salt until you feel that it's as salty as you would want a soup to be. About 2 tbsp of salt. Leave it to sit outside of the oven, and let cool down.
For the cassoulet
1 carrot, diced small
1/2 white onion, diced small
1 medium leek, diced small, white parts only
1 stick celery, diced small
2 cloves garlic, diced small
3 slices cured bacon, diced small
1 tbsp rice bran olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
3 oz white wine
1 cup breadcrumbs or chopped up old bread (not chopped too fine)
1/2 cup Italian parsley
Preheat the oven to 350F. In a large dutch oven, sweat the carrot, onion, leek, celery, garlic and bacon with the rice bran oil. Season generously with salt and pepper. Sweat down for about 4 minutes over medium heat. Stir constantly, you don't want them to get much color. Add the beans to the pot (not the liquid) and about 3 ounces of white wine; mix together over low heat. Slowly spoon the liquid from the beans into the pot until it's all just covered. At a low simmer, let it all mingle for 20 minutes. Add the chopped bread or bread crumbs in a layer to cover the beans. Sprinkle the parsley on top of the bread. You'll have a thick soupy bed of beans, covered in bread and parsley. Now, place the duck legs on top and bake uncovered in the oven until the duck skin begins to brown and crisp, about 25 minutes. When you take it out, the beans will be very cooked, the bread will be toasty, and the duck will be nice and brown and hot. Season with a bit of lemon juice to cut through the fattiness. Enjoy!
To cure/confit your own duck legs
4 duck legs
4 tbsp coarse sea salt
4 springs rosemary
4 sprigs thyme
2 cloves garlic, cut in half
1 lemon, peeled into four long pieces
2lb duck fat
You can usually buy cured and confit duck legs from nice stores like Cheese Plus or Bi-Rite, but if you can't find them cured already, you can buy four duck legs and cure and confit your own. Just start it in the morning so it has time to cure. To do so, first remove the thigh bone, while keeping the skin on and the meat in tact. Take a small sharp knife and cut around the bone and pull it out and discard it. On the drumstick end, take off the skin from the knuckle of the drumstick. (Here is an easy video to follow.)
Place the duck legs on a tray, sprinkle the meaty side heavily with coarse sea salt, about 1 tbsp per leg. Press in a sprig each of rosemary and thyme, a half clove of garlic, and one long piece of lemon peel onto the salt. Place the tray in the fridge and leave it for 6 hours.
Six hours later, rinse duck off in a bowl of cold water and pat dry. Now you have cured the meat and firmed it up so it won't fall to pieces when you cook it.
To confit, preheat oven to 200F. You can purchase your duck fat at any good butcher or Bi-Rite or Cheese Plus. If you cannot find any, chicken fat is next best thing, or you can use 1 quart of rice bran oil, which is what we often use in the kitchen because it doesn't have any flavor. Submerge the leg into the oil or melted fat, so it is covered. Pop in oven at 200F for 2 hours. By then, the whole thing will be cooked through and the skin is still holding it together. Now you have cured, confit duck legs.
Recipe: Buttermilk Biscuits by Lazy Bear's David Barzelay
Team David Barzelay's buttery, buttermilk biscuits with ham, fried chicken, or whatever makes you happy. (Courtesy of Lazy Bear)
Serves about 10
2 cups AP flour, plus additional for rolling, King Arthur or another relatively high-protein AP flour works well
2 tsp salt
4 tbsp sugar
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 stick butter, cold straight out of the refrigerator
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
Preheat oven to 450F (or 425F with convection). Sift dry ingredients together and whisk to combine uniformly. Then, working quickly to keep butter cold, grate butter into dry ingredients using the coarse holes of a box grater, stopping occasionally to toss butter bits in flour mix to make sure individual bits of butter stay separate. Cut the butter into the flour using the tines of a whisk or fork, or a pastry blender, until there are no pieces of butter larger than a pea. You can do all of this in advance if you'd like, and refrigerate for up to a week or freeze for a month before proceeding.
Add buttermilk and stir until the dough comes together into one shaggy, but fully integrated mass, with no remaining dry flour. Don't be worried about any risk of over-mixing. There is so much butter and buttermilk in this dough that it's pretty hard to over-mix by hand.
Dump dough out onto a floured surface. With floured hands, flatten the dough to about 1.5 inches thick just by patting it down. Sprinkle the top liberally with flour, and then flip the whole thing over. That flip will keep the dough from sticking to the table when cutting biscuits. Then pat the dough down to one inch thick. Cut out biscuits using a round cutter, or just use a long knife to cut squares if you'd prefer. Dipping the cutter into flour between each cut, and transfer biscuits delicately to a baking sheet lined with parchment. Re-form dough from scraps, mixing together again, patting it out as before, and cutting more biscuits. Repeat until all dough is used, but after re-forming twice any more biscuits usually end up coming out looking weird (but still tasting great).
Just before baking, brush tops of biscuits liberally with melted butter. Add a second sheet pan underneath the first to keep the bottoms of the biscuits from browning too quickly. Bake until fully golden brown on top, about 13-16 minutes. When they're done, the outsides will feel set and a bit crispy, but the insides will still feel soft. As soon as they come out of the oven, brush them again with melted butter (yes, even more butter). Transfer to a plate or bowl and wrap with a clean and dry kitchen towel to keep them fresh and warm. I like to to slather them with strawberry jam, pepper jelly, or honey, or else make them into a breakfast sandwich by adding sausage, jam, and a fried egg.
Recipe: Chicken Parmigiana, by Mark Sullivan of Spruce/Bacchus Management
Chef Mark Sullivan's chicken parmigiana? That's amore. (Courtesy of @sprucerestaurant)
For the marinara sauce
1/2 cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
Herb bouquet: 1 bunch parsley stems, 12 oregano sprigs, tied with a string
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
1 cup dry white wine
1 32-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
In a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onion, garlic, and herb bouquet, and sauté, stirring frequently, until translucent, about 20 minutes. Add wine, bring to a simmer, and cook until reduced by two-thirds, about 12 minutes. Add tomatoes and their liquid. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring frequently, until the sauce is concentrated, about 2 hours. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Remove the herb bouquet. Using an immersion blender or food processor, blend to a uniform coarse texture.
For the chicken
4 8 oz skinless, boneless chicken breasts
4 large eggs + 1 cup Milk, lightly beaten
3 cups dry bread or panko
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
4 oz parmesan, grated
2 oz mozzarella cheese, grated
2 oz fontina cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
To prepare the chicken
Heat oven to 425 F. Pound chicken breasts under two sheets of parchment paper or plastic wrap to a uniform thickness of about 1/2 inch thick. Season liberally with salt and black pepper. Place eggs, breadcrumbs, and flour in separate bowls. Dredge the chicken cutlets in flour, shaking off excess. Dip in eggs, then coat in breadcrumbs, shaking off excess. Place on a sheet pan lined with parchment and chill for 20 minutes.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high until very hot, just below smoking. Sear the cutlets for about 2 minutes per side, or until they are golden brown all over. Season cutlets liberally with salt and return to a sheet pan lined with parchment.
Top the cutlets with the sauce uniformly, add the three cheeses over the sauce, and place in the oven for about 10 minutes.
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 tablespoon minced oregano
Garnish with the chopped parsley and oregano. Serve immediately.