Life Before Frisee
Comfort food is dead.
I keep hoping that if I say that enough, it will actually come true.
Comfort food should be pronounced dead, because it's gone as far as it can go in the white-tablecloth-and-heavy-silver restaurant cosmos. It's a horse that has been ridden hard, whipped to within an inch of its life, and now cries out for a bullet to just end it all.
And yet it persists. Like reality TV and Madonna's career, no matter how often some smarty-pants critic pronounces it DOA, comfort food keeps coming back. Restaurant owners love the stuff, because it's great for their bottom line -- imagine for a minute how much it really cost the kitchen to produce those mashed potatoes or that mac and cheese you just paid fourteen dollars for -- and certain chefs are enamored of comfort food because it allows them to bulk up their menus with playful (if snivelingly sappy) plates where they can showcase their culinary soft side within a socially acceptable framework. There are restaurants that have milk and cookies on their dessert menus: high-end joints where the guys in the back are pouring the moo juice and cracking open boxes of Oreos with a totally straight face, then laughing like jackals every time some poor sap plunks down ten bucks for whatever dubious therapeutic value there is in feeding his inner child. It's only a matter of time before they start handing out Legos and Play-Doh with the wine lists -- and I swear to God that if this doesn't stop, I'm gonna find myself a few like-minded investors and open a joint where the minute a customer walks through the door, he'll be seized by two muscular German wet nurses, stripped naked, put in a diaper and hand-fed strained baby carrots and applesauce while nursery rhymes are pumped in through the Muzak. I'll call the place The Womb, and I'll betcha anything that inside of a year I'll be a fucking millionaire.
Are there places where comfort food is still acceptable? Absolutely. In their pure form (which is to say not jumped-up with artisan, cave-aged cheeses and hundred-year-old balsamic vinegar), mashed potatoes, meatloaf and chicken croquettes will always be the baseline cuisine by which good diners and awful all-you-can-eat buffets are judged. Small-town cafes will always function as our cultural storehouses of home-cooking know-how, places where the devotees of slow food and traditional technique can gather for pot roast and apple pie done right. But in any hot spot more hifalutin than, say, Breakfast King, comfort food is a scourge -- a cancer growing dangerously close to the heart of the American restaurant scene.
Seven years ago, America's obsession with comfort food was just peaking. We'd only recently come out of a long, dark period of incredibly fussy, pretentious fare -- an era in which every plate brought forth from a four-star kitchen had to look like sushi (whether it was seafood or not) or some weirdly complex piece of abstract art. Taste mattered less than style, form more than function. The edible architecture of Alfred Portale was a couple of years off, the resurgence of classical French and regional Italian rustica even farther in the future. And in the meantime, comfort food filled the void.
As did Bang! when it opened in a tiny space in just-getting-hot Highland and started serving meatloaf and mashed potatoes to a hungry neighborhood. And even today, in a larger location and seven years after the comfort-food climax, Bang! is still reminiscent of the restaurant world as it existed in the year 5 B.F. (Before Frisee).
On my culinary timeline, modern American dining is delineated by several seminal events. It begins with Julia Child and Madeline Kamman. It moves through the invention of the microwave, the robo-coupe and the offset bread knife, continues on with the opening of Chez Panisse, the logical beauty of Alice Waters's seasonal cooking and the subsequent horrors of California cuisine and the vegetarian-food movement; it takes a pause for sushi, Spago, Emeril and the birth of the Food Network. Comfort food started exerting its touchy-feely influence on kitchens that really should have known better in the mid-'90s (it was on the cover of every important magazine by late '97 and early '98), a trend bracketed by Wolfgang Puck's rise to celebrity status and Portale's plate design. And then, Alain Ducasse arrived in New York City. Everything after that is labeled A.D. (After Ducasse), just as those golden years before every corporate-owned faux street-corner bistro started slathering every goddamn thing that came out of the kitchen with a gallon of cheap-import truffle oil and adding frisee to every plate are called B.F.
Sitting down to eat at Bang! is like taking a time-machine trip back to that B.F. era. The restaurant is cute, but not sickeningly so, with its blue-green color scheme and pastel plates, high tables and giraffe-leg chairs that make everyone feel like a kid sitting at the grownups' table, and ever-changing art collection. The floor staff is laid-back and competent, and a server is never more than a few feet away because of the rather cramped quarters. Wine isn't served in fabulously expensive crystal stemware, but in plain water glasses like I use at home. And while the no-reservation policy, back-alley entrance and frequent (sometimes lengthy) waits for the two dozen highly sought-after tables can make the place feel exclusive, once you do get a seat (provided it's in the main room, as opposed to the quieter side room or the heated, tented patio), you can look right through the service door and see the dish machine chugging away, and sometimes the cooks at work in the kitchen hallway -- a design element that I'm sure must give all the highly paid restaurant decorators in town a collective heart attack.
That is, if they haven't already been laid low by the meatloaf. A signature menu item at Bang!, the meatloaf may have been great seven years ago, but now is no better than a hundred other slabs I've had at a hundred other nice places still trying to coast with comfort food. With that first meal, I also had an unfortunate order of shoestring fries that started out fine -- with crisp frites hot out of the oil, tossed with coarse salt -- but were wrecked when the kitchen got the bright idea of adding cracked black pepper and a bunch of dry herbs. The result was a plate of good fries covered in cracked black pepper and green stuff -- the latter doing nothing whatsoever to improve the former. As my hillbilly friend Mikey would have said, putting a pig in a dress don't make it okay to take her out on a Friday night, because no matter how pretty the dress is, at the end of the night, you're still gonna end up kissing a pig in a dress. Mikey (who has kissed his fair share of pigs) probably wouldn't have liked those fries. I know I didn't. And so, no, my first visit to Bang! did not end with one.
But that was just one meal on one night, and each time I returned, I found myself liking the restaurant more and more. I liked the quirky atmosphere and easygoing service. Even more, I liked the fact that (meatloaf aside) the food coming out of the Bang! kitchen -- which sits at the front of the house like a fishbowl full of cooks, with two big windows that open onto the street -- was exactly the kind of stuff you would have gotten from a very good neighborhood restaurant in the days before customers came to expect caviar garnishing the foie gras on top of their truffle salad and warm milk and cotton candy for dessert. A dish of wickedly hot pepper shrimp over fluffy jasmine rice, delivered on a plate inked with squiggles of bright-orange and blazing mango-habanero sauce, then topped with a cooling mango-pepper-red-onion salsa fresca, brought back the half-brilliant but amateurish enthusiasm of the early-'90s bistro scene, when every cook on a level below that of Jean-Louis Palladin (and everyone was on a level below Jean-Louis back then, whether they knew it or not) thought that all they needed to change the world was a squeeze bottle full of garlic mojo and a dream. The dish wasn't perfect -- the salsa mixed very fresh mango with some chunks that weren't as pristine -- but the bright heat, sharp flavors and carefully thrown-together look of the plate saved the pepper shrimp from devolving into a gooey, sickly palm-tree fusion, elevating it instead to a delicious history lesson.
Excellent, creamy whipped spuds are used to mount a good percentage of the plates on Bang!'s short but sweet menu. They came with the tender braised short ribs, spiked with whole garlic, braised carrots and onions, as well, all swimming in a puddle of wine-fortified pan sauce. The roasted chicken -- four skin-on breast and leg pieces -- arrived leaning against a mound of the same, this time swamped by a rich, silky mushroom, bacon and shallot white gravy. The kitchen had taken care with that chicken, seasoning the skin with salt and pepper, then roasting the pieces just enough that the skin got crisp around the edges, but not so much that the fat sizzled away into a smear of grease in the bottom of the sheet pan. An equal measure of talent had also gone into the gravy, which had a rough-edged hominess with its chunky bits of bacon and mushroom and deep, Southern-fried soul of roasted-chicken-back stock. This wasn't some jumped-up, overly fussy nouveau preparation with all of its flavors blended down into an onion-scented bacon cloud, or baby food dressed in the trappings of haute cuisine: It was just gravy in every wonderful, beautiful cream-and-butter-soaked sense of the word.
Food like this -- not new American, but old American, done well and spotted here and there with diversions and digressions interesting enough to elevate it safely above the slack-jawed simplicity or groveling sappiness of the down-home comfort-food grind -- is important because it balances the scales between the lightning glitz and puffery of places really pushing the culinary envelope, like Adega, Vega and Vesta, and all those nameless others that would gleefully charge us $20 for a jar of Gerber baby food and a silver spoon to eat it with if that's what Gourmet said was the new big trend. Bang! is a valuable reminder that there were once restaurants that existed solely to serve good food at reasonable prices to people who wanted to eat well before eating well became such a rigorously intellectual endeavor. And that there was still life in the American kitchen in those days Before Frisee.
Finally, dessert. Not milk and cookies, but a simple thick, warm square of fresh gingerbread, gently flavored with ginger, attended only by a delicate fall of cold, house-made whipped cream. It came to the table perfectly moist and squishy, so that after I'd devoured every bite, I could go back and mash all the little leftover crumbs back together into one last taste. And yeah, that was childish, but it was me catering to my inner child, not the kitchen, and that made all the difference.
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