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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Comfort restaurant

the perfect Manhattan (in Richmond)

And for dinner? A Southern comfort restaurant I stumbled on, in Richmond, Virginia, unexpectedly.

After my rapid-fire visit to Manhattan, I flew to Richmond to prepare for the Gluten Intolerance Group’s annual conference. Exhausted from all the traveling, I thought of just eating the energy bars in my bag and crashing in my hotel room. But downtown Richmond called.

My lovely hotel — formerly a row house from the 1820s, with a courtyard and rocking chairs on the porches — was in the dilapidated area of downtown Richmond. Most stores were closed, or going out of business. But the streets had character, and the stores that were open convinced me at one glance that I was in the South. Humid air and vivid colors, people congregating on the street in chattering clutches, and movie theatres from the 20s — Richmond called me out of my room.

Lunch had been eight hours before, and even though that meal at Gotham had been one of the best I had ever eaten, the stomach still grows hungry. The guy at the front desk of the hotel recommended some restaurants. Everything he recommended sounded cheesy, and meant for tourists. No thanks. “There is this place called Comfort,” he drawled, a little reluctant to tell me. “It’s Southern food.”

I was out the door.

Wherever I go, I like to eat the food of that culture. There’s something inherently depressing about going to a chain restaurant and having the food taste exactly the same as it does 2400 miles away. And whenever I travel, it seems, the best restaurants are the ones that hotel folks are a little reluctant to recommend.

When I walked into Comfort, I felt right at home. High ceilings, cool colors, ivy growing up a wall of windows — this place exuded cool. I sat at the bar and smiled at the bartender.

These days, I don’t have much chance to walk into a restaurant by myself, particularly one where I don’t know anyone. At one point in my life, I felt prickly with nervousness at being alone in a public place. Now, I revel in it.

The bartender made me a Manhattan, after I asked him what was his favorite drink to make at the moment. He was right. It was spectacular.

When I asked the bartender about the gluten issue, he asked for help. The owner — wonderfully friendly and eager to please — came over to ask me how he could help. I walked him through everything. He went back to the kitchen to check. He came back to tell me about the cornmeal they use, stone ground in a mill only a few towns away. One more check, and we had a plan. (That’s what I love about the best restaurants — they make me feel like I’m a guest, and they are thrilled to serve me.) What was for dinner?

Barbecued pulled pork, fried okra, and cheddar cheese grits.

Hello, I’m in the South.

I called the Chef to share it with him. When I told him the meal that was coming, he said, “That’s my girl.”

Everything was heaven. My mouth still waters at the thought of that pulled pork — spicy, but not enough to emblazon my mouth; slightly sweet; subtle in the layering — clearly made slowly, with love. And those cheddar cheese grits? Oh my goodness, how have I never made grits? Time to rectify that. Okra? I had never eaten it. But okra fried in cornmeal? I’ll be eating that again.

(Here I must leave an important note. A wonderful woman I met at the conference the next day emailed me a few days later. She said she had been to Comfort, on my recommendation, the next day. The waitress that night informed her that the cornmeal in the fried okra is mixed with a little wheat flour. The owner swore to me that wasn’t true. Who to believe? I didn’t feel sick immediately after my meal, as I always do when I get gluten by mistake. The next day I felt a little off, with some familiar intestinal troubles, but I thought that was the airport food, which is a story for a few days from now. If you go to Comfort, ask carefully, and make your own judgments.)

Within a few moments, people to my left and right spotted my camera, and my pen. They asked me I was doing a review. Of a sorts. And within ten minutes, we were all chattering away, talking about food and love. By the end of the meal, I had made new friends.

A fabulous dinner, a decadent cocktail, and conversations with everyone around me? That’s my idea of comfort.

200 West Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23220



Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I love the concept of Comfort, I, too, have reacted unfavorably to food that I was assured was gf. My daughter also had a pretty bad two days after eating there.

March 11, 2009 at 8:38 AM  

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