Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Comforting comfort food... in Portsmouth!

Everyone needs it, and every culture has it: comfort food.

Jason Alley and Chris Chandler paid homage to that basic necessity in Richmond at Comfort: traditional Southern cookery with a side of panache. Now Portsmouth is home to a second Comfort — same name, same game.

The painted sign out front isn't lit, and my husband and I almost drove right past it. We parked and headed into the warmly-hued and extremely spacious dining area.

A bar, peopled with relaxing after-fivers, ran along the wall to the left. Free-standing tables, in varying clusters, filled the front, while high-backed wooden booths dominated the rear.

Our waiter tucked us into a booth, leaving us to look over one of the simplest menus I've seen in some time.

Appetizers, entrees and sides are listed in unembellished terms: tomato salad ($4), grilled pork chop ($17, two sides; $19, three sides) and fried okra (a “side” included with some entrees) are astonishingly back to basics.

Then our server returned, not only to tell us the evening specials, but of the preparation of almost every single menu item.

It was at first amusing, then confusing, to listen to the litany of 15-plus items described in detail. By the time he'd returned with the wine, we needed him to repeat several of our choices.

The 2004 Fosco Dolcetto Diano D'Alba ($35) was a familiar wine to us, chosen for its laid-back, easy drinking attitude.

It won't blow your mind, but it will go nicely with a variety of foods, including Comfort's house-made bread.

Hint: the corn bread is singularly spectacular, with a perfectly pebbled texture, and a toasty, nutty flavor.

After seeing so many spinach salads ($6) carried out from the kitchen, Dave and I decided to split one.

It was served divided into two portions, a nice touch that we appreciated. The spinach was dressed in a light vinaigrette featuring fat, lovely chunks of delicious bacon. Thinly sliced red onions, cold flavorless tomatoes and a hard-boiled egg rounded out the plate.

Dave took the theme and ran with it, ordering the meatloaf entrée ($16, two sides). The presentation is classic meat-'n'-threes (although he only got two sides), no fancy plating required.

Two fat slices of succulent meatloaf were a perfectly textured monument to mama's finest, complete with highly-flavored mushroom gravy. Steamed string beans made for a fine green, while the mac and cheese was a dense, creamy delight.

I had the grilled mahi mahi ($18, two sides), finished in a chile-orange glaze. The filet had a lovely light texture, and the slightly sweet, slightly spicy sauce did everything right to enhance the mild white meat.

I had a side of tender braised greens, rich with chunks of bacon. The grits were all right, but as I'd just sampled The World's Best Grits, Ever (see my review of Center Street Grill at just a few nights before, my objectivity may have been slightly compromised.

It was quite a meal, and we ordered dessert to go. The dining room was quite busy at this point, and the banana pudding ($6) arrived before the receipt. It looked like a tart gone wild, with a crunchy crème brulee top, and an interior so creamy and opulent we dug in, laughing like little children with their first ice cream cone.

Sated and happy, we sped off into the night. The only thing missing was that Southern farewell: y'all come back now, y'hear?

725 High Street, Portsmouth
Phone: 393-3322
Specialties: Southern style comfort food
Price range: appetizers: $3-$8; entrees: $10-$20
Hours: lunch served 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner served 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Alcohol: beer, wine, full bar
Smoking: no
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, credit cards
Noise level: somewhat noisy
Atmosphere: tattered casual elegance
Additional Information: daily specials, catering, large parties welcome
Star rating: food 4, atmosphere 3 1/2, service 3 1/2
(out of five stars)

1 star- terrible
2 stars - mostly unpleasing
3 stars - pleasant & satisfactory
4 stars - very, very nice
5 stars - ultimate epicurean meal


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