In recent years, the simple comfort foods that star in our sepia-toned childhood memories have had an even greater pull on us. Ice cream shops, burger joints and doughnut dynasties have multiplied, doling out creamy, salty, sweet and (this is key!) affordable indulgences.
But this isn’t anything new: Pros and home cooks alike have dressed up macaroni with swank cheeses—subbing Gruyère for cheddar, say—for decades. The ’90s were fraught with fancified meatloaves hiding shiitake mushrooms and dressed in demi-glace, and, as illustrated by our January issue, the burger craze has only gotten more feverish, the ground beef masterpieces even more over the top.
When the illustrious chef Thomas Keller—whose cooking is revered the world over, and whose outstanding restaurant Per Se, in New York City, was awarded four stars in The New York Times last fall—has a recipe for fried chicken in his latest cookbook (the fried chicken takes three days to brine and fuss over, but still…), consider the case closed: The upscale comfort food movement is solidly, thoroughly established.
But does that make it any less of a yawn? There’s a real comfort in buttery mashed potatoes and gravy, of course, and who doesn’t like a plate of spaghetti with tender meatballs showered in Parmesan? But is this the food we want our brightest chefs—chefs like Brian McCracken and Dana Tough, owners of The Coterie Room—to put before us when we’re out for a night on the town? And is it food we want to pay top dollar for?
Well, maybe. When McCracken and Tough, who’ve been doing luxe, sometimes experimental small plates at Spur in Belltown and pricey, supremely delicious pub grub at Tavern Law on Capitol Hill, stated that their menu at The Coterie Room would be elevated comfort food, what lit a glimmer of fire in my stomach was that it was, in fact, McCracken and Tough dreaming up this menu.
These are chefs with chops; their food ought not—it surely wouldn’t!—fit into the dumbed-down, gut-bomb, more-is-more class of comfort food that leaves the diner feeling like a worthless lump on a log after eating it. Or would it?
Smoked King Crab
Smoked king crab ($29) surely doesn’t. The crab itself isn’t actually smoked; it’s poached in smoked butter, resulting in a supple texture and sweet, sweet crab flavor. A gremolata, bright with orange and lemon zest and parsley, adds lift; it is creamy, buttery, exquisite. Ham cracklings, which are starting to show up on many menus around town, are irresistible here ($6), the pig skins fried until shatteringly crunchy. Alongside, though, is a heavy, thick black truffle fondue that would’ve been better paired with freshly fried potato chips; the cracklings are best eaten on their own.
And that’s the takeaway here: There’s reworked comfort food, and then there’s overwrought comfort food. Much of The Coterie Room’s food falls into the latter category. Off the “family style” section of the menu (meant to be shared by larger parties), four pieces of buttermilk fried chicken ($32) taste quite good straight away, sitting on top of a bacon-flecked diced potato. But the thick coating turns to a cardboard-like sheaf after sitting on the table for a short while. Those in the habit of taking the skin off the chicken are well served by this—the chicken beneath is outstanding—but, well, that’d be missing the point of fried chicken: the skin.
Buttermilk Fried Chicken
A little editing would go a long way here. The kitchen nails the rib-eye steak ($35) and its costarring onion rings. Meaty, tender, it’s a steak that The Coterie Room should be proud of; sadly, it’s all but hidden under a swath of horseradish pudding. Talk about burying the lead. And an endive salad ($8) with creamy tarragon dressing and aged Gouda is startlingly good until the sweet candied walnuts hit the palate like a wrong note on a piano. The salad is a star without those dated, discordant nuts. Worst of all, delicate cavatelli ($20) in a harsh, bitingly acidic tomato sauce was made still worse by being served in cast iron. Tomato sauce and cast iron just do not mix.
The room, however, is perfectly edited. Reborn in the former Restaurant Zoë space on Second Avenue in Belltown, (Zoë has moved to Capitol Hill), the space is a bit less lived in now, a touch haughtier. A chandelier hangs from the high, ornate ceiling like a showy jewel, dark wood providing a neutral backdrop, much like a woman in a perfect black dress with a show-stopping necklace and nothing else to distract the eye. There is an issue with noise, however; we had to lean in quite close to talk, and I noticed some diners didn’t even try to shout over the din.
Service is smart, helpful and opinionated in the best way. A serious bar—another McCracken-Tough signature—treats diners to classic cocktails like the Seelbach ($9); you’d be hard-pressed to find a sexier drink: smoky bourbon, Cointreau and bitters, finished with Champagne. And the rarest of civilized gestures in this town: Valet parking is offered on select evenings (Thursday through Saturday), making the hassle and expense of parking in the neighborhood a non-issue.
I left The Coterie Room with a comfort food hangover—juice, please!—and sticker shock: I spent how much on fried chicken? So you’ll have to decide for yourself whether upscale comfort food provides comfort when the price is so steep. With this kind of food, more is more—until it isn’t anymore.
The Coterie Room, Belltown, 2137 Second Ave.; 206.956.8000; thecoterieroom.com Brunch Sat.–Sun., lunch Mon.–Fri., dinner daily, $$
Food Photography by Hayley Young