Comfortable comfort food

Traci's successfully sophisticates home-cooking

Comfort food doesn't exactly have positive connotations as far as I'm concerned. When I hear the words "comfort food," I think of home-cooking. And when I think of home-cooking, childhood memories seep into my consciousness like a ladle full of lumpy powdered-cheesefood sauce. You see, the most rudimentary level of culinary refinement was almost nonexistent in my extended family. We come from strong German stock, and Germans have a peculiar cuisine that can be reduced to two basic flavorings: pork fat and beer.

My mother hated beer. So her experiments in the kitchen centered on finding substitutes for this critical ingredient. Plus, my father had very specific tastes. For one thing, he hated poultry and fish. The only time we experienced the flesh of the finned and feathered was on his bowling night. For another, the things that curled his toes--Kraft macaroni and cheese with smoky links, ring bologna, sausages, chili-mac, hamburger pie choking with American cheese--were preparations that tended to chop-block hunger pangs rather than dazzle the taste buds. In this sense, they were resoundingly successful. Plus, they were relatively easy to prepare, which was critical in families with small children in the days when the father's role in meals centered exclusively on eating the stuff.

Large family gatherings were also showcases for the heavy artillery of hunger suppression. I remember dinners heaping with slices of canned ham, fatty roasted pork, Green Giant French-cut green beans in Campbell's mushroom soup cluttered with Durkee French-fried onions, creamy fruit salad with coconut and miniature marshmallows in Miami Vice pastels, wiggly day-glo Jell-O molds suspending things that have never been observed outside of cans, and lasagna with pulverized meat in a tomato sauce that tasted as if it were swiped from someone's Quarter Pounder. Until I started working in restaurants at age 14, I thought the only difference between pork chops and work boots was Lipton's onion soup.

There's an old, pretentious adage in journalism that the purpose of the journalist is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. In my experience, home-style cooking perverts this little self-congratulatory motto, making comfort itself an affliction. That's why when someone suggests I spend good money at a restaurant for home-style cooking or comfort food, I have a hard time believing I wouldn't be better off at my aunt's house eating greasy cocktail links wrapped in Pillsbury biscuit dough.

It was with this level of skepticism that I made my first visit to Traci's Home Style Gone Gourmet. Even the name invites caution, as if those cocktail links could be redeemed by serving them over a couple of slices of kiwi. But a step inside the place immediately begins evaporating skepticism, and the remaining dribbles are expunged by the menu.

The Traci in Traci's is owner Traci Ford, who teamed up with Sean Owen, general manager, and chef Randy Richins to create this cozy Uptown restaurant. They all met while working at the Garden Court restaurant--now closed--at Nordstrom in the Galleria. Owen was regional manager, and Richins was regional chef for Nordstrom restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area. Both were sent to Dallas to oversee the launch of the store's restaurants in the Galleria, where Ford was manager. And it's hard to overestimate the value of a good dose of Nordstrom culture in a home-style restaurant. The level of service, care, and attention to detail is clearly evident throughout this place.

Traci's is situated in an early-20th-century house that served as a residence and home office for a geologist over the past 20 years before Ford settled on it for her restaurant. A small entrance, just beyond the large patio with outdoor seating, has a sitting area with an overstuffed chair and sofa. The four distinct dining areas in the interior are washed in cool blues and greens and earthy putties. Mismatched antique chairs and tables--sans table cloths--fill the hardwood-floored rooms with honest comfort and understated elegance. Every room has a coal-burning fireplace with a rich wooden mantel. Triangular oil lamps on each table with dried flowers floating within the fuel add a splash of lush romance.

The tall windows offer views of the downtown skyline, and during the day, those windows flood the dining areas with natural light. It's refreshing to come across a new restaurant in this town that isn't gunked-up with millions of dollars' worth of pretentious ambiance. "I wanted this restaurant to be me, and part of my family," says Ford. And in a sense, it is a part of her family. She uses fresh vegetables from her grandfather's Irving farm, which has been selling produce for several decades to Tom Thumb stores.

Richins, who once worked as a chef at the Carnelian Room in San Francisco and owned a restaurant in that city called Frisco Rose, says he was charged with spinning a home-style menu with fresh ingredients and a new American twist. He draws inspiration from traditional American classic dishes from the South and New England, as well as from Ford's grandmother's recipes.

And the food generally echoes the ambiance, creating layered richness while maintaining the crisp simplicity of the ingredients. The spinach salad is a simple plate with wilted spinach leaves, diced tomato, mushrooms, pine nuts, and strips of chewy bacon in a dressing made from balsamic vinegar, honey, heavy cream, olive oil, Dijon mustard, and tarragon. The dressing is simmered in a saute pan, and the spinach is tossed in to gently wilt it. The result is tender leaves that maintain their raw, fresh crunch and lively flavor, while the dressing adds an understated richness with layers of sweetness and tang that never cloud the spinach.

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