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Comfortable comfort food

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.

The poblano pepper soup, however, was another matter. With a base of chicken stock, the soup was loaded with crisp, sweet corn and toasted orzo plus a little onion, celery, and poblano pepper. But despite the fact that it's seasoned with cumin and a little chipotle for--as Richins puts it--background heat, the only assertively discernible flavor comes from the corn, and that simply isn't enough to hold it together.

The beef tenderloin and wild mushroom shortcake, however, holds together brilliantly. Anchored with a cracked-pepper buttermilk biscuit, this assembly spills over with strips of tender, flavorful Angus tenderloin smothered in a brandy demi-glace. It looks like a sloppy joe, and though it's billed as an appetizer, the rich heartiness of the thing makes it more of a meal.

Equally compelling was the grilled duck breast with carmelized Fuji apples and brandy-pecan glaze. The tender, mild duck flesh, with a demi-glace rendered from duck bones and flavored with Calvados apple brandy, was drawn out by the apples, which lent a subtle sweet-sour essence. The pecans brought out the nuttiness of the meat, and a side of souffle corn pudding added an elegantly creamy richness to the dish.

But the grilled pork tenderloin with Zinfandel-poached Bosc pears and dried cherry sauce seemed to mumble incoherently on the plate. Slices of pork tenderloin were juicy and tender, but the dried cherry sauce, made with port wine and shitake mushrooms, offered little more than a collection of muddled flavors. Virtually nothing asserted itself; there was not even a hint of dried-cherry sharpness.

Perhaps the best example of home-style cooking prepared with engaging agility is the buttermilk fried chicken. Chicken breasts are marinated in buttermilk overnight to tenderize the meat. Then the breasts are dredged in a mixture of flour, ground celery seed, sage, garlic, parsley, and cracked black pepper. Before pan-sauteing the coated breasts, they're chilled so that the flour absorbs the buttermilk, eliminating the possibility of gumminess. The result is melding of starkly contrasting textures: tender, juicy chicken flesh inside a dark brown crackly crust with an aggressive crunch. A side of slightly chunky, creamy-smooth mashed potatoes is covered in a hearty, flavorful cream gravy based on tasso, a Louisiana cured pork seasoned with Cajun spices.

The hot brown chicken, however, was a layered collection of inconsistencies. Slices of honey-roasted chicken are tiered with applewood-smoked bacon on jalapeno corn bread. The stack is then slathered with a triple-cheddar cheese sauce and topped with tomato slices covered with toasted bread crumbs and Parmesan. While the corn bread was moist and fluffy, the chicken was extremely dry and chewy. Sections of it held together well, but there were far too many spots that simply gummed up and became unappealingly pasty.

Sides of farm-fresh vegetables included shoestring carrots, kale, and Yukon potato slices. While the carrots were virtually flavorless, the kale was perfectly steamed with deep color and a hearty crispness, and the potatoes had a delicate crispness. The coconut rum creme brulee was smooth, but the custard was stiff rather than creamy, and it was marred by an intensely sharp, burned flavor.

The wine list doesn't seem to have the thought behind it that the rest of this venue does. Composed primarily of California selections with a handful of French wines and one each from Chile and Texas, this list is almost exclusively Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet. But this menu, with pork and seafood, and several saucing variations over chicken, would benefit immensely from dry Chenin Blanc, white Rhones, or a California Viognier as well as a few Burgundies and Pinot Noirs (there is only one Pinot and a Beaujolais). Plus, the list doesn't include vintages, an inexplicable oversight that is easily fixable.

Home-style cooking is often little more than aggressive heartiness coupled with a handful of intense seasonings. Traci's skillfully orchestrates American heartiness with refined flavors by starting with an appropriate weight, and then invigorating it with carefully selected seasonings. The preparations almost never crush fresh flavors, and they rarely suffer from the flimsiness of pulling back too much. Dining here, you'll discover that comfort doesn't have to be an affliction.

Traci's Home Style Gone Gourmet. 2403 Thomas Ave., (214) 849-0007. Open for dinner, Monday-Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.; open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Traci's Home Style Gone Gourmet:
Warm spinach salad $4
Beef tenderloin and wild mushroom shortcake $7.75
Buttermilk fried chicken $10
Grilled duck breast with apples $15
Grilled pork tenderloin $16
Hot brown chicken $7.50

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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