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Comfortable comfort food

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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.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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