BY CINDY GERLACH
PHOTOS BY CHRISTINE PETKOV
As colder weather sets in for an extended stay, our tastes turn toward a different type of cuisine. Gone are longings for cold salads, fresh fruit and meat straight off the grill, replaced with the sights and smells of winter.
It’s comfort food time. Food that makes us feel special.
Anything that makes people feel warm and cozy can be considered comfort food, says Ambarish Lulay, executive chef of East End Grill.
“It’s a little bit indulgent, a little bit richer than what we normally eat on a day-to-day basis,” Lulay says. “It takes you to a happy place, makes you feel at home.
“Usually there is some sort of a strong memory associated with it, that mom or grandma used to make. Those food memories are very important.”
Throughout Lafayette, different restaurants create comfort food in a variety of ways.
Comfort food is all about how the individual chooses to define it, says Bistro 501 co-owner and executive chef Cheyenne Buckley.
“To me, comfort food is just the thing that no matter what you’re deciding on eating always sounds good,” she says, “For me, that would be my mom’s pot roast. It’s always in my mind.”
But for others, it will depend on where they grew up, or how they were fed growing up. Because comfort food is so ensconced with memory, with family and tradition.
As winter sets in, Buckley infuses a little taste of Thanksgiving traditions into several of Bistro’s entrées. It’s subtle enough that people may not notice it right away. But as those dishes are so familiar, sneaking in a cranberry gastrique and cornbread stuffing with the duck helps evoke those memories of holidays past.
“You take a bite and you’re transported,” she says.
A popular cold-weather item is the duck poutine. Buckley puts the Bistro’s own spin on it, adding thyme, goat cheese and cherries soaked in cognac.
“It’s rich and it satisfies and hits all the flavors,” she says.
The brunch menu has familiar items, such as biscuits and gravy, chicken and waffles. And the chicken pot pie — another popular comfort item — makes a return.
“Everybody waits impatiently for that to come back,” she says.
Everyone derives satisfaction from familiar flavors, from gravy, cheese and casseroles. This year, Bistro introduced cassoulet, a French casserole.
“It’s fun to explore different cultures,” Buckley says.
The dessert menu also offers some familiar flavors. Gone is key lime pie, replaced instead with bread pudding with caramel whiskey sauce, fruit cobbler and sticky toffee carrot cake — another perennial favorite.
The flavors may vary a bit, but the basic dishes will seem familiar enough.
“The comfort food we have resonates with us and my upbringing,” Buckley says. “We try to stay true to the Midwest. The regionality influences us for sure.”
East End Grill
When East End puts away the summer menu staples of tomatoes, grilling and crunchy salads, thoughts turn toward fall and winter, Lulay says.
“When I think of menus, I’m thinking of fall ingredients, fall flavors and fall methods,” he says.
For East End, this means slow braising of meats, fall greens, butternut squash, parsnips and Brussels sprouts.
Sauces get richer, and flavors are sweet and savory, using butter and capers, tarragon.
Lulay likes to braise shanks, long and low.
“You sneak in things that work toward that,” he says. “Aromas of thyme, garlic and rosemary.”
Pastas remain on the menu, but they have a bit of a heavier, creamier sauce. Macaroni and cheese is a favorite.
Desserts change with the season, as well, with fruit cobblers coming in to play. Flavors such as apple and cinnamon work well.
Sometimes, it’s just taking a menu item and tweaking it a bit to change for cooler weather. Don’t worry — the signature shrimp and grits are not going anywhere.
“That’s truly the power of comfort food,” Lulay says. “There are summer memories of mac and cheese. Even if it’s heavy, it still works.”
Walt’s Pub and Grill and Walt’s Other Pub
Comfort food, says Walt Foster, evokes memories of how your grandmother used to cook.
“It’s heavier, it’s usually potatoes, usually larger portions,” he says. “It’s feel-good.”
At Walt’s Pub and Grill and the Other Pub, it means country fried steaks, Manhattans, chicken and waffles.
It’s also about heavier soups and stews.
“We’re probably one of the few restaurants in town that makes homemade soups and chowders,” Foster says. Thus, for winter, that translates into cream-based soups, chowders — seafood and clam chowder — and cream of mushroom soup.
The Lafayette location is known for its signature white chili; in West Lafayette, it’s a red chili. Desserts change, too, with warm fruit desserts and bread pudding.
“We get excited about football season and fall,” Foster says, and the menu reflects that change.
There are fireplaces in both locations, and as the temperatures lower, sitting there, in the glow of the fireplace, “It’s warm and cozy,” he says. “That’s what we call comfort.”
Arni’s is a Lafayette institution. Arni Cohen opened the first restaurant at Market Square in 1965; it has since grown to several locations around the state. But for people who grew up in Lafayette or who attended Purdue University, a visit back to town means a chance to “Meet you at Arni’s.”
Thus, a visit to Arni’s is, in and of itself, a foray into comfort food.
“It’s a nostalgia thing, a family tradition from when they were younger,” says marketing director Liz Hahn.
The menu at Arni’s remains pretty consistent all year long. Items like pizza, salads, sandwiches and subs are always available and always popular with patrons.
And people who make a visit to Arni’s at Market Square almost always want to peek into the Toy Room. The room has remained virtually unchanged for years, even after renovations that have updated the restaurant, says Hahn. But guests like to pop their head in, check if the toys are in the same place they remember from their childhood. There is one particular clown that people always wonder about. No worries, says Hahn. It’s still there.
And for those who would like to send the special flavor of Arni’s pizza to someone who has moved away, fear not — Arni’s ships its pizzas all over the United States. Comfort mail delivered to the front door!
Nine Irish Brothers
“The first part of comfort food is that it’s literally warming as well as figuratively,” says Matt Rose, a partner in Nine Irish Brothers.
And nothing is as emblematic of comfort food as pub fare. Guinness stew, shepherd’s pie and corned beef and cabbage — meat and potatoes are the heart of comfort food.
About three quarters of the Nine Irish Brothers menu doesn’t really change for winter, Rose says. But as fall comes around, they change things up a bit. They introduce a Manhattan — a beef sandwich with gravy — that clearly fits the mold.
“For a lot of people, it’s ‘Oh, my mom used to make this,’ ” Rose says.
Entrées that are heavier and more cream-based are more popular, items like fisherman’s pie, with fish, shrimp and mussels, with the requisite mashed potatoes and cheese.
And for the pièce de résistance? Irish coffee: a combination of coffee, whiskey, sugar and whipped cream.
“It’s got all the important food groups,” Rose says. “Nothing makes you feel better. “I think it’s the very definition of comfort food.”