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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, March 04, 2017 10:01 pm

Plenty of comfort in cafe's food selections

Ryan DuVall | Restaurant critic

There was no better day to visit as far as I was concerned.

With a name like Comfort Food Cafe, how could I not go to the restaurant in Citizens Square on Meatloaf Thursday?

There is probably no dish that better screams comfort food than meatloaf, and my love affair with it has lasted a lifetime. Most pale in comparison to my dear mother’s, but this friendly little restaurant and its owner/chef Tammi McKee gave mom a run for her money.

It was a big slice of loaf, for one, and it had the perfect blend of ground beef, onions and whatever filler McKee uses, because it was moist and juicy throughout. It had the perfect texture, and I loved how the edges got a little charred against the pan.

It was topped with fresh and canned diced tomatoes that were kicked up with a little ketchup, steak sauce and hot sauce, and it was simply perfect. It came with two sides and, of course, mashed potatoes had to be one of them. They were homemade and tasted homemade. I also loved the green beans – another no-brainer with this comfort food classic. There were dark and bright green ones in Comfort Food Cafe’s mix, and all were snappy, perfectly seasoned and tasty.

The meatloaf came from the steam table, which is a standard meat-and-two-veg, cafeteria-style setup. There is a salad station next to the hot bar and sandwiches, and other staple menu items are available on the grill side. A register sits between the hot bar and the grill, and that is where grill items are ordered.

The Cafe is driven by regulars, so if you haven’t been there, you might struggle to figure out where to order what. You will stick out a bit if you don’t know the routine, which I didn’t at first, so be patient.

The steam table offerings change daily, and the restaurant’s Facebook page is updated regularly to show what is being featured.

So you can imagine my disappointment when I went out of my way to show up on buttermilk fried chicken Wednesday only to find out there was no chicken. The barbecued smoked sausage didn’t soothe my hurt feelings much, either.

It was fine, and the macaroni and cheese and fried potatoes I had with it were good enough to have again. But it wasn’t fried chicken. McKee said she shops daily and uses only fresh meat, and her supplier was recently out of chicken. But there are plenty of places that sell chicken. And if you are the Comfort Food Cafe and you promise fried chicken, you should have fried chicken.

I did find comfort in the soups. The chicken and rice was the star, with an orzo pasta in addition to rice, chunks of herbed chicken – which made sense because herbed chicken breasts were one of the steam table offerings – peas, carrots and onions in a deftly seasoned broth that had a surprisingly light finish.

Like the orzo in that soup, the ham and bean also had a nice little surprise in the form of potatoes, which one normally doesn’t find in bean soup. The navy beans had good texture; there was also plenty of ham, celery, carrots and onions, and I enjoyed every spoonful.

The items I tried from the grill side were solid but not spectacular like the meatloaf.

The grinder came recommended by an employee. It had salami, ham, pepperoni, onions, peppers and a mozzarella-provolone that is baked before the lettuce and Italian vinaigrette is added. The meat caramelized nicely in the oven and the cool lettuce was a nice touch.

The hamburger was nicely seasoned and though not exciting in terms of size, it popped with flavor. I would have it again.

My biggest issue with the sandwiches was how long they took to prepare. If I was pressed for time, I would only go for the steam table.

The salad offerings were scant but had bonuses like fresh peas and pepperoncini. All of the vegetables were fresh and looked good, which is exactly what you hope for. But it is probably not a place I would consider if I was in the mood for a salad.

I would be in the mood for all of the desserts. My chocolate malt was thick, creamy and delicious. And I loved the old-fashioned paper straw.

McKee said her baker, Jim Edgar, gets the credit for the desserts. The peanut butter cookie was about as good as a peanut butter cookie can be. It was a crispy cookie – no soft batch here – but it melted in your mouth and had just the right amount of sugar. I was also surprised to find out it was a flourless creation.

The Confetti Brownie was hard to finish because it was so rich. Dotted with chocolate chips, sprinkles, peanut butter cups and M&Ms, this gooey brownie was an indulgent treat.

My favorite dessert was the mini cherry pie, however. This half-moon pie mimicked the ones you get at the gas station or grocery store, and it had that signature white glaze. But this glaze was not as heavy, not as sticky. It allowed the dough’s crispy edges and the tart cherry filling to be at the forefront.

The Comfort Food Cafe opened in the basement of Citizens Square in September. McKee’s first Cafe is still running in the Rousseau Centre, where she started in 2013.

The new Cafe is a spiffy, comfortable place – Mc­Kee said the city did a major overhaul in the basement in preparation for her arrival – and I felt welcome even though I wasn’t a regular. I was checked on from time to time, and the folks there really seemed to hope I was enjoying my meal.

There are tables and booths, and it was pretty busy around noon, so you may want to get there before the lunch rush. Some seats were even taken by office folk on breaks eating packed lunches instead of the restaurant meals, which could make finding a table an issue.

Restaurant: Comfort Food Cafe

Address: 200 E. Berry St. (Citizens Square building)

Phone: 427-8311

Hours: 8 to 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Steam table ($7.40), grinder ($6.50), cheeseburger basket ($6), salad ($2.25 small; $3.50 large), malts ($4.50), cookies ($1.25), brownies ($2.75), pies ($2.25)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere:1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette. net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.