It’s always comforting when an owner breathes life into an old restaurant. That’s the approach Jamie and Fran Rouse have used since relaunching Boondocks in March 2013, a venerable dockside eatery in scenic Fisherman’s Cove near Halifax, NS. Though long a seafood specialty house through several owners, the Rouses are fishing for different kinds of dishes to build a new identity.
By Jack Kohane
Photography by Aaron McKenzie Fraser
Comfort foods are a big part of their strategy.
Boondocks offers tried and true comfort foods and soups to satisfy their customers’ yen for yesteryear, including leek and potato soup, tomato and basil soup, and hearty corn and seafood chowders. “It’s good to try new tastes, but it’s wise to remember that guests do want time-tested comfort foods they grew up with,” Jamie Rouse notes.
Comfort with a twist
Chef Juriaan Snellen agrees, to a point. “Because consumers are familiar with comfort food, chefs can experiment and inject a sense of homemade humour,” says the corporate chef for H.J. Heinz North America. “It’s about creating grown-up versions of our childhood favourites.The key to cutting-edge comfort food is the tongue-in-cheek twist. Grandma’s meatloaf shows up on the appetizer menu as meatloaf sliders. Grilled cheese sandwiches now feature Swiss, brie and cheddar dipped in tomato bisque. By using new flavour profiles, craveable dishes become contemporary cuisine.”
“We’re adding British-style dishes in our menu,” says Jamie Rouse. His latest introduction is Queen of Puddings, a traditional British dessert consisting of a baked, breadcrumb-thickened mixture, spread with jam and topped with meringue. The bangers and mash is a favourite with kids.
“I’m English, so these are comfort foods back home,” he adds. “They’re quick and easy to prepare, and a warming meal in the fall and winter.”
But no matter the exotic and unusual trends and fads that cycle through restaurants from time to time, everyone goes back to comfort foods again and again.
“There are many types of comfort foods, but globally the potato is one of the biggest,” says Barb Corey, director of business development for global potato-producer McCain Foods (Canada. “Savvy restaurateurs are creating traditional comfort foods with flair. This trend allows chefs to flex their culinary muscles but serve something recognizable to the guest.” She points to examples such as red wine mashed potatoes and wasabi mashed potatoes.
Corey advises that restaurateurs explore the world for new kinds of comfort foods to serve their guests. She spotlights perogies from Poland, the Russian pelmenyi, gnocchi in Italy, or Polenta Trentino, a Northern Italian dish blending corn polenta with mushrooms and mashed potatoes.
Poutine is currently one of the most popular North American trends in comfort foods. “This trend exploded from its humble beginnings in Québec where French fries were topped with a simple gravy and cheese curds, to foie gras topped poutine, to butter chicken on sweet potato fries poutine. Hundreds if not thousands of variations can be found. The list is endless,”she notes.
Comfort and bold flavour
Bold, rich flavours top the comfort food list for Chef Isaac Frerichs, senior chef for Campbell’s Soup Company. He likes recipes that include judicious pepperings of spices and herbs, building flavours in soups by adding such tastebud tinglers as aromatic cumin and fresh coriander (cilantro), or trying chipotle for some heat.“These ingredients deliver nice, warm comfort inside,” he says. “Grain-based soups are very popular today with consumers.” He cites quinoa as a healthy wonder grain and farro as a trendy grain that’s popping up on menus everywhere these days.
“Comfort foods are those with a twist that bring bold, warm, flavours together,” he enthuses. “Sausage and gravy waffles, pan seared pork chops with sundried tomato and bacon sauce…these all spell comfort for me.”
And for savvy restaurant operators like Boondocks. Besides perennial favourites, everything from seafood to burgers using local sources wherever possible, the Rouses are serve their own brand of mac’n’cheese (the quintessential comfort food), a lobster and shrimp combination with cheese sauce and topped with panko.
It’s all about comfort with a twist.
Top tips to add some colourful comfort
- Try using what’s in season by checking out local farmers’ markets and grocery stores and work through your vendors. Seasonal and local tastes can set your comfort food apart.
- Approach comfort food with a twist, such as upscaling a poutine by adding some lobster or pulled pork, or a Louisiana-style mac’n’cheese with okra, andouille sausage, “the trinity,” and brown sugar bacon.
- Use herbs (like rosemary) as a great addition to sauces.
- Use a variety of techniques such as sautéing, pan frying, poaching, or en papilotte cooking to produce different looks and textures.