When the weather's frigid and the sun sets at an ungodly hour, the best defense is grilled cheese. Or gourmet tater tots. Or fried chicken. OK, just comfort food in general. Fortunately, Chicago is laden with all kinds of comfort food, jazzed up by chefs to give nostalgic classics a modern spin. Here's where you can eat your feelings this winter.
The best kinds of comfort foods are those that tug on heartstrings and recall childhood. For example, grown-up tater tots in the form of duck fat-fried potato croquettes at TWO (see above for a mouthwatering photo.) These sensational morsels feature silken potato puree fried in duck fat until the exterior is golden and crackly, served with a side of roasted garlic aïoli for prime dunking. The best part is they're not served to you by a gruff lady in a hair net.
If you come to Hopleaf, Andersonville's quintessential Belgian beer haunt, the essential edible is mussels. The specialty of the bar, Hopleaf steams some of the best mussels in town, serving up bowl after bowl of shellfish comfort. They're always available Belgian-style, steamed in Belgian ale with shallots, celery, thyme, and bay leaf, as well as a rotating flavor such as yellow curry. They can be ordered for one, or for two, though the latter can easily satiate a solo diner with a particular obsession with shellfish. The best part is they're served with shoestring frites and the most habit-forming aïoli in town.
Few foods are as innately comforting and soul-quenching as an ooey gooey grilled cheese. Especially when said grilled cheese is rife with pimento cheese, artisanal bologna, and bread and butter pickles. This fantastical rendition is on the menu through December at Little Market Brasserie as part of the restaurant's Melts for Meals campaign, wherein a different guest chef designs a grilled cheese each month and sends proceeds to Meals on Wheels Chicago. So you can feel altruistic about your gluttony. This month's contender is Mark Steuer from Carriage House, depicting his affinity for Southern twang in a particularly salacious grilled cheese.
If there's one way to improve upon fried chicken, it's by slathering it in honey butter. So goes the mantra at Avondale's Honey Butter Fried Chicken, a haven for all things crispy, buttery, and comforting. The locally sourced, wholesome chicken makes for some of the best fried chicken in Chicago, doled out with dollops of treacly honey butter and the most adorable cornbread muffins known to man.
In case that's not decadent enough for you and you'd prefer your fried chicken betwixt biscuits, get thee to Endgrain. The Roscoe Village nook has a way with sultry carbs, expertly frying up doughnuts and baking biscuits with incomparable flakiness, density, and butter-soaked richness. They make the perfect platform for biscuit sandwiches, layered with the likes of fried chicken, soft-boiled eggs, crispy pork belly, and smoked salmon.
Beefy braised dishes are essential for cold weather. There's hardly a better way to cope with frostbite than with fork-tender meat that practically melts apart when you breathe on it. One of the best examples in town is that at Lockwood, where chef Joseph Rose cooks beef short ribs with ginger, lemongrass, chiles, sake, veal stock and coriander. The medley is insanely rich, so he offsets it with some yuzu pickles and pickled chiles. And of course, it's all set atop a bed or potato puree, because the Midwest loves its meat and potatoes.
Photos: TWO, Hopleaf, Honey Butter Fried Chicken, Chelsea Ross (Endgrain), Lockwood