For many Americans, the term "comfort food" refers to predictably white-bread fare like mac 'n' cheese and chicken pot pie — the stuff of Betty Crocker or (dare I say it?) Paula Deen. But at Next Door, a new restaurant in Berkeley that celebrates comfort food in all its forms, the menu on any given night might run the gamut from Chilean meat pie to braised short ribs to Thai-style tofu curry.
Chef Sharon Lorraine Anderson (formerly of The Purple Plum) calls the approach "comfort food without borders," the idea being that even while the foods people find comforting are culturally specific, there's no reason that Persian-style chicken wings and Italian-American lasagna shouldn't coexist at one restaurant.
When Anderson was a kid, comfort food was her father's cooking: smothered pork chops, neck bones and white beans, collard greens stewed with a big ham hock — straight-up soul food. But Anderson grew up in Los Angeles, among Asians and Latinos, and she ate enough tacos and Chinese stir-fries to co-opt those cuisines — and others she fell in love with — into her own culinary heritage.
Still, despite the loftiness of the "without borders" vision, what Next Door delivers is an American comfort-food menu with global accents (a dash of Mexico here, a quick dip in Middle Eastern spice over there) and dishes that, appropriately enough, aren't going to push anyone outside their comfort zone.
To wit: A salad of quick-sautéed spinach, dotted with shiitake mushrooms and al dente cubes of Japanese sweet potato (a nice touch), was tossed in a warm ginger-and-sesame-oil vinaigrette. Halfway between a salad and a stir-fry, it was exactly the kind of simple, Asian-inspired dish a health-conscious cook might whip up at home.
An appetizer of bright-red achiote-seared shrimp — plump, juicy specimens — had Mexico as its reference point, with a zesty chili-lime aioli that made for a refreshing dipping sauce. (The dish has since been reconfigured into a taco, which sounds like a sensible tweak to me.)
And a plate of fried flounder of indeterminate ethnic origin was served with sweet cherry tomatoes, olive tapenade (shades of Provence?), and garlicky white beans (Italy?). Whatever the inspiration, it was a tasty entrée.
Despite the eclectic touches, the restaurant's heart and soul still lie in the traditional dishes of the American South, which, during my visits, made up close to half the menu. Meals started on a generous note with complimentary cornbread, which arrived at the table warm, and, in true Southern fashion, was only slightly sweet. The best of the entrées was a thick cider-brined grilled pork chop — nicely charred, with angry-looking grill marks, and served in a pool of its own jus. Better yet were the sides: tender stewed greens (a vegetarian version given depth by a hickory-smoked "sofrito" of tomatoes, onions, and turnips) — and mashed sweet potatoes that were so airy and decadent I would have gladly eaten them for dessert.
The buttermilk fried chicken was well-seasoned and appropriately juicy, though there wasn't much crunch to the batter — more "Original Recipe" than "Extra Crispy," if you'll excuse my shorthand. (Anderson said she was still adapting to using a deep fryer rather than her preferred cast-iron skillet — a compromise born of running a larger restaurant.) But with this dish, the sides were a disappointment: stewed cabbage (fine on its own, but not an especially good match for fried chicken) and mashed potatoes that were too dry and bland to be rescued by a few drops of gravy.
However, the best thing about the braised short ribs was the fact that Lorraine served them over a bed of creamy Anson Mills grits, which soaked up all of the braising liquid, deliciously. The short ribs themselves, served off the bone, tasted great, but weren't falling-apart tender; they required a knife and fork.
Judged by the quality of the food, my meals at Next Door were mostly a success. But if the restaurant wants to become the kind of welcoming, neighborhood-y place it aspires to be, it needs to iron out a few rough edges, mainly to do with service and value. During one visit, our server seemed unfamiliar with the menu, describing one dish incorrectly and pleading ignorance about a couple others. And, pardon me if it seems ungenerous to quibble over a couple of dollars, but there's no question I would have been happier with my meals if the pricing hadn't seemed so inconsistent. Almost all of the entrées were priced at $18, which was more than reasonable for, say, the pork chop, but less so for a small portion of fried chicken (just a split breast and a drumstick).
Meanwhile, the smoked-trout stuffed eggs ($7) turned out to be slightly fancified deviled eggs — three lonely egg-halves, topped with a barely detectable amount of smoked fish. And seven dollars for an ice cream sandwich — oatmeal cookies and a yam ice cream that I'd never have guessed wasn't plain-old vanilla if it weren't for its bright purple hue — felt like highway robbery.
That said, butterscotch pudding seems to be the dessert of the season among East Bay restaurants with upscale-comfort-food leanings, and Next Door's smooth, showstopping version (topped with candied pecans and an intense salted caramel sauce) is easily the best of the bunch — a much better investment for your seven dollars.
With its high ceiling, old-fashioned woodworking details, and cheerful lime-green paint job, Next Door feels cozy the way the inside of an old church building does — even if the dining room is big enough that it feels mostly empty even when it's half-full. The restaurant has gotten some unflattering press due to the travails of its owner, controversial former San Francisco Housing Authority chief Henry Alvarez, who allegedly set up Next Door while he was on paid medical leave. But it's clear that this is Anderson's restaurant more than it is anyone else's. Let's hope that, with a bit of fine-tuning, the place can be everything she wants it to be.