All month long, I'm going to be looking for soul-satisfying food that really warms you up, dishes so homey, so comforting, you wanna eat them in your pajamas and take a nap afterward.
The first two Wednesdays of this month, we're on the North Side; the last two Wednesdays - on the South Side. We begin in Lakeview where two guys are reinterpreting some family favorites with an eye on contemporary ingredients.
Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh have always been into food. Their popular "Hearty Boys" catering operation still does a brisk business. But now within that Lakeview headquarters, they have also opened Hearty, a full-service restaurant, open for dinner and Sunday brunch.
"With Hearty, it's all centered on American comfort food and for awhile I've been wanting to kind of narrow my focus down and the restaurant really affords me that," said Smith, the co-owner/chef of Hearty.
The focus is clearly on the familiar. Some of their most popular dishes have been reinterpreted classics.
"Tuna casserole, which is kind of scary as a dish, from when I was a kid, but I've pulled it apart and re-worked it and we use ahi tuna instead of Bumblebee," Smith said.
That ahi is first dipped in beaten eggs, then rolled around in Japanese panko bread crumbs and crushed potato chips; it's seared on all sides in a bit of blazing-hot oil. Meanwhile, curly egg noodles are heated up in some heavy cream laced with saffron. Once the tuna is seared on all sides, it's sliced into squares; sauteed wild mushrooms are placed over the cooked egg noodles, and the tuna crowns the top. A handful of crunchy wasabi peas completes the dish.
"If it's going to be tuna noodle casserole or Beef-a-roni, we don't want to be a kitschy place, we don't want to be a themey place, we want it to be authentically delicious; real ingredients and all the elements of those dishes brought together but honestly," said McDonagh, Smith's partner at Hearty.
Take the Southern-fried chicken, for instance: from a batter of buttermilk and eggs, the pieces are dredged in corn flakes, plus a blend of chili, onion and garlic powders. Fried for just a few minutes, to crisp-up the skin, the pieces are then baked to finish them off. Homey sides of mashed sweet potatoes and collard greens -- fortified with old-school salt pork and heavy cream -- make you want to take a nap immediately after eating.
The all-American theme carries over to the beverage program as well, with obscure wines from unknown producers in non-traditional states, as well as domestic beers. Smith says their experience as caterers helps them set the scene for a comforting night out.
"It's always about more than just the food for us, it's about the whole experience," Smith said.
Hearty is open for dinner only, as well as Sunday brunch.
3819 N. Broadway St.