Eventually, slogging through the meal became an exercise in stamina. I didn’t think I could eat another bite of cream. Or butter. Or anything fried. On my companion’s plate an order of fried chicken was quickly disappearing. “So good,” she said between mouthfuls. But I had already poured Goose Island–spiked syrup on a rabbit corn dog and taken down half of it (soggy coating and all). And I had cut through two blocks of deep-fried macaroni and cheese, revealing an interior of pasta conjoined with blue cheese, Havarti and cheddar. More fried food—I could barely stand the thought of it. But I carried on. I reached over, forked a piece of chicken, and grudgingly started to chew. My teeth cut through it like a hot knife through margarine. It was beyond tender, unexplainably juicy, perfectly breaded. Then came the creamed greens, the pleasant bitterness of which did not detract from their creaminess. So much for not eating any more cream. It was then that I was reminded of a book I didn’t read, The End Of Overeating, which describes the fat-on-sugar-on-salt building blocks that comprise most popular foods.
I’m going to read that book when I get out of here, I thought. If I get out of here.
But in the meantime, I drank one of Hearty’s respectable cocktails, hoping the whiskey would thin my blood.
Moments later a whoopie pie and an order of s’mores arrived. The former tasted like a Little Debbie snack, the latter like s’mores—only stale. I picked at them and held my stomach, drank pinot noir to numb the pain of overeating. I had come seeking comfort food. Now I just needed comfort.
It wasn’t until I returned to Hearty that I noticed its slogan, “comfort, revisited.” I had dived headfirst into the first part of that, breathlessly reading aloud dishes from the restaurant’s website to my jealous and annoyed coworkers. But now I had a sense that I had done it all wrong. I had gone too far. To be fair, Hearty enabled me—it’s not as if I asked the restaurant to fry some chicken especially for my self-loathing appetite. But scanning the menu again, I noticed I had gone straight for the restaurant’s soft parts—the fatty comfort food the Hearty Boys are known for. The subtler, reworked classics I had ignored, except for one—the Boys’ revamped beefaroni, a plate of shredded short ribs, naked pasta and roasted squash that was the best bite of the night.
Could I do Hearty differently? I certainly tried. It’s true that I ordered deviled eggs (pictured) to start my next meal there, but the dish was constrained—just three half-eggs, the best of which was the punchy curry version. I followed that with shrimp and grits, eating more of the toothsome and spicy grilled crustaceans than the excellent grits that came with it. And for my entrée, the tuna casserole: potato-chip-crusted ahi tuna sitting on top of pasta that was only lightly dressed in cream sauce and dotted with wasabi peas. It was a deconstruction of sorts and much lighter than the everyday housewife version, but it needed salt. On the other hand, the massive egg-topped pork chop was a heavy proposition, but perfectly cooked and seasoned. I had just a few bites, and by the time dessert arrived I was feeling up to the challenge. A cool vanilla malt was a success (no thanks to the brownie alongside it), but a trio of puddings gave me pause. If I liked the butterscotch pudding the best, I figured I would leave thinking that Hearty was at its best with the kitschy, retro stuff. Ditto for the rice pudding. But the curious New England Indian pudding—if I liked it, I’d believe that these guys were creating new comforts. I don’t consider myself lucky that the butterscotch and rice puddings were texturally incorrect, and the Indian pudding soft, warm, fragrant and delightful. But I was certainly glad it wasn’t the other way around.