FOOD: Comfort Food – The Quest for the Best Mac & Cheese
BY Kathleen Nixon
November 30, 2012
Falls Church Times Staff
There is comfort food and then there is comfort food. Macaroni and cheese with tomato soup is hands down my all time favorite. I grew up on Kraft Mac & Cheese and Campbell’s tomato soup, and not Hostess Twinkies. Of course, now I wouldn’t touch canned soup or box pasta dishes preferring to make my own, but I still swoon anytime I see either or both of these items on a restaurant menu. So in the spirit of finding the best “mac & cheese” or “M&C” in the area, I went on a quest.
My standards for M&C are simple: The noodles I am not so particular about but elbow macaroni seems to be a favorite but I also lean toward the medium size pasta shells. The sauce should be creamy, and very cheesy without clumps and preferably more than one cheese. Additional ingredients are okay such as mushrooms, lobster, or truffle oil.
The best M&C I have ever had? This would hands down have to be Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak House at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco. Yes, I know it is a bit far, but this was an unexpected surprise and did raise the bar on M&C for me and my family. The dish had a velvety white cheddar sauce that was accented with white truffle oil on elbow macaroni. I was in nirvana and my husband said it was a life altering event. That is high standard. The bottom of the barrel has to be the Adult M&C at Open Kitchen in Falls Church. No cheese, specks of speck ham and breadcrumbs burnt on top.
So with the scale established, we were set on finding M&C to accommodate any palate. Not every restaurant advertises that they have M&C, so this was truly a hunt with finding unexpected offerings at area restaurants. There are a few that advertise that they feature M&C while others just simply have it on the menu.
Harth in the McLean Hilton: The M&C had nice tender elbow macaroni that was supposed to have multiple cheeses but we could only taste one that was sharp cheddar. The sauce, or roux, had flour clumps in the bottom. It was okay but not something to order again.
Noodles and Company in Falls Church: I was very excited when this chain restaurant advertised that that they would have two different types of M&C: Wisconsin Cheddar and Signature White Truffle Oil with Portobello mushrooms and bread crumbs. Both dishes were only slightly above the worst on the scale. The ziti was cooked and then cheese sauce poured over. There were no redeeming qualities other than the calorie count to tell you how much you are wasting.
Green Pig Bistro in Arlington: This side dish offered at the tail to snout bistro was cheesey and creamy but very salty with something chunky in it that my guests and I didn’t know what it was. We would not order it again.
Panera Bread in Falls Church – This was an unexpected surprise as I stopped in one cold rainy afternoon and I had not eaten all day. M&C was on the menu and thought I would take a chance. I was pleasantly surprised. While not the best M&C, definitely something that hit the spot and filled the bill of “comfort food”.
Bayou Bakery in Arlington: The menu states that there is a different flavor of M&C for every day of the month and I didn’t get there every day to try all of the tastes. The days I did get there the sauce was watery, and the additional flavorings tended to drown out the “cheese” aspect of M&C.
Bastille in Alexandria– possibly the best- Gratin of Macaroni and Cheese – three different cheeses, a nice variety of mushrooms, black truffle oil and a thick crust on top. Each made separately so, there was some variance from one visit to the next. This is only offered as part of the Prixe Fixe lunch menu, but combined with a charcuterie plate, followed by a Caramel Apple Tatin with a glass of Cabernet Franc, there is no better way to spend a winter afternoon.
And I am sure I have not exhausted all of the offerings in our area, but this is a start. Have you found good M&C?
By Kathleen Nixon
November 30, 2012