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Mac & cheese gets dressed to please more gourmet palates
Blue cheese, Parmesan and bell peppers make a unique macaroni and cheese.

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - It's a little surprising to think of macaroni and cheese, that humble childhood dish, as the darling of the foodie crowd. But the cheesy, decadent favorite is popping up on restaurant menus everywhere, from Michael Mina's swanky bistros to Pican's stylish Southern table, as an entree, a side dish or - in the case of one new Oakland, Calif., restaurant - nearly the entire menu.

Needless to say, this isn't your mother's macaroni and cheese. But it probably bears a closer resemblance to something your grandmother or even your great-grandmother would make. These versions are created from scratch, with intriguing additions, such as truffle shavings and herbs, and cheeses that include high-quality cheddars, Gouda and Parmesan. And, most notably, there's nothing neon orange about them.

Comfort food comes to the fore every time the going gets rough, says food writer and inveterate restaurant goer Marcia Gagliardi, who turned her dining expertise into a book, "The Tablehopper's Guide to Dining and Drinking in San Francisco" (Ten Speed Press, $16, 240 pages), earlier this year. The last time comfort food was this popular was right after 9/11, she says. Now it's back, and macaroni and cheese variations seem to be everywhere.

"It's fulfilling, it's affordable, and hello, it's loaded with cheese," Gagliardi says. "It's an easy thing for chefs to ‘fancify' with items like quality cheeses, lobster, truffle, country ham, etc."

San Francisco's Blue Plate mixes Spanish Drunken Goat cheese into theirs. Berkeley's FIVE does an orzo version with tomato jam. And the Midnight Moon Mac ‘n' Cheese at Sonoma's Carneros Bistro & Wine Bar adds wild mushrooms and a porcini crust.

The James Beard Award-winning Mina has featured mac and cheese variations at many of his restaurants - a roster that includes four in San Francisco, including RN74 and his soon-to-reopen eponymous bistro. A truffled version with sauteed chicken breast and rosemary appears on the current menu at San Jose's Arcadia, and Mina is constantly reinventing his basic recipe, which gets extra sizzle from garlic, thyme and a nicely aged Parmigiano-Reggiano.

"The enduring appeal, in my opinion, is the memories certain dishes can bring back," Mina says, via e-mail. "Grandma's mac and cheese that she made with so much love for you when you were young, corn dogs from the summer carnival. I like to take childhood favorites and comfort foods and add an upscale, adult palate twist to them - like truffle in mac and cheese (or) lobster in the lobster corn dogs. I began thinking about these twists on classics as my boys started really enjoying certain dishes - and I was making them often!"

There was never any question about including a variation on Pican's menu.

"How could I not put it on the menu?" says owner Michael LeBlanc, who was born and raised in New Orleans, where macaroni and cheese was a staple. "It was comfort food, but it was a Sunday dinner thing, for special events or time around family," the Oakland restaurateur recalls.

The recipe LeBlanc and his executive chef, Dean Dupuis, created for their quintessential Southern restaurant gives a nod to California flavors as well.

"For me, Pican is about family - and marrying the South with California," says LeBlanc. "If you're going to do mac and cheese, it can't be the standard macaroni and cheese. We decided to do it with smoked Gouda, and that turned out to be a hit."

Pican's "Pedestrian Mac and Cheese" also includes a sharp white cheddar, garlic, shallots, generous lashings of hot sauce, and a not-exactly chic secret ingredient.

Velveeta, LeBlanc says, "is the best thing to come along since white bread."

The resulting, silky dish is second only in popularity to the restaurant's signature buttermilk fried chicken, and it's particularly hot among the takeout crowd, who drive in from as far away as Stockton and Sacramento to get their fix.

And then there's the all-macaroni-and-cheese, all-the-time approach touted by Allison Arevalo, a frequent contributor to these pages as well as the co-owner of Homeroom, a retro, comfort food eatery with a mostly mac and cheese menu, slated to open in downtown Oakland in January. There's something so comforting and familiar about the dish, she says, and when the cheeses are San Joaquin Gold, Vella Dry Jack and Cypress Grove Goat Cheese, it elevates the homey fare to new heights.

"People eat it and smile. It's something most people ate when they were children, so it brings back memories of simpler times," Arevalo says. "We wanted to evoke that feeling."

With a little foodie flair.

Michael Mina’s Macaroni and Cheese

Serves 4-6

1/2 pound elbow macaroni

Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons canola oil

1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1 yellow onion, sliced

2 garlic cloves, smashed

10 fresh thyme sprigs, plus 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

2 cups chicken stock

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 pound or 1 1/2 cups Parmigiano-Reggiano or Asiago cheese, coarsely grated

1. Cook the macaroni in lightly salted boiling water for about 8 minutes until tender, but still firm. Drain well and set aside.

2. Heat the oil and 1 tablespoon butter over medium-low flame in a high-sided saute pan. Add the sliced onions, garlic, and thyme sprigs. Saute for about 5 minutes, until the onions are transparent. Add the remaining butter and flour, stirring to combine.

3. Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer. When the stock begins to bubble, whisk the cream into the sauce and gently simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer into another pot and place over medium-low heat.

4. Add the cheese and whisk until it is completely melted. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Add the cooked macaroni, stirring to combine. Before serving, mix in the chopped thyme.

Courtesy Chef Michael Mina





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