It's practically legislated that in times of strife, Americans turn to comfort food. It's not just meat loaf and mashers: Consider "comfort food" any cuisine that evokes the feelings of warmth, safety and being cared for that we recall from childhood. This could be enchiladas, pasta e fagioli, or, in this case, a red-curry mussel stew frothing with cilantro-scented coconut milk ($7.75). Ken's roster of feel-good hot dishes would hit home in any historical moment.
Ken's Place is owner Ken Gordon's recent transformation of his Ken's Home Plate catering business (he closed his space on Northwest Glisan Street and turned his Hawthorne storefront into the cafe). The restaurant has the elbows-on-the-table informality of a diner, with an open kitchen and Formica counter arrayed with vinyl-upholstered stools. Water is poured into a bulbous jelly jar. If you want a Coke, you get it in a bottle. Diners wield heavy Oneida flatware but dab their chins with paper napkins.
You're likely to hear the Housemartins on the stereo when you walk in, maybe the Smiths by the time you leave. It's a small space, and everyone--from customers huddled over their tarte tatin to the cooks sweating over steak au poivre in the back--looks up and nods when you come in. Smiles, yes, even smiles.
About that steak au poivre, which was my server's enthusiastic recommendation (service, by the way, is friendly and frank, just like you'd expect from your favorite diner). The Painted Hills flat-iron cut was done to an expert medium, coated in ground pepper and set to wade in a brandy demi-glace and cream pan sauce. The steak ($17.75) is served with a garlic potato cake, sort of a formed potato pastry, crisp on the outside, smooth inside like mashed spuds. The 28 East Pork Chop ($14.75) was a formidable match for it, pairing a thick-cut Carlton loin sauced Asian style (hinting of teriyaki) with chunky ginger applesauce and scalloped potatoes.
This is not spa cuisine. This is what you call "getting some meat on your bones," "licking the platter clean." And if there was any doubt that this lavish, homestyle flair was from the heart, the chef came out to check on things in a can-I-get-a-witness testimony to the glory of pork ("because," he said, "I have a vested interest in that chop").
There is respite from the carniv-orgy, in the array of vegetable side dishes available for $3.50 each (or three for $9.50, to encourage sharing). Garlic "smashed" potatoes, green beans with toasted almonds, sauteed spinach and roasted asparagus are available. The green beans do provide refreshing bite and lightness. The spinach is a little more daunting, a garlicky pile of shredded steamed leaves swimming in an oily broth (more butter? Be still my heart). For true contrast, the Ladd's Rad Salade ($3.75, $6.75) could lick any house salad in town. Organic field greens provide the background for a garden of delights, among them fennel, pickled onion, asparagus and kalamata olives (thoughtfully pitted). The salad was subtly dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette and was a gentle, palate-stretching warm-up for the feeding frenzy to come. And just to show that a light touch isn't just for the raw stuff, the Dungeness crab cakes ($7.75) are a treat: airy and savory, with a tart jicama-red pepper slaw and a chili-flecked tartar sauce.
Ken's Place declares its intentions like no restaurant I know, because the tables are arrayed behind a majestic, impossible-to-miss dessert table, a three-ring sugar circus of tarts, cakes and what the menu calls Ken's Chocolate Bites--a sampling of brownies, tiny mousse tarts, chocolate-chip cookies, and hand-formed truffles dusted with confectioner's sugar ($5). These morsels are no less rich for being small and are easily on a par with the incredible tarte tatin ($4.25), a caramelized apple tart made by laying buttered and sugared apple slices in a pan, layering pastry over the top, baking and flipping the whole.
Guilt-free gorging may not exist, but Ken's does use only all-natural ingredients, choosing organic and local products whenever possible.
In general, the menu is shockingly affordable for what you get, maybe because the no-frills presentation allows for more aw-shucks prices. A carefully edited wine list offers some enjoyable surprises, including an affordable Chateau Tignon Côtes-du-Rhône ($16.50). But Ken's Place has more of a prime-cut than a cut-rate feel. It seems instead that they keep things simple on purpose, making the point that Fine Dining is nothing if you don't get a Good Dinner out of the deal. Getting a good dinner and a deal--that's comfort.
1852 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 236-9520. 5:30- 9:30 pm Wednesday- Thursday, 5:30- 10:30 pm Friday- Saturday. Credit cards accepted. $$
Steak au poivre, Ladd's Rad Salade, Ken's chocolate bites