It’s February, possibly the cruelest month of winter. Between the unrelenting snow and frigid temps, this is the time of year when we long for spring. Fortunately, several local restaurateurs know that the best way to truly warm a body is from the inside out. So forget the heavy parka, woolen hat and clumsy mittens (not really, you may die without them), and instead dig into some comfort food—the kind of hunker-down, stick-to-your-ribs, hibernation-worthy dishes that will make your stomach (if not the rest of you) laugh at a subzero wind chill, and maybe, just maybe, find something to love about a cold winter’s night.
Gary Sanders and Nicole Bissonnette were both Northwest Indiana restaurant industry veterans—with Miller Bakery Café and Bistro 157, respectively—when they teamed up to open Bartlett’s Gourmet Grill & Tavern just over ten years ago. Their “comfort food with a twist” has garnered a devoted clientele from Beverly Shores and beyond over the past decade, and not just when the beach beckons during the warm summer months.
“We love the sense of community here,” Nicole says. “Even when the weather is atrocious, people still come out to congregate and talk about the weather or the events of the day.”
Deep in the heart of winter, many of those conversations unfold over the 5-hour pot roast, a popular staple on the Bartlett’s menu since day one. Braised slowly in a red wine natural jus and served piping hot alongside a mound of garlic mashed potatoes and roasted seasonal vegetables, this is a comfort food classic that girds diners well for the deep freeze outside.
“Pot roast is the quintessential comfort food of everyone’s childhood,” Nicole says. “When we smell the delicious aroma of the pot roast gravy, we think of Sunday afternoons at home in front of the fireplace. Gary has been cooking in the Region for over 30 years and knows what makes people happy, and we love seeing guests clean the plate every time with this all-time favorite!”
After being away from Chesterton for several years, Casey and Sylvia Petro returned to their hometown in 2010 to channel Casey’s decade of experience in the restaurant industry into the Octave Grill, which they envisioned as a place that offered a comfortable vibe while encouraging diners to try something new.
“We wanted it to be the type of place where we would want to eat,” Sylvia says, noting that Octave was ahead of the curve from the start in its neck of the woods by offering craft beer and using locally sourced grass-fed beef before such things became commonplace.
These days, regulars and newcomers alike are welcomed with open arms to sample from a wide array of well-conceived and thoughtfully assembled burgers, sandwiches, salads and entrees. And even when those crowds tend to thin a bit during the cold winter months, the creative comfort of dishes like the Chanute burger (named, like the restaurant itself, for Octave Chanute, an aviation pioneer who flew hang gliders off the Indiana Dunes—though, presumably, not during the winter) still manage to draw those looking for a little something special to take the chill off. With six ounces of Tallgrass beef sharing a warm brioche bun with Fair Oaks Farms habanero Havarti cheese, crimini mushrooms, bacon, house-made bleu cheese sauce, greens, pickled red onion and tomato – and abetted by a pile of garlic bacon-fat fries with garlic aioli – it’s little wonder that this one has been a seasonal standout since it first appeared on the inaugural menu.
“The Chanute is perfect year-round, but is especially satisfying in the colder months,” Sylvia says. “Winter can be a tough time for any restaurant in Northwest Indiana, but we’re lucky enough to have a loyal customer base to sustain us through the coldest months.” Just like the Octave sustains those customers, it would seem.
Most people probably think of a pasta dish smothered in red sauce when they consider the comfort food possibilities at Café Borgia. After all, this Region stalwart has been serving up rich ravioli and thick slabs of lasagna to generations of local diners since opening its doors way back in 1986 (first in Lansing, then in Munster beginning in 2007). So it might come as something of a surprise that owners Mike and Karen Jesso would instead single out a roasted lamb shank as the epitome of cold-weather comfort from their menu.
“It’s hearty, and the slow stew preparation over several hours brings out the kind of savory aromas that give us something to look forward to in the winter,” Karen says of the Borgia take on traditional osso bucco that has been a customer favorite for the past 25 years, and was featured in their cookbook Behind the Stove. The key to the dish, Mike says, is the combination of Mediterranean staples like rosemary, onions and red wine – not to mention the slow-cooking process that gives the meat its fall-off-the-bone tenderness. A glass of good Chianti doesn’t hurt, either.
“Comfort food is often associated with a heartiness that reminds us of a little taste of home,” he says. “Such meals are not only satisfying, but also give us that extrafuel to get through some pretty cold winters.The roasted lamb shank is something to look forward to for dinner on a snowy [winter] night.”