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Chefs Roll Out Hearty, Homey Meatballs On The Cheap

When I'm considering a gourmet lunch, meatballs don't exactly spring to mind. So I was more than a little surprised to hear that haute cuisine chef Michel Richard was opening a meatball joint just down the street from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

It turns out that gourmet meatballs are one example of "dressed up comfort food" that seems to fill a certain longing in hard times. Customers like them because they're filling, homey, portable and cheap. Chefs like them because they're cheap.

That's no small thing for restaurateurs these days, who have to juggle rising food prices against customer's pinched wallets. Why would you sell meatballs, we asked Richard? "You can keep the price down," he says flatly.

In fact, the concept for his restaurant Meatballs harkens back to the hard times of his childhood in postwar France. "My mother used to make pork meatballs with potato and garlic," Richard tells The Salt. "She was trying to raise five kids by herself. She was trying to keep food costs down."

Richard also doesn't need a lot of manpower to ladle out meatballs. The orbs at his new establishment are cooked offsite and delivered the small Penn Quarter storefront, where they're served up from kettles reminiscent of a 1960s school cafeteria. "We don't need a chef in the kitchen," Richard says. "We just warm them up."

This is a far cry from Michel Richard Citronelle, his much-lauded, exceedingly expensive restaurant in Georgetown, which boasts the most attentive of waitstaff and discriminating of sous chefs. And from Central Michel Richard, his popular downtown bistro. But when it comes to Meatballs, the goal is not reputation, but franchising. "I hope that in a few years we will have Meatballs all over the country," Richard says.

He's not the only one thinking this way. New meatball shops have invaded New York City, from The Meatball Shop to The Meatball Factory. They're also popping up at food festivals and in Minneapolis and Chicago, as NPR commentator Bonny Wolf has reported.

Some hew to Richard's scheme of serving a variety of meatballs and sauces, for customers to mix and match. The Meatball Factory offers green curry peanut sauce, salsa verde, and poblano BBQ sauce alongside the more traditional Bolognese. Others, like the tiny Polpette in Park Slope, Brooklyn, are strict about maintaining the cultural integrity of their balls. No mixing, please!

Of course, long before the current meatball mania, cooks from Vietnam to Russia to Mexico were rolling bits of ground meat into tasty, thrifty rounds. Millions of meatball lovers around the world can't be wrong. And since it's possible to be very well fed at most of these new meatball eateries for under $10, this could be a trend that sticks.

When I tried Richard's meatballs with one of my fellow Salt bloggers, we found them hearty but greasy, especially the chicken meatballs. (We've got the grease stains on our clothes to prove it.) At $9-13 for four meatballs over pasta or polenta, or packed into a roll, they're not exactly a steal. But they will keep you sated well into the afternoon.

Richard says he's tweaking recipes before going national. So don't be surprised if you soon see his meatballs, or those of another crafty chef, rolling into a neighborhood near you.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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