1. Basic, Only Better.
FARM FRESH: Forager Kerry Clasby (left) and a local berry producer teamed up with Patina exec. chef Tony Esnault (above) on a special menu.
HEAD TO TAIL: Todd English's new CrossBar, a New York City gastropub, makes use of the whole animal in dishes such as Pork Belly with Octopus (right); whole roasted suckling pigs are on the menu as well.
Farm to table, artisan, from-scratch, house-made, house-cured, house-aged and plenty of other terms suggesting not-from-a-box get tossed around on menus, but it's clear that chefs and diners are more ready than ever to embrace ingredients and time-honored preparation techniques.
Every week, it seems, we hear about another chef opting to cure sausage or age cheese in house, a move that can put a new place on the map. In Dallas, David Uygur's Lucia has quickly achieved hot-spot status, thanks in part to his house-made salumi. A favorite is 'nduja, a brick-red, spicy-hot spreadable sausage served on crusty bread.
In L.A., the two Michelin-starred Patina is inviting farmers to the table. This past spring executive chef Tony Esnault brought in the owner of Harry's Berries and a forager to help assemble a special five-course vegetarian menu that included heirloom tomato soup, stuffed zucchini blossoms, glazed vegetable mosaic, poached duck egg with wild mushrooms and asparagus and, of course, Harry's Berries crepes with white chocolate lemon sorbet. “Our seasonal menu is only as good as the ingredients we receive from our local farmers,” Esnault acknowledged.
The farm-to-table trend trickles all the way down to ice cream cones: Salt & Straw Ice Cream, opening in Portland, OR, this summer, sells hand-made frozen treats using local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients from Oregon farmers, producers and chefs. The cream comes from traceable cows at a local dairy, and flavors tend to have local pedigrees: double-fold vanilla using Singing Dog Vanilla from Eugene; chocolate with gooey brownie, with Holy Kakow Chocolate from Portland; brown ale with bacon, using beef from Laurelwood Brewery and bacon from Olympic Provisions. A similar philosophy is followed by the popular and expanding Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, with a half-dozen stores in Columbus and Cleveland. The chain's recipes incorporate fresh ingredients found in the Ohio countryside as well as “responsibly raised” exotics from around the world.
It isn't something you're likely to see at the neighborhood hangout, but head-to-tail cookery continues to attract the interests of chefs, especially in larger markets. Todd English just opened CrossBar, his modern interpretation of the genre, with a focus on retro snacks, composed entrees, shared plates and whole roasted suckling pig dinners. A sampling of executive chef Robert Rubba's menu: puffed pigs' ears, crispy pork tongue, pork belly with octopus and BBQ pig's tail.
Pizza is yet another food that keeps getting tweaked and made more authentic. American chefs have spent time in Italy learning the secrets of the real deal; they've installed coal-fired ovens and pricey imported models designed to yield pies beyond compare; and they follow a less-is-more approach to toppings. And the bar on pizzas continues to climb. The most recent entry in this competition to be more real than the the next guy comes from Pizzeria da Marco, a Washington, DC-area pizzeria with a 4,500-pound handcrafted customized S.F. Allestimenti brick oven, which flash cooks pizzas in 60 seconds at 900 degrees.
2. Korean: East Moves West.
COOL KOREAN: Steamed pork buns from Momofuku Noodle Bar, above; dumplings at Urban Belly, below.
Photo: Gabriele Stabile
The Kogi Taco truck routinely gets credit for making mobile restaurants trendy, but the food, not the vehicle, has had a more lasting impact on American palates. Korean tacos, kimchi, Korean-style barbecue and other components of this Asian cuisine continue to influence menus at both white tablecloth and casual places such as Happy Dog, a hot dog-only concept in Cleveland that offers 50 toppings, including kimchi.
In New York, David Chang's growing network of Momofuku locations is making Korean a houseworld word; Chicago's got Belly Shack and Urban Belly, Bill Kim's Korean- and Latin-inspired casual eateries, where Korean BBQ beef, noodles, dumplings and other casual fare keeps guests coming back for more.
Some Korean chains are eyeing the U.S. for expansion. The fast casual Bibigo Hot Stone, which opened last year in Los Angeles, serves a traditional Korean dish called bibimbap — rice or barley, vegetables, protein and sauces, often topped with a fried egg and cooked on a hot stone grill. The parent company, CJ Foodville, plans to open in New York this year and has a goal for 200 more locations in the U.S. Seattle's Oma Bap hopes to branch out with its Korean-inspired concept, which specializes in making Korean-inspired food, such as cellophane noodles, bibimbap, kimbap, mandoo and jun, in a way that appeals to mildly adventurous American palates.
3. Desserts Get Star Billing.
Americans like to treat themselves, and the trend toward more indulgent and more exotic desserts taps directly into that sensibility.
SWEET: Spice bread with carrots from Blackbird, above; Momofuku Milk Bar's Compost Cookies, below.
Photos: Eunjean Song
Ace of Cakes, Cupcake Wars, Last Cake Standing, Dessert First, Top Chef: Just Desserts and other television shows hint at the weight desserts have taken on in recent years. Dessert concepts such as Belgium-based Le Pain Quotidien are expanding into the already competitive bakery-café field dominated by the ever-popular Panera. But many cities are seeing a proliferation of small specialty bakeries, too. Because they are small and require less complicated equipment than a full-service restaurant, entry barriers are lower.
Like other menu parts, desserts are straying way beyond the standard fare. Stephanie Prida, pastry chef at Ria in Chicago's Elysian Hotel, makes caramelized white chocolate with raspberries and pain perdu made from ground cherry pits. And one of her chocolaholic creations mixes Manjari chocolate ganache, cocoa streusel and malted milk jam with smoked almond ice cream.
Speaking of ice cream, Jeni's and others have built passionate fan bases by walking on the wild side of flavors. The Gilmore Collection, a group of Grand Rapids-based restaurants, last summer assembled creations such as a peanut butter and jelly sundae (peanut butter ice cream, macerated strawberries, pecan brittle), the B.O.B. (lemon thyme ice cream, balsamic strawberries and blueberries, lemon shortbread, whipped cream) and the Thornapple (house-baked burnt orange puree in creamy homemade vanilla bean ice cream, ginger tuile cookie).
While many emerging dessert options take a classical approach to ingredients, others break all the rules. Christina Tosi, pastry chef at New York's Momofuku Milk Bar, creates mashups such as Compost Cookies, filled with pretzels, coffee grounds, potato chips and other stuff. Her addictive Crack Pie teams up butter, heavy cream, sugar, brown sugar and corn flower. Soft serve flavors (red velvet, candy bar pie) reflect the same sensibility.
Patrick Fahy, until recently pastry chef at Blackbird in Chicago, created a sweet bacon brioche dessert that included sweet corn ice cream and candied pecans. The brioche is infused with crumbled housemade bacon, sliced, pan-fried and topped with pieces of crystallized maple syrup. The whole affair is garnished with micro basil and basil seeds.
4. Burgers: Still a Cash Cow.
|FARM FRESH: Eggs, foie gras and beef meet up in Lemaire's Barnyard Burger.|
Just when you thought the pool of burger concepts was overcrowded, another wave of chef-driven and quality-minded casual burger spots jumps in. The explanation is purely economic: trained cooks can keep a casual burger place running, food costs are relatively low, concepts can take over lower-cost strip mall locations to save the typical rent of a quick-service chain store and the public's appetite for better burgers continues unabated. That would explain why Bobby Flay introduced Bobby's Burger Palace at five locations in the Northeast, Union Square Hospitality Group's Shake Shack has been eyeing sites outside New York and the four-year-old Smashburger chain expects to have 175 locations in 20 states open by year end. Americans aren't the only beef lovers: Elevation Burger, based in suburban Washington, DC, is expanding into the Middle East.
The new breed of burger makers have pushed the bar up to make an impression. Five Guys, for instance, boasts that its burgers are never frozen; Elevation Burger serves organic, grass-fed beef and cooks its fries in olive oil. Cheesecake Factory's “Glamburgers” are trimmed with a variety of indulgent toppings, such as herbed goat cheese, arugula and wild mushrooms. Lemaire, a Richmond, VA spot, sells an $18 house-ground Barnyard Burger that teams a patty of ground filet, New York strip and ribeye with a farm-fresh fried egg and a foie gras sauce.
It's not just the premium burger joints that are doing well, either. Among the top 100 fast casual chains, burger joints were the fastest growing category, according to Technomic.
5. “Fine Dining” Is So Last Year.
Plenty of seasoned chefs and owners continue to struggle with how they want to present themselves to the public. Younger
generations of diners are not drawn to formal, drawn-out, scripted meals; they'd rather table hop and share plates. Comfort and style are more important than how dressy your attire is these days.
San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer probably explained it best in answering a reader question: What does the term “fine dining” mean today? Bauer admitted that “this is a question that seems harder to define with each passing year. It used to be clear: fine dining generally meant higher prices, professional service by uniformed waiters, tablecloths and flowers on each table. When you went to a ‘fine dining’ restaurant, you almost always dressed up.
“Now, it's all mixed up.”
Some restaurant goers still like to look smart for a night out, but many others seem to be taking their style cues from celebrity chefs, who often opt for jeans and tee shirts, or even shorts.
|HYBRID: RDG+Cafe Annie creates a something-for-everyone vibe with several spaces in one.|
When the economy tanked three years ago, many diners traded down from big-ticket destination restaurants to more affordable fast-casual or neighborhood spots. Today, they are starting to work their way back, especially in big markets like New York, but they remain less likely to splurge, and they are demanding a truly memorable experience for their money.
Another factor contributing to the trend away from three-hour dinners: the drive to turn tables. At his newest Chicago restaurant, Next, Grant Achatz sells tables the way airlines sell seats, using yield management: Depending on the menu, meal day and time, food is $40 to $75 for the entire prix fixe meal. Wine and beverage pairings begin at a $25 supplement.
Some operators have figured out ways to adapt to diners' evolving preferences, either by creating a more casual vibe in existing spaces or opening more affordable knockoffs around the corner. After watching his customer base move from the formal dining room to the lounge, Robert Del Grande figured out how to make everybody happy when he opened RDG + Café Annie. There, casual and white tablecloth restaurants coexist under one Houston roof, and everybody is happy.
The takeaway here: Know your audience.