London Now: Restaurants to Watch

On a recent trip to London with trends guru Michael Whiteman, I had the luxury of drinking the world’s best martini – made with Cotswolds Gin. The distillery, located 1-1/2 hours outside London (in charming Shipston-on-Stour) is an alluring introduction to the idyllic landscape, known for lush patches of lavender and gentle hills. Ask proprietor Daniel Szor to give you a tour. Eat at the nearby gastropub, “The Kingham Plough” (20 minutes from the distillery), and then head on to bustling London, a world-eats destination, and stay a few days. Giving thanks, here, to MW (husband) for succinctly mapping the brilliance of three of London’s best new dining spots.

Without a great city street map you’d be pressed to find Beast, but every London cabbie knows the location. Beast comes from the creators of the sizzling Burger & Lobster chain but this time the menu focuses on humongous king crabs and great steaks from several countries. You pass massive tanks holding angry, prehistoric-looking crabs and lobsters with claws almost the size of your shoe before entering a bustling underground room full of wooden communal tables with candelabra. There’s a festive roar, mostly from men spending more than your last paycheck. A short assortment of starters (shrimp tempura with Cajun mayonnaise and avocado is sold by the piece but everyone seems to order a platter) leads you to “The Beasts”, all sold by the gram.

Next to us, four petit women from Paris shared some starters and a king crab beast that arrived on a silver platter; they then collapsed into a caloric stupor and gasped “fini.” Three of us, on the other hand, hoovered up a miraculously sweet crab and then carved into a great slab of corn-finished double sirloin from Nebraska grilled over charcoal. We’re partial to grass-fed Basque Holstein, but they were out that night and our other choices were beef from Scotland, Australia and Finland.

Our meal was rounded out by thrice-fired potato wedges and a green salad topped with juicy smoked tomatoes, which were infinitely better than expected. Do not request bread to sop up the salad juices or meat drippings because there is none.

The knowing wine list is full of big bruisers and first growths and, as befits a steakhouse, Beast is rightfully expensive. Don’t be surprised if this celebratory restaurant migrates to New York or Dubai where there already are busy outposts of Burger & Lobster.


3 Chapel Pl, Marylebone

+44 20 7495 1816

Portland is the ideal neighborhood restaurant: smallish, warmly lit, gastronomically ambitious, acoustically sensible and fairly priced. For this reason, most people take taxis to this restaurant in the Fitzrovia neighborhood. Portland is one of three admirable London places run by Will Lander (the others being Quality Chop House and nearby Clipstone). The menu appears concise but then you’re struck with the “I want everything” dilemma. A recently bestowed Michelin star is so well deserved.

A smooth chicken liver parfait is offset by crisp chicken skin, candied walnuts and pickled grapes, and Devonshire crab is rolled with lovage into a thin slice of kohlrabi — both exercises of texture as well as taste. Evidently not one for gastronomical grandstanding, chef Merlin Labron-Johnson, who previously worked at Belgium’s famed In De Wulf, transforms complexities of ingredients into watercolors of flavors, as in foie gras with endive, clementine and raisins soaked in Alsace muscat — bitter flavors balanced by sweet. Roasted heritage carrots get the same attention with brown butter, aged nutty comté and toasted buckwheat. Cornish cod with green cauliflower, sorrel and smoked cream, and hay-baked guinea fowl with chestnuts and mushrooms were sublime and comforting on a rainy London evening.

Our waitress, fresh from Gramercy Tavern in New York, provided flawless service and there was nothing she didn’t know about the food.

The wine list is an endless work-in-progress since it changes almost every week, and is full of thrilling things you’ve never heard of — which is no surprise since Lander’s mother is the estimable wine writer Jancis Robinson (his father is food writer and critic Nicholas Lander).


113 Great Portland St.

+44 20 7436 3261

StreetXO is a rollicking transplant to London of a tapas bar in Madrid. That statement is akin to saying that Audi is an automobile. StreetXO is an underground, wackadoodle fusion restaurant where Michelin-starred chef David Muñoz layers Asian flavors onto traditional Spanish tapas, with occasional detours to Mexico. The resulting food erupts with umami and spices. A croquette that in Spain would be bound with a simple béchamel here is filled with sheep milk, XO sauce, lapsang souchong and kimchi, then topped with a slice of toro. If you fancy crunchy pig’s ear dumplings and pickles spattered, Jackson Pollack stye, with strawberry hoisin sauce, this place is for you.

There’s a long, brightly lit open kitchen “counter” where a gaggle of chefs— dressed puzzlingly in strait jackets — prepare these over-the-top inventions and serve you directly, each dish accompanied by an explanatory recitation. This is where you want to sit since the remaining space is night-clubby black, dark red and rather gloomy, but probably appropriate for date nights.

We particularly enjoyed a show-stopper of octopus, tomatillo and green apple mole (a faux guacamole) with “fake Chinese wok noodles” that turned out to be an amazing umami-laden tangle of enoki mushrooms. Muñoz’s steamed club sandwich is a pillow-soft bao with suckling pig, ricotta, quail egg and chili cream. And so it goes — tandoori chicken wings with pickled onion, trout roe and bonito flakes; Iberian pork belly with mussels in escabeche and sriracha; paella with sea urchin, chicken, bergamot and yellow aji — a carnival of animals and seafood.

StreetXO had opened only a few days before we dropped in and London’s trendoids already were clamoring for reservations.


15 Old Burlington St, Mayfair

+44 20 3096 7555

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Olives, Lemons & Za'atar

2014-06-15-4b18f811676713e51f4f40443c6ce38d_full_size-thumbI've been writing about za'atar for decades. The haunting spice mixture, which looks like marijuana and smells like Jerusalem, has had a home in my pantry since my first trip to Israel in 1980. I use it as an earthy rub for chicken with blackened lemons; as a zippy dip mixed with good olive oil and grated parmesan; as a coating for grilled swordfish, or tossed with heirloom tomatoes and feta cheese. So I was thrilled to see its place on a banner headline for this year's standout cookbook: Olives, Lemons & Za'atar: The Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking by Rawia Bishara (Kyle Books). Everything about Ms. Bishara's evocative new book made me want to run to the kitchen or get on a plane and wander in the Old City. Instead, my family and I hopped in our car and drove to Ms. Bishara's acclaimed restaurant, Tanoreen, located in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. All praise bestowed upon it by my colleagues rang true about the excellent food Ms. Bishara serves. But no one warned me about her exotic warmth and hypnotic intelligence.

Ms. Bishara's first name, Rawia, means storyteller in Arabic. She uses her imaginative food as her words to share an intimate bond between her mother's recipes and her personal narrative, which illuminates the history of her homeland, Nazareth, in southern Galilee. I have been there: It is beautiful.

Born into a food-obsessed Palestinian family, Rawia grew up eating food that has recently become trendy currency: the flavors and spirit of the Arabic kitchen found along the Eastern Mediterranean and in Israel, or Palestine, depending on your point of view. Ms. Bishara, once head of an organization that helped new immigrants settle in New York, became a grand hostess and entertained often. Friends encouraged her to open a restaurant which she did in 1998. Named for the majestic Lebanese town, Tanoreen, Rawia said it is a name far easier to pronounce than her own. The tiny storefront restaurant with only 12 tables has grown into someplace quite spacious, but it retains Rawia's aura of personal attention. .

Clearly there are dishes not to be missed. Brussels sprouts with a tahini-yogurt sauce and crunch of panko; mouthwatering eggplant napoleon brightened with a "salata" of tomatoes and basil and layered with baba ghanouj; and lamb shank marinated in herbs and rosebuds, are signature examples of redefined authenticity. Thankfully instructions for making these delectables can be found in her new book.

Allspice, cardamom, lentils, sumac, freekah (smoked green what berries), maftool (a traditional tiny pasta), pomegranate molasses, cumin and ghee, lentils and, of course, za'atar, lemons and olives - are part and parcel of this vibrant cuisine. In Nazareth, baba ghanouj is called mutabal (and I have recently seen this word on restaurant menus in the city.) Rawia adds tomatoes, chilies and cumin to her rendition. And I can't wait to try her recipe for cauliflower salad. In Nazareth it is simply fried and tucked into Arabic bread, sprinkled with lemon juice and sea salt. At Tanoreen, Rawia dresses nuggets of caramelized cauliflower with thick tahini laced with pomegranate molasses, served as a mezze. We couldn't get enough. This was also true of makdous -- tiny pickled eggplants stuffed with walnuts and red pepper, which my brother and sister-in-law loved when they visited Syria. Also of note was the baked kibbeh and sayadiyya, or fisherman's meal, which Rawia said her family ate every Friday night. I would run back for musakhan, a homemade flatbread topped with sumac-spiced shredded chicken with slow-cooked onions and toasted almonds.

For dessert, I would order her supernal knafeh, the best we've had, where layers of shredded phyllo are filled with warm homemade cheese and anointed with orange blossom water and crushed pistachios.

It's all in Rawia's book, complete with beautiful photographs and arresting design. It is a heartfelt documentation of the mystical wind gently blowing these flavors from the Levant. But if you don't feel like cooking, make a reservation at Tanoreen. Rawia will be there, waiting.

Tastes of the Week/Tastes of the Future

Feb. 12 thru Feb. 19th, 2012 As I blabbered about being excited to go to RedFarm for dinner, the "happening" new restaurant owned by Chinese food maven, Ed Schoenfeld, I can tell you that the excitement turned into happy eating delirium. The tiny 40-seat restaurant located at 529 Hudson Street (bet. W. 10th and Charles) is darling -- a kind of farm-to-table environment with long communal tables and cozy booths-for-two. Eddie says they turn down at least 500 diners a night (they don't take reservations) but have found a way of "farming" people out to local bars and then texting them when a seat is available. I think the system is working! I fell into the arms of fellow-diner chef Todd English (we've been friends for years) and hung out at the tiny bar, drinking a yuzu caipirinha, until our table was ready.  The chef, Joe Ng, is an urban dumpling legend and we ate a few that were other-worldly -- especially the Black Truffle & Chicken Soup Dumplings that squirt into your bowl, and totally cool green vegetable-chive dumplings. Apparently Chef Eric Ripert and the adorable Bobby Flay also like them since they are frequent RedFarm-ers! Ditto Gael Greene and the rest of NY's food cognoscenti. But there are lots of nice, normal people, too -- including a couple who came all the way from Boston just to eat there. And while the kabocha squash & ricotta bruschetta at abckitchen is one of my favorite "tapas" in all of New York, I have found another favorite in Eddie's smoked salmon & eggplant "bruschetta." Truly fabulous. As was the crisp-skin chicken with garlic sauce, the okra & Thai eggplant yellow curry with flatbread for dunking, and the wok-sauteed conch with scallops and jumbo shrimp which was a special that night. The fresh fruit plate was a work of art (how do they do this in such a small kitchen?) and would you believe the chocolate pudding was first-rate! The food is "new Chinese" with so much style and grace that you may never order in again.

And my husband took me on a date to Patroon -- the beautifully, clubby restaurant in midtown (160 East 46th Street), owned by another of New York's great restaurateurs, Ken Aretsky who used to run the "21 Club." We hadn't been in years and heard that Patroon was recently spruced up! It's fabulous looking (an impressive photography collection graces the walls) and the service is the most professional and affable that we've had in a long time. Not a snooty moment, but it was precision-perfect. The very nice chef, Bill Peet, worked at Lutece for years and remains a close friend of chef/legend André Soltner. It's "the" place to go for Dover sole (filleted tableside) and steak au poivre, and the oyster pan roast was luscious. The "Simply Grilled Fish of the Day" was perfectly-cooked cod over a tangle of the most delicious "roasted" broccoli rabe we've ever had. The place is all-class and feels like the "new 21." Good mango sorbet. Be sure to visit their roof-top bar as soon as the weather gets nice. We hear it's the place to be.

Tastes of the future: Every so often I peruse the events booklet published by the James Beard Foundation as to the "goings-on" at the Beard House (located on West 12th street in NYC) and locations around the county. It provides a snapshot into current "chef thinking" -- re: new flavors, tastes, combinations, and techniques --  a "look-see" into what my peers are cooking these days! Here's a glimpse of hot new ingredients in the March/April issue:  rutabaga sauerkraut, bok choy kimchi, squash butter, tongues, black cod, pork cheeks, hake cheeks, toasted cherry leaves, almond milk, pressed palm seeds, goat milk cream cheese, "beet" steak, tomato "chicharrones," bellies (pork and lamb), freekeh, rabbits, pigs ears, vadouvan spice, and fresh curry leaves. Coming soon to your plate. Enjoy your own tastes of the week.

Legends in Hospitality: The Power in Front (of-the-house)

Twenty years ago, if you can recall, hardly anyone knew the name of a chef in a restaurant. Status and power belonged to the guy at the door (rarely was it a woman). That was who you needed to know and, more vitally, who you wanted to know you.

There was a moment-in-time when you could actually find Danny Meyer running Union Square Cafe, Joe Baum at the front door of Aurora, George Lang holding court near the iconic murals at Café des Artistes, Sheldon Haseltine nodding you in at the über-trendy Joanna’s, or Drew Nieporent opening the door for you at Montrachet (and now at Corton).  Elaine Kaufman ran her star-studded eponymous bistro on New York’s Upper East Side until she died at 81 last year.

But these days, few people know who’s standing at the check-in desk. Celebrity chefs may be off promoting themselves or their latest ghost-written cookbooks or endorsing some new line of cookware, but they’re still the go-to people for the best tables, the generous midcourse freebies, the second round of desserts – and in an age of texting and instant messaging, they’re instantly available.

I was reminded of this reversal of power when I took a dear friend to The Four Seasons for an impromptu birthday lunch last week, since she’d never been there. Now you may say, “The Four Seasons?  I haven’t been there in ten years, not since mother came to town.” Well, let me tell you:  You’ve been missing a level of refinement of both food and space that you hardly find anywhere these days.

Many restaurants drop off the media radar if they aren’t constantly screaming to the blogs about everyday trivialities, or if their celebrity chefs lack an itchy Twitter finger -- but at The Four Seasons, hardly anyone knows who’s in the kitchen. Instead, everyone knows the restaurant’s two managerial rock stars, Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini. They are the dedicated owners of New York’s fabled restaurant, located in the triumphant Seagram’s building.

Neither of them is a judge on Top Chef nor a headliner at South Beach Food & Wine Festival.  Instead, Julian and Alex, who bought the restaurant in 1995 from another revered pair of front guys – Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai -- move from table to table every day, ensuring that service glides unobtrusively, and recognizing their “regular” clients’ gastronomic foibles – and that means the entire room. They are the real “table hoppers” even though at least half the room knows the other half. They yaw when necessary, fawn when appropriate, and do whatever it takes to keep Henry Kissinger and Richard Gere coming to lunch.

We had our birthday celebration in the bar room, home of New York’s “power lunch”, and the place was hopping with confident, deep-pocketed sorts of people who pay little attention to the city’s PR machinations. The place is 52 years old and feels as fresh as a basket of just-picked herbs. Sunlight pours in from double-height windows; tables are large; the Brno chairs, by architect Mies van der Rohe that were controversial when the restaurant’s first impresario, Joe Baum installed them, are capacious and comfortable; multiple layers of cloth smother the clunk of dishes that afflict too many high priced bistros; and Alex and Julian know your name along with every last detail about every item on the menu.

For it is their food as much as it is the chef’s. Read the menu carefully and discover a study in tradition, restraint -- and somehow also a bit of magic. You want to order everything because in your mind it all tastes good and, simultaneously, comforting.

We ate real bay scallops as a special of the day; beef carpaccio with mustard greens and aged parmesan-like stravecchio from Wisconsin; soft polenta with wild mushrooms and an excess of truffles, striped bass (real striped bass, not some farmed half-breed) with autumn vegetables in a chorizo-mussel broth.

And that’s the way the menu goes:  “A Selection of Oysters and Clams; Scottish Smoked Salmon, Proper Garniture; Filet of Bison, Foie Gras, Perigord Black Truffle; Grilled Tuna, Roasted Fennel with Feta, Black Olive Tapenade; Filet Mignon, Cauliflower, Sherry-Mustard Sauce.” There’s not much in the way of linguistic fireworks here. There are no farmers names or anything about sustainability or grass fed or non-GMO or other ideological diatribes that clutter menus.  Instead, everything was utterly and quietly perfect. 

I recognized a continuity of style in menu language (American and self-assured), service (invisibly visible) and restaurant’s attitude toward its customers (“friendly, but not familiar,” was what Joe Baum dictated). After Baum left to create more magic elsewhere, the place got run down by its corporate owners, then revived by Tom and Paul, who after many years were succeeded by Alex and Julian.  It was this uncommon continuum – where the power lay in front of the house – that perhaps explains why the place feels fresh and new, but also as comfortable as your bedroom slippers.

Two tables away, some men were finishing their coffee when Alex and Julian appeared with a bottle of champagne, a 16-inch-high “toque” of pink cotton candy and a whispered “happy birthday.” Their business could wait; it was time to celebrate.

It is no surprise that they were feted with the 2011 “Legends in Hospitality Award” just the other night at a gala for the American Hospital in Paris Foundation. Their efforts in the world of food and the good life have been duly noted.

As for me, I may begin to ask upon entering a new restaurant, not the name of the chef in the back, but “Hey, what’s the name of the guy up front?”

My prediction for 2012? A generation of celebrity maitre d’s with a television show to call their own.

Haute Indian: Why here? Why now?

Just two weeks ago, New York became host to three new Michelin-starred Indian restaurants, prompting one to wonder, “Why here? Why now?” London has long been home to Important Indian Restaurants, with dining establishments such as Amaya, The Cinnamon Club, Chutney Mary, and Benares rivaling some of the town’s best French restaurants. And Vancouver’s upper crust would just as soon eat at Vij’s, an ambitious, upscale Indian eatery of international repute, than at any of the city’s tonier non-ethnic spots.

But for decades in New York, Indian food traditionally has been burdened with a reputation for being “cheap and cheery,” and its restaurants are largely confined to pockets of “curry ghettos” around the city. I’ve believed that the cuisine’s spicing, and its menu offerings, were too esoteric even for foodies to fully comprehend, making it a challenge to tell mediocre meals from good or great. There were a smattering of elegant spots, including Dawat, Devi and the original Tamarind, but they were often treated as “special occasion” places.

In 1998, Danny Meyer opened a spectacular Indian restaurant in New York called Tabla, and I recall enjoying chef Floyd Cardoz’s “interpretive” food there often. But despite great marketing and lots of favorable press, the restaurant never gained traction and  closed after a 12-year run last December.

So it’s highly ironic that less than a year later the Michelin guide has just blessed three Indian restaurants here with a star apiece while Tabla’s former space now houses a Peruvian ceviche emporium. Michelin anointed Junoon, Tulsi (both in their first year of business) and Tamarind Tribeca (an offshoot of an older and unstarred Tamarind not far from Tabla) with the coveted rating. “Holy Cow!  Break the coconuts, sound the Tabla, play the harmonium. Sing that Badwa-Randi song Chamak Challo,” proclaimed the Indian blog upon hearing the news.

To put it in perspective, from thousands of restaurants in the city, Michelin chose only seven to receive 3-stars, nine restaurants merited 2-stars, and 46 got 1-star – three of which were Indian. Of course, these three all were in Manhattan, and a trip to Jackson Heights, in Queens, might have revealed a few more candidates – but no matter, the recognition is there.

Junoon is extremely elegant, spacious, and cost a rajah’s ransom to build. It serves more-or-less modern Indian food with Frenchified service – of the sort one might find in five-star hotels in Mumbai or Delhi. Its environment only can be described as opulent-and-then-some. Its menu is written primarily in English, its language non-threatening, and its spicing a bit modulated. The chef is good-looking Vikas Khanna, who is no stranger to the TV screen; the owner is Rajesh Bhardwaj of Café Spice fame. New York Times’ former critic, Sam Sifton, loved the notion that you could order a bottle of “2006 Valpolicella Grassi with your monkfish tikka.”

Tulsi, which bills some of its items as “street food” brought indoors, is more traditional, its menu language less navigable, but its food rings truer. The impresario and chef here is the beloved Hemant Mathur, who was an owner and chef at Devi, and headed the kitchen at  other Indian notables such as Amma and Tamarind. His butter chicken, Manchurian cauliflower, and tandoori lamb can bring tears to your eyes. I am personally thrilled for his success and this recognition by Michelin who deemed Tulsi “the incomparable one.”

The new Tamarind in Tribeca, also in spectacular surroundings, goes for highly decorative plating of its dishes – and this is something fairly new among the town’s Indian restaurants where food generally comes wallowing in one sort of sauce or another. In fact, the menu is so elegant and luxurious sounding that you might want to enroll in a graduate seminar in Indian culinary history to fully grasp their intentions. The vegetarian selections alone might encourage you to become one. In addition to their Michelin star, the 2011 Zagat gives an appreciative 26 point rating for the food.

While this is all a far-cry from the $6.99 buffet lunch at Chennai Gardens that I have enjoyed over the years, there’s not much commonality among the  chosen three, other than that none is located in Curry Hill and all are more expensive than your typical Indian bistro

I’ve had many splendid Indian meals, but mostly in India. One of my all-time favorites is Masala Kraft, in the historic Taj Hotel in Mumbai, a high-energy destination for the city’s glitterati, where classic food has been “lightened” without sacrificing authenticity. I long for it to open in New York as it would no doubt add to the list of Michelin treats.

Does this mean that, finally, Indian food is hot? Is there a trend building? Or is Michelin over-reaching? Perhaps it’s all of the above, including a post-recession boom that is allowing us to throw wads of money at previously cheap food, and a willingness to embrace the palate-tingling, exoticism of India’s culinary landscape.

The good news is we no longer have to go to London, or India, to get great Indian food.

Marc Vetri: A Culinary Bodhisattva

In this world of bug-chomping, mean-spirited, limelight-loving chefs, comes a new breed of nice, clean-shaven, family guys with no tattoos -- who actually feel good about themselves and their customers. Ben Pollinger, the Michelin-starred chef of Oceana in Manhattan is one such guy. His buddy Dan Kluger, of abckitchen, recently deemed New York's best new restaurant, is another. This new crop of chefs cook for the pleasure of their guests (and thereby themselves) and whose goal is for others to experience culinary enlightenment rather than mirror their own hype. These chefs create a kind of dining "sangha" (community) where all participants feel interconnected, whether to some intrinsic food memory, to the earth, to nature, or to other sentient beings. And while I'm certain there are many who fit this description, cooking under the radar in kitchens all across America, by chance I met the kindest, gentlest chef of all.

Just last week, at a small press dinner in New York entitled "Sounds Good, Tastes Good," I met Marc Vetri from the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. Vetri is the real deal:  a philanthropic, guitar-playing, accomplished, brilliantly modest chef who owns three restaurants, has two cookbooks, runs a million dollar foundation, and by happenstance embodies the "six perfections" that a Bodhisattva must generate -- hence the title of this piece. These are:  generosity, ethics, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom. Never mind that Marc met his wife at a yoga class (he summoned the nerve to talk to her after one year) and has been known to meditate, but his divining attributes shown brightly through the food that night. We ate the intangibles that separate one guy's food from another's. More soul, than craft. More you, than me.  Food Network TV producer and host, Marc Summers, a Philadelphia neighbor, who often has holiday meals at Marc's home, says "Vetri is the sweetest, most generous soul I've ever met. I love the guy. And while you couldn't pay me to eat a liver, I love his rigatoni with chicken livers.  I wanted to dive in the bowl and swim around."

Marc's three Philadelphia ventures -- Vetri Ristorante, Osteria and Amis -- are considered among the best Italian restaurants in America. A new place, called Alla Spina, is on its way. Mario Batali has called Marc the "best Italian chef in the country." (Big praise from the buddha himself.)  Dana Cowin, editor of Food & Wine Magazine, has said when it comes to Marc's hospitality and philosophy, "It's all about the cooks and the cooking. No pretension, just genius food."   James Beard award-winning Vetri, whose grandmother is Sicilian, trained in Bergamo, Italy and himself has trained several chefs who went on to win their own Beard awards. He treats his restaurant family and home family with equal compassion.

Last week's dinner was a fabulous throw-back to experiences of another generation.  Hors d'oeuvres (homemade fennel salami and artichoke mostarda, gutsy caponata, and even gustier bread), were served "family style" as guests meandered with a glass of wine getting to know each other. The seated dinner was served around one long, farm table that sat 24 generously, in a West Village dining spot owned by The Little Owl group. The meal was one of the most authentically Italian imaginable -- both rustic and perfect. Ethereal tuna-ricotta fritters, lusty meatballs, the aforementioned pasta with chicken livers, and the best "plin" -- a stuffed pasta from Piedmont -- I've had.  The roasted lamb shoulder tasted like it came from a salt marsh, the fish braised in olive oil was an exercise in radical simplicity (my mantra), and dessert -- an olive oil cake with amaretti semifreddo and chocolate sauce -- was a crowd-pleaser. Thankfully, all of the recipes can be found in Marc's new book, Rustic Italian Food from Ten Speed Press which is hot off the press this month. But the real dessert was the music that followed. Singer/song-writer Phil Roy sang his heart out while Vetri played "sous-guitarist" to his good sounds.

But perhaps it is Marc's charitable efforts that affords him the Bodhisattva award. Just this past summer, Marc gathered some of the country's best chefs to come to Philadelphia to raise $800,000 for Alex's Lemonade Stand (for children's cancer research.) In 2009, he founded the Vetri Foundation for Children, whose mission is to "support the development of healthy living habits for underserved youth." The foundation recently launched the "Eatiquette" program whose destiny is to have every school in America serving a fresh, family-style lunch. A kind of eating "sangha" (community) for kids. You see, for Marc, it's never just about the food. It's about the people who eat it.

Chocolate Dirt: Is it Art or is it Dinner?

A few years back, an unknown chef, at restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, created a strange series of tableaux on his dining room tables, using tree bark, pine needles, lichens and other things normally grazed by reindeer. And so it was that in 2010 the Nordic forager René Redzepi (sounding much like an acid rock band) displaced the Spanish chemistry wizard Ferran Adria (for whom he once worked) as the world’s numero uno chef.

Since last year, molecular gastronomy hasn’t exactly evaporated, but now you might get trampled by dozens of upscale chefs who are rushing to harvest dinner from the underbrush and under rocks – or assembling dishes that looked like they might be untamed gardens. Although many chefs preceded Redzepi, dozens of acolytes are now making pilgrimages to Copenhagen for a chance to stage at his stoves.

In the US, “wildcrafting” is largely, but not entirely, a West Coast trend.  Forerunner to Redzepi, Jeremy Fox created a global stir with beautifully composed plates at Ubuntu, in Napa, years ago, and Daniel Patterson at Coi in Los Angeles and David Kinch at Manresa in Los Gatos are masters of the style. You’ll find similar efforts at the restaurant McCrady’s in Charleston where chef Sean Brock lists farmers and foragers on his menu; at Toqué in Montreal, where chef Normand Laprise’s website lists his kitchen staff as “artists” and its suppliers as “artisans”; and at Castagna in Portland, Ore., where chef Matt Lightner, who’s been rooting around woodlands for years, produces still-lifes-with-leaves and calls them dinner.

Perhaps the most “florid” exemplar is Dominique Crenn at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco (her restaurant is subtitled “Poetic Culinaria”), whose vegetable  presentations look like bonsai gardens and who claims she is reliving her childhood food memories and fantasies.

These chefs’ horticultural foodscapes appear to have been assembled with tweezers and dental instruments. Their foraged dishes might contain upwards of 20 plants and herbs, and they’re sent to your table on slabs of slate, miniature rock slides, primordial wood shapes and thrown glass instead of plates. They come with lyrical names such as Ocean Creatures and Weeds, A Walk in the Garden, Into the Vegetable Garden, Summer Bids Adieu, or Le Jardin d’Hiver.

In truth, if you substituted gems for the food, these presentations would look perfectly at home Tiffany’s display windows.  Caravaggio might have painted them.

You’ll be eating roots, stems and petals of plants that used to be discarded or that you might step over on the sidewalk.  One chef famously quipped, “Not the sidewalk. We’d never use stuff from there!” Which makes one wonder whether this chef has any idea what bears do in the woods.

As this trend of “food as naturalistic art” takes hold in upscale restaurants around the country, you’ll find lots of new ingredients slipping onto upscale menus:  White acorns; tips of fir needles; “dirt” made of dried and crumbled mushrooms, pumpernickel breadcrumbs, black olives, bulgur wheat, or sprouting grains; aloe vera, eucalyptus leaves, chickweed, wild ginger, wood sorrel, yarrow, pineapple weed, and sumac. Dirt is so hot that Crenn cooks her potatoes in the stuff before washing them clean.  You’ll find a similar plating style at just-opened modernist Korean eatery Jung Sik Dang in New York, where you’ll need to bring lots of money. Next up:  Dessert assemblages growing out of chocolate “humus” (as in dirt, not as in chick peas).

All of this comes at a price, of course, which is why you’ll only find these goings-on at fancy restaurants.  Some restaurants actually have foragers on their payrolls, and others need to hire artistically talented cooks to plate dishes so that each leaf, each carrot stalk, each nasturtium flower, each pod of immature sweet peas, is placed just so – a serious challenge when tonight’s wild harvest contains a surprise crop of newcomers. You won’t be stumbling across such food at your local Olive Garden.

But is it food?  Is it art?  Or is it merely extravagantly imitative horticulture?  Some critics have complained that taste is taking a back seat to artifice, but they said the same thing about earlier shenanigans of molecular gastronomy without recognizing how new laboratory trickery might be transformative in the kitchen.

In this case, I think we’re witnessing a reaction to cooking-with-chemistry with a romantic return to naturalism, or, to coin a word, “gastro-naturism.” It is a way for high-flying chefs to differentiate themselves from the rest of the herd and it is guaranteed to get a thousand bloggers and their cameras into these restaurants.