Mixed-up Menu Trends

JB Every month or so I look forward to receiving the "events publication" from the James Beard House in New York City. Part booklet, part magazine, not only is it a gastronomic "look-see" into the minds of chefs and what they're thinking, but also a good indication of what may be cropping up on menus in your own zip code. Keeping in mind that cooking at the Beard House requires a certain amount of performance art and culinary high-wire acts, the offerings are complex and sometimes over-the-top. Yet, I'm fascinated by the ingredients I've never heard of (yes, I just admitted that), grateful for a new technique or idea, and sometimes baffled by some of the crazy-mixed up combinations.

Nonetheless, a read of the menus to be cooked by myriad chefs from all over the country provides an "instagram" sweep of America's culinary landscape. There's almost a dinner every day at the Beard House, with chefs telling their stories through the narrative of the menu, somewhere in the USA.

First, the ingredients: You'll be seeing mutton, geoduck, banana leaves, lamb tongues, mantequilla enojada (I must look this up), beef heart, gizzards, lotus leaf, finger limes, lotus root, barberries, nettles, cara cara oranges, red verjus, headcheese, shimeji mushrooms, green strawberries, buttermilk, sugar cane, scrapple, lamb neck.

A few new ideas: There's "lambcetta" (I imagine that's a riff on pancetta but who knows), white barbecue sauce, cold fried chicken torchon, cider aspic, black sesame panna cotta with yuzu, sweet chestnut-filled ravioli with warm English custard, brisket bourguignon (with lamb belly confit and quinoa).

Some nice menu language: Foraged mushrooms of the moment, fresh-churned butter, Chocolate Study=Soft, Crunchy, and Nutty.

Most curious? Coffee malt crème and soda bread parfait with frozen parsnips.

I am struck by the lack of cheese in the dishes or their presence on the menus. Instead most menus were chock-full of mystery words and only a handful showed a kind of elegant restraint. It was refreshing to see the word "fumet."

What does it all mean? Some of the wanton (not wonton!) creativity that began in the 1970s was expressed on menus in language that read like shopping lists, where every ingredient in a dish was revealed. The trend continues today. And while it is a way for chefs to differentiate themselves from others, the menus have a sense of gastronomic sameness -- with little sense of place, identity or ethnicity. This is merely an observation and not a judgment for it is what we have come to expect of our chefs and their menus. "Wow me," we say. And for the most part, this is what the chefs are doing. Frozen parsnips, anyone?

If you're lucky enough to be in New York in March or April, or anytime really, you should try one of the Beard House dinners. You'll be dropping into a wondrous food community and share a bit of the past... and the future.

Tastes of the Week

October 31 through November 6 Notes from Napa Valley: The take-away from three days and nights at the Culinary Institute of America's food conference  -- "World Casual:  The Future of American Menus"--  comes the notion that the food of tomorrow will be a big mash-up of tastes and flavors all on one plate. No doubt you are experiencing that now. The "grab-and-go" food of yesterday and of the globe's most remote locations, is the knockout food of today and we can barely digest it all. It's "the experience" we all seem to be after -- whether at the $3 price level...or $300.00. Once upon a time, casual restaurants distilled their ideas from  "upscale dining." Today, upscale restaurants chefs are inspired by more humble tastes -- from ethnic street food vendors  and idiosyncratic food trucks.

There were more than 700 cooks, sponsors, and food companies present. And there were chefs from twenty-one countries who all weighed in on the interesting debate of "what's next?" There was a strong presence from Spain, particularly the Basque region, with a handful of chefs doing cutting edge pintxos (tapas) --with one dramatic showing of dry ice in a sardine can which "smoked" as the food was presented on top. Pretty cool stuff to accompany a glass of cava (of which there were numerous examples to try.)

And there were more authentic offerings too, from Paul Bartolotta from Las Vegas, the wonderful Indian chef Hemant Mathur from Tulsi in New York (a recent Michelin star recipient), and from Sara Jenkins, porchetta-e-pasta diva from the lower East Side. Jose Garces, the superstar chef from Philadelphia predicted that Ecuadorian food is the next trend (Peruvian food is the current one), and made delicious Slow-Cooked Pork Trotters with Spicy Peanut Curry, Scallions and Hominy. Historian and chef, Maricel Priscilla, owner of two great restaurants in Hoboken, seconded that notion with her tantalizing Ecuadorian Shrimp Ceviche with Peanuts in the style of Manabi. From another Latino kitchen came a fascinating dish presented by Rick Bayless (from Chicago's Frontera Grill, etc.) -- a "dry ceviche" made with ground yellowtail, lime juice, carrots, red onion and minced serrano pepper. It's an "a la minute" dish that can truly be made in seconds.

Most of the time we ate from the half-acre of food stalls and buffet tables -- the Iberico pork (fresh) from Spain was remarkable, as was the foccacia di Recco of Chef Bartolotta, the Sfincione alla Palermitana from Umbrian chef Salvatore Denaro, and the fragrant biryani from Nimmy Paul, a food writer and consultant from Kerala. During one of the wonderful presentations moderated by Michael Whiteman, I had the best pork belly bao of my life, from Charles Phan, owner and executive chef of San Francisco's Slanted Door. As Mr. Whiteman aptly said about so much of this food, "both time and distance have evaporated; you can get anything from anywhere."  I also enjoyed a classic salad from Singapore called "rojak" -- made with pineapple, cucumber, mango, fish sauce, shrimp paste and ground nuts, prepared by chef KF Seetoh. It was as classic as anything that translates as "chaos" could be. Very refreshing and mysterious. The longest line of the three-day festival, however, was Chef Phan's "Fried Chicken with Sriracha Butter."

One night we went out for dinner in St. Helena to one of the most beautifully casual/upscale restaurants anywhere, called Press. Specializing in wood-fired food and one of Napa's great wine lists, the restaurant is owned by Leslie Rudd (from Rudd Vineyards, 209 Gin, and owner of Dean & Deluca) and the CIA's "Advance Ambassador" Reuben Katz (who used to work with us at the Rainbow Room.) Great ambiance and lots of protein but the killer dish that night was...Wood-roasted Brussels Sprouts with big chunks of Nueske's bacon. Amazing. I also loved my side dish of smokey-buttery kale that I chose to have as my first course.

We also had a big deal dinner at one of San Francisco's most revered restaurants: Michael Mina. Loved the dry malvasia from Greece I had as an aperitif accompanied by oiled-grilled bread served with tiny ramekins of creamy ricotta and honey.

And the best bedtime "pillow treat" I've had in a hotel recently (the lovely Inn at Southbridge) was the shortbread cookie embedded in a disc of bittersweet chocolate. I may order a case. It's from a company called Totally Chocolate.

This was the 14th year that the CIA held their World of Flavors Conference. There's nothing quite like it.