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.