What we liked, what we didn't like and what we expect to see in 2006.
By Margaret Littman
The year 2005 comes to a close with equal parts nostalgia and anticipation for a new year of dining out (and dining in). As we raise our glasses of Champagne (actually, this year it’s more likely Prosecco) to ring in the new, we pause to make some predictions about what we expect to indulge in in 2006. We also pause to reflect on what we’re sick of, what we didn’t like and, basically, what we hope to never see again.
Comeback Award: Cupcakes
They were hot on Sex and the City more than six years ago. That should mean that they are as out-of-fashion as nameplate necklaces. But cupcakes are back. Toyota ads cite the dessert as the suggested reward for Prius drivers keeping the air clean. In the Big Apple, former owners of the Magnolia Bakery (where Carrie Bradshaw and company got their cupcake fixes), are now embroiled in a legal battle over whether one of the owners can use the other’s cupcake recipes at her new bakery. Outside of New York, Heather Terhune, executive chef at Chicago’s Atwood Café (1W. Washington Street, Chicago, IL. Tel: 312.368.1900), is adding a trio of seasonally appropriate cupcakes, such as pumpkin and chocolate marshmallow, to the dessert menu of the comfort food-heavy restaurant. Diners like cupcakes’ size and nostalgia factor. Chefs like them because they’re easy to freeze. Decorate-your-own cupcake stations at weddings and cupcake-only bakeries fuel the obsession, according to Chicago’s Limelight Catering.
Alternative to the Increasingly un-PC Chilean Sea Bass: Barramundi
Louis Imbesi, executive chef of Catelli Ristorante and Café (Plaza 1000 Main Street, Kresson and Evesham Road, Voorhees, NJ. Tel: 856.751.6069) likes this moist fish that is imported from Australia and sustainably farmed in New England. Pan-seared and served over Yukon potato gnocchi, with shaved fennel and arugula salad or over potato, white truffle and mushroom ravioli, the dish makes diners forget the less delicate sea bass.
Best Ways to Moderate: Quartinos and half bottles
A substantial wine-by-the-glass list is no longer the measure of a hip restaurant or a savvy sommelier. Half-bottle and quartino wine lists encourage diners to sample and share more than a glass, at less than the price of a full bottle.
Quartinos, or quarter-liter servings of wine, are the norm at Mario Batali’s Babbo and Otto restaurants. Lacroix (210 West Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, PA. Tel: 215.790.2533) adds to their half bottle selection with mini-verticals of half bottles sold in pairs, such as the 1998 and 1999 Château Lagrange ($150) and 1998 and 1999 Château Duhart-Milon ($145). Via Modern Italian Restaurant and Bar (1801 Wynkoop, Denver, CO. Tel: 303.295.1488) prices its list of quartino wines at just two times their cost.
Questionable Delivery Method for Bourbon: Sunflower Seeds
Last year, Colorado-based Thanasi Foods brought us Bourbon beef jerky. But Jim Beam Kentucky Bourbon Soaked Sunflower Seeds are an altogether new thing, one we’re not so sure we like. But someone must: Thanasi has already sold 1 million bags this year.
Best Way to Remember What You Had for Dinner Last Night: Food Blogs.
Since 2002, Adam Seifer has documented his three squares a day at www.fotolog.net/cypher, and more than 20,000 people have logged on to his "Get in My Belly" blog on to look. Wendy McClure (www.poundy.com) turned her musings about what she was eating—and what she wasn’t, or shouldn’t—into a book, I’m Not the New Me (Riverhead, 2005). Seifer says snapping a photo before each meal has become "a nonreligious way of saying grace."
Most Abused Menu Term: "Small Plates"
They seemed like a good idea at the time. But those small plates meant for sharing and tasting have morphed into mere smaller portions of regular menu entrées. Noah Bekofsky, executive chef at aria (200 N. Columbus Drive, Chicago, IL. Tel: 312.444.9494) says "tapas" will return as the all-encompassing term, in vocabulary as well as intent.
Restauranteur Cheat Sheet
How to: Save on Paper Costs: No Menus. Maria Bond, executive chef at The Timothy Demonbreun House (746 Benton Avenue, Nashville, TN. Tel: 615.383.0426) takes reservations in advance, discusses guests’ likes and dislikes, the vibe they want for the evening and then creates a meal to match. Sale e Pepe (480 South Collier Boulevard, Marco Island, FL. Tel: 239.393.1600) and Caxambas (3470 Club Center Boulevard, Naples, FL. Tel: 239.732.3020) have returned to what the resort chefs consider a traditional European style of dining, that is, eschewing a set menu in favor of their own daily selections, based on what’s fresh that day.
Prove Your Food Really is Fresh: Mozzarella Carts. At Ristorante Volare at Gaylord Opryland (2800 Opryland Drive, Nashville, TN. Tel: 615.871.6848) executive chef Peter Gebaur’s staff makes fresh mozzarella tableside, in front of guests.
Reduce Glass Breakage: Stemless Stemware. Design mavens such as InStyle magazine have touted the short glassware, made by everyone from Dansk and Riedel to Baccarat. While some snobs have suggested the tumbler-looking glasses don’t let wine breathe, Chicago’s avec (615 W. Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. Tel: 312.377.2002), a wine bar that is a magnet for chefs across the city, swears by them.
Candidates for the K.I.S.S. (Keep it Simple, Stupid) Award:
From extreme makeovers to Paris Hilton, sometimes too much is too much.
· Anheuser-Busch is developing fruit beers to boost the category. Keep the blueberries in the muffins, please. · Sure, sweet and savory can mesh, but herbs in desserts are just trying too hard. · We’ve got a sweet tooth to rival an 8-year-old in a candy store. But we don’t like to be embarrassed when an overlarge dessertarrives. Case in point? The $14 Great Wall of China ice cream behemoth at China Grill (230 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL. Tel: 312.334.6700). · Molten chocolate cake. If it oozes, don’t put it on a plate. It’s messy, ubiquitous, and, well, in a word, passé.
Ingredient That’s Not Just for Sunburn Anymore: Aloe Vera
Sona (401 N. La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA. Tel: 310.659.7708) Pastry chef and owner Michelle Myers got hooked on aloe vera gelée on a trip to Switzerland. Now she uses the clear gel as a surprise ingredient in poached plums, tart cherries with vanilla sorbet and other cold, clean desserts.
E.R.A., Wine Enthusiast Style
Not to get all Suffragette on the industry, but we thought we were past the notion that a women can’t eat and drink the same things that men do. This year, we reported plenty on wines marketed for women, like the low-alcohol White Lie Chardonnay. There’s even a wine magazine for women now, reporting, whatever this means, on the "softer" side of the beverage. But to our dismay, we found more than a few gender inequalities in our shopping carts, too, that we hope will disappear with the 2005 calendar:
· Godiva chocolate painted with pink daisies and other pretty flowers. Hello?! It’s chocolate; we already like it. No need to make it match the wallpaper. · Again, we like chocolate as much as (or more than) the next gal. But the sickeningly pink Ethel’s Chocolate Lounges popping up all over the country should take a less stereotypical clue from Mindy Segal’s Hot Chocolate (1747 N. Damen Avenue, Chicago, IL. Tel: 773.489.1747). Her rich brown décor and leather banquettes help her have a long line of both sexes waiting for hot fudge and brioche doughnuts. · PowerBar has Pria. Clif Bar has LUNA. Why women need their own energy bars is still beyond us. Everyone sweats the same.
In Your Future
We don’t have a crystal ball, or even a Magic 8 Ball, but we still think we know what you’ll be served in 2006:
· Pulque. The name is unappetizing, but this cross between beer and Tequila (made by fermenting, not distilling, maguey, the plant that becomes mescal when distilled) is popping up on tables north of the Mexican border. We had our first can at Meztiso Latin Bistro and Wine Bar (710 N. Wells Street, Chicago, IL. Tel: 312.274.9500). · Cocktails made from seasonal produce. Lucy Brennan, cocktail consultant and restaurateur at Mint/820 (816 N. Russell, Portland, OR. Tel: 503.284.5518), invented an avocado daiquiri. The gold and silver rum drink is served as an appetizer as often as it is a drink (with the Mint’s lamb burger). · Custom-decorated sugar cubes. We didn’t say everything popular would be positive. Whether pretty pictures or monograms—they still dissolve in the coffee, so why bother?
Newest D.I.Y. Trend: Make Your Own Wine
D.I.Y. winemaking spots have been popping up all over the country this year. For example, BIN 36 (339 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL. Tel: 312.755.9463) offers nights of blending your own wine, combining juices from Beckmen Vineyards with a base of Cabernet Sauvignon. After you’re done sniffing and mixing, BIN 36 will cork the bottle while you design your own label. You can even impress your friends and order a custom case as gifts. No winery required.
An Open Leter to Television Executives
Dear Big Suits:
Yes, we, too, pine for the days of Julia Child and even the first season of Iron Chef, when cooking on-screen made for good education, if not entertainment. But not all aspects of the world of food and wine should be dissected on TV, reality or otherwise. Please consider the following five points during your next planning meeting.
· Just because something can be filmed, doesn’t mean it should be. Case in point: The Wine Makers. This new six-part PBS reality TV show (like Sideways meets The Apprentice) will likely feature such exciting activities as…watching grapes grow! · There is such a thing as too much air time. For example, Rachael Ray. She’s cute, she’s perky, she’s on TV way too damn much. With the books and ubiquitous on-air appearances, all for someone who isn’t a chef, we’re crying overexposure. Next, please. · Bad editing kills. Watching chefs who squeeze raw blood sausage and then wipe their hands on a dishtowel before dicing veggies may be macho or efficient. But it doesn’t tell newbies what they need to know about food safety. Leave in a few interim steps for the sake of accuracy. · There is such a thing as a tough female chef. (See our E.R.A. box, above.) Can’t there be one on-air woman to put those big egos (think Rocco DiSpirito and "Jack" Bourdain) in their places? · Not everyone who owns a TV is of the MTV generation. That music video-style camera work, à la The Jamie Oliver Show, makes us dizzy, not devoted.
Sincerely, People who own both remotes and corkscrews