The Food Forecast: Culinary Trends To Devour In 2010

Wood-grilled swordfish at Meritage. Photo by Joel Veak

"The notion of trends makes me uncomfortable," Tony Maws of Craigie On Main declares. "I don't look in a magazine and go, ‘Wow, that's the bikini I'm supposed to wear with my food today!' "

Easy for him, as one of Boston's leading innovators, to say. But this idea was echoed by every culinary expert I turned to for perspective on dining in the new decade. The fact is, "trend" and "trendiness" are two different things. Whereas the latter connotes an already rolling and overcrowded bandwagon, the former involves the simple recognition that there is such a thing as zeitgeist, one that's shaped by our visionaries at the stove (or laptop, as the case may be - we're looking at you, Jason Santos).

Embodying the philosophies and values we hold dear as a society - sometimes before we even realize it - today's trends show remarkable overlap. Take the sustainability movement, which has led to a resurgence of food preservation techniques such as pickling - which, in turn, links up with a renewed appreciation for the traditional Jewish deli. Or consider the current fascination with Southern cuisine. In the words of the Biltmore's Jason Owens, it's "all about the pork" - and its nose-to-tail cookery brings us full circle, back to the sustainability movement. The point is this: trends reflect not only who we are as cooks and consumers, but who we are as citizens and human beings. So, in 2010, let "You are what you eat" be your rallying cry.



Molecular Cooking Comes Down to Earth

Try it: salted pollock brandade with black-olive powder at No. 9 Park; updated tiramisu with chicory curd, hazelnut-caramel powder, Meyer lemon fluid gel, and malt foam at L'Espalier; peanut-butter parfait with HobNob cookie and banana foam at Craigie On Main; just about anything at Gargoyles on the Square

The last time you tried to eat a powder, gel, or foam, your mama probably hauled you off to the ER shrieking. But now that Spanish gastronomic genius Ferran Adrià is a household name, the chemistry-enhanced cookery he pioneered doesn't seem so sci-fi. In the new decade, you might not even notice its full impact. As powerhouse public-relations guru Chris Langley explains, "Now that chefs have a handle on it, they're doing stuff behind the scenes that doesn't necessarily parlay into presentation. So it's less theater and more technique that's proven, be it working with certain ingredients like agar-agar or working with a centrifuge to separate stuff."

But if you do crave high drama, Gargoyles on the Square sets the stage. "I just get bored, so I'm sort of on this kick of making food not look like food," enthuses whiz-bang chef Jason Santos. "Everything's been done before; it's just a question of manipulating it into something new presentation-wise. How can you take your milk and dip it into your cookies? If you want a time-released dirty martini, we can do that. I can make noodles out of yogurt. How can we make this steak levitate on the plate?" He laughs. "I feel like I'm really close to Willy Wonka, and I've had to talk myself out of a lot of things. But I love to watch people put something in their mouths and go, ‘What the hell is this?' before a big smile spreads across their faces."


Sustainability's Newest Frontier

Try it: Kindai tuna at AKA Bistro; organic and biodynamic wines at Meritage and Parsons Table

"Leaving an imprint is unavoidable. But asking how to mitigate it is new. [The sustainable approach] really is the only way to do business," avows Myers + Chang's Christopher Myers. It's no coincidence that the Slow Food movement started in Italy: "ethicureanism" is easy if you live down the road from vineyards in one direction and a fishing village in the other. Conversely, in a postindustrial urban center like Boston, it requires will and ingenuity - if not madness, at least when it comes to finding local sources for, say, a sushi bar or a wine cellar.

But former Uni Sashimi Bar chef Chris Chung, of the soon-to-open AKA Bistro in Lincoln, doesn't seem crazy, just conscientious. Avoiding overfished and mercury-riddled species, he'll be the first in Boston to serve Kindai tuna, farm-raised from eggs. Likewise, he's eschewing wild salmon in favor of Scottish farm-raised salmon. "Normally, I don't like farm-raised fish," he admits, "but these have enough space to be active and swim around. I'm concerned about quality, but also about nature."

Although an all-Massachusetts wine list would be a joke, serious oenophiles are increasingly promoting sustainable labels. As a longtime supporter of the trend toward minimal intervention in the winemaking process, Meritage's Daniel Bruce praises American vintners for learning how to "cut back on man-made chemicals, [stop] draining water supplies, and use cover crops." Other restaurateurs are taking notice too: at his new venture, Parsons Table, Chris Parsons of Catch is creating an entirely sustainable wine list - from organic French brut rosés to biodynamic California Zins. Who'd have thought you could save the environment by getting trashed?


Biltmore Bar & Grille. Photo by Joel Veak

Southern Food

Try it: at Biltmore Bar & Grille, Hungry Mother, Tupelo, and Trina's Starlite Lounge

When Hungry Mother opened in 2007, recalls Virginia-born chef-partner Barry Maiden, "Every menu I looked at in Boston had the same 10 items on it - steak frites, mussels." What little Southern-influenced food there was on menus was "good for here," according to native Tennessean and Biltmore chef-owner Jason Owens. "But why do you have to be ‘good for here'? Why can't you be good for anywhere?"

So, like Maiden, Owens has made it his mission to bring heirloom grits, pork rinds, catfish, and fried okra "somewhere it could be appreciated, like Boston." Take his chicken and waffles. "It's a Southern thing, but it really took off in Harlem's jazz clubs, where they'd play until the wee hours of the morning and serve it between dinner and breakfast. So the dish is an education, too; people are learning while they eat."

But why is the Southern influence so prominent now? Owens laughingly credits Johnny Cash for "breaking the barrier" between cultures. But Chris Langley notes more seriously, "You gotta thank someone like Paula Deen. As glorified as she may seem, she's opened the eyes of the everyday diner to this very authentically American cuisine."

Jewish Deli

Try it: burger on challah at Lord Hobo; corned beef brisket at Franklin Café; house-smoked pastrami-salmon at Henrietta's Table

Mark my words: between the "scene" that hip New York upstart, Delicatessen, has become, according to Chris Langley, with its "plays on old faves," and the success of David Sax's bestselling cultural history Save the Deli, the renaissance of the Jewish deli is nigh. If, a year hence, you aren't seeing funky twists on kishka, kreplach, and matzoh brei, I'll eat my hat. (Make that my dear old zayde's yarmulke.)



Smoking: It's Not Just for Meats, Fish, or Juvenile Delinquents Anymore

Try it: Vermont chicken with smoked root vegetables at T.W. Food; pumpkin bisque with smoked nuts and fromage blanc at Gaslight Brasserie du Coin; smoked risotto with eggplant, ricotta, and salmon at Bin 26 Enoteca

At No. 9 Park, Barbara Lynch is tossing smoked kale with handmade pappardelle and andouille sausage. Ana Sortun smokes cinnamon to flavor aioli for Oleana's chickpea crêpe. And Jason Santos? Well, true to character, he'll smoke anything. Oh, stop snickering - we're talking about buttermilk, Dr Pepper, and two-hour eggs.


Pickling, Fermenting, and Otherwise Preserving

Try it: wild boar with fermented Concord grape-lavender mosto at Erbaluce; seared foie gras with pickled walnuts at Coppa; steamed clams in a fermented black-bean sauce at Myers + Chang; hoisin-glazed pork belly with kimchi at Highland Kitchen

Food preservation is, of course, as ancient as civilization itself. Yet, for decades, as processed pantry staples replaced home-canned goods, white-bread America increasingly lost touch with these traditional provisions, but for the occasional kosher dill spear. Until now, that is, as new eco-practices such as "urban homesteading" are becoming mainstream. Factor in our ever-increasing exposure to world cuisines, in which preserved ingredients figure prominently, and it's no wonder chefs are suddenly experimenting with everything from pickled peanuts and raisins to leek kimchi to fermented-juice-based sauces like those Charles Draghi is concocting at Erbaluce. "I don't use any butter or cream in any of my savory dishes; I'm trying to get cleaner, fresher, and truer flavors," he says. From lightly fermented cherries, apples, strawberries, and more, he's able to create mostos (to use his term) that maintain "the taste and aroma of great ripe fruit, but finish dry, nutty, and somewhat herbal, similar to wine."

Indeed, the general association of pickled and fermented foods with pungency isn't always accurate, according to Tony Maws. "The art of pickling isn't necessarily about strong flavors. It's a way of preserving texture; there's a crispness that comes with pickling. Or it's a balancing component; pickles cut the fat of a burger." So, getting yourself in a pickle isn't such a bad thing after all.



Even More Offal

Try it: spaghetti with cracklings at Scampo; callos a la Madrileña with tripe, trotter, and morcilla at Estragon; minestrone with beef tongue at BiNA Osteria

Though he gives all the credit to Lydia Shire's seminal '90s eatery, Biba, it's Jamie Bissonnette who, during his tenure at Eastern Standard, put heart, brains, and sweetbreads on the map for most Bostonians. But even he has had to proceed with care: "Three years ago, if I'd tried to put blood-sausage shepherd's pie on a menu, people would have said, ‘You're stupid.' "

So what broke the dam to release this flood of pigs' ears and oxtails? Muses Bissonnette, "[Renowned California chef] Thomas Keller said something like this recently: in the late '80s, even in New York, if you said, ‘Let's go eat raw fish,' most people would say no way. Beyond the coasts, you couldn't even get sushi-quality fish, so it seemed a lot more exotic. Now that it's completely accessible everywhere, Keller says tripe's the new sushi. It's becoming popular because more chefs are learning where to get it and how to make it taste good."

But, he adds, "It's not just that people are more open-minded about food. It's also [the introduction of] small plates. People don't have to commit so much. For instance, when Coppa opened, we were making cheese ravioli and moving five a night. I changed it to prosciutto and mortadella - six a night. Then I made calf's-brain ravioli, which I'd wanted to do in the first place but thought people would find it too strange, and we're selling 20 a night. At $12, it's just accessible enough."

Pork Belly in a Vacuum at Gargoyles on the Square

Squid Ink

Try it: Hawaiian-style tuna poke with nori oil (which also contains squid ink) at Gargoyles on the Square; smelts with pickled peppers and squid-ink anchoïade at Craigie On Main; grilled octopus with squid-ink couscous at Sorellina

Think it's just a pasta color? Think again, says Tony Maws. "It's got an iodine quality, it's a little sweet, and it's really got this essence of the sea. One of our go-to sauces is a squid-ink dashi. We add rice wine, ginger, chili, butter, and finish it with the ink, and it's a really sexy sauce."


Coconut Water

Try It: wood-grilled swordfish in coconut water, ginger, and carrot broth at Meritage; honey-hoisin glazed duck confit with sticky rice, mango, and coconut water at Gargoyles on the Square

With coconut water making headlines as sports drink to the stars, it's trickling down onto menus as well - and for good reason: as Jason Santos explains, "You get essentially the same flavor without the heaviness of coconut milk."

Sea Urchin

Try it: sea urchin panini with mostarda at Coppa; crab and sea urchin tagliarini at Dante; slow-roasted salmon with uni-saffron emulsion at Radius; sea urchin toast with yuzu and jalapeño at Market

Leave it to a genius like Ken Oringer to show us our uni from our elbows, naming his sashimi bar after the funky little echinoderm years before it started scooting its way onto menus across town.

The list goes on, from hand-foraged mushrooms and black garlic to gluten-free breweries and urban wineries. But isn't it about time to stop reading - and start experiencing? After all, we're only 10 months away from 2011. And you can, of course, expect another trendy installment from us then.