Table trends

Anne Coll, executive chef of Meritage, with Korean fried chicken. "I saw the Korean fried-chicken trend starting up in New York," she said.
Anne Coll, executive chef of Meritage, with Korean fried chicken. "I saw the Korean fried-chicken trend starting up in New York," she said. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)

A new ingredient, a reimagined favorite - if one restaurant does it, suddenly, it's everywhere. Until it's not.

Posted: October 19, 2012

Like all fashions, trends in restaurant cuisine have a life cycle. But how does a must-try dish become the played-out aftertaste of boredom? Whither the sundried tomato, the powdered mayonnaise, the deconstructed shortcake?

When David Katz started offering fried chicken at the now-shuttered Mémé, it was half a joke, to see how the down-home special that included a Miller Lite would fly in Rittenhouse, and half an homage to his childhood in Cape May, where fried chicken was a staple food. It wasn't, he insists, because he wanted to follow or start a trend.

And yet he did. The kitschy Thursday lunch caught on within a matter of weeks, as people started visiting Mémé specifically for the special, including Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema.

Over at Meritage about the same time, chef Anne Coll began offering her take on Korean fried chicken.

"I saw the Korean fried-chicken trend starting up in New York, and I was learning about how Kentucky Fried Chicken is this universal phenomenon around the world. I thought it would be fun to make it my own."

Coll's version of the double-fried bird included a highly seasoned crust and a more savory sauce. It, too, was a hit, and soon, fried-chicken meals were popping up on menus all around town.

It takes only a few key restaurants to introduce us to a new ingredient or a reimagined favorite, and suddenly, it feels like a thing, yesterday's molten-chocolate cake giving way to today's salted caramel or butterscotch pudding. But whether it's cultural osmosis or simply a moment when a good idea's time has come, it's hard to say.

"I pay attention to other restaurants and books from around the world," says Sam Jacobson, chef/owner of Sycamore and NoBL in Lansdowne. "If something sounds good, I wouldn't steal the idea, but I might take some inspiration from it."

Some chefs reject the notion of trends altogether and insist that they follow their own creative intuition. "I think you have to stay current, but you have to have your own style, and if you go with every new thing that comes along, you'd lose that sense of individuality," says Josh Lawler, chef/owner of the Farm & Fisherman in Center City, where the emphasis is on creative locavore cooking.

Yet, you'd have to be living in a vacuum not to notice, for instance, that over the last couple of years, deviled eggs have become ubiquitous bar snacks. Or that pork belly and handmade charcuterie are on more and more menus.

"No one wants to say they're following a trend. But if you say you're the one who started it, you sound pompous," says Jesse Kimball of Memphis Taproom, who has built a menu using craft beer as an ingredient, developed pleasingly hearty options for vegan eaters, and innovated a globally inflected menu of hot dogs in the restaurant's beer garden.

The problem with restaurant trends is that the flimsy ones seem to reveal themselves quickly, becoming an embarrassing pop-cultural punch line, like cheesesteak egg rolls or any cocktail ending with -tini that doesn't start with mar-.

"I love bacon, but I don't need to eat bacon in my dessert," Kimball says. "The whole bacon thing is overdone."

Chefs love to denounce the latest food fashions - landing-strip plating, upscale gastropub fare, anything foamy or powdered, and (gasp!) fried chicken - as trends they'd like to see go the way of the squirt-bottle garnish.

On the other hand, the current interest in charcuterie and preserving is a trend that many chefs welcome with open arms.

"I love that it's an Old World approach," says Greg Vernick, who's making his own cheese, bacon, and capicola at Vernick Food & Drink. "What the guys at Le Virtu and Rittenhouse Tavern are doing is incredible."

Nose-to-tail cooking continues to be popular with chefs and diners alike. "It's great that more people are into offal and willing to try things like pig's feet, because it's fun for chefs to work with these cuts," Coll says. "A couple of years ago, I could not get customers to order sweetbreads, but now they sell really well." Pickles, with their cross-cultural appeal, are also likely here to stay.

Similarly, the farm-to-table movement, which has almost universally redefined the way ingredients are sourced and menus written, is viewed as a positive - except when it's used as a shallow marketing ploy.

"I'm sick of seeing 'diver' scallops on a menu when I know that the diver season is three weeks long," Lawler says. "I don't think you need to put every farm on the menu or mention every heirloom vegetable. The term farm to table is itself overplayed, but I see what we do as the evolution of cooking in America. This is what they've been doing in France and Italy for years. I don't think the practice is going away anytime soon."

At the same time, certain trends are spurred by dietary concerns. Local chefs continue to respond to the demands of diners for more vegan and gluten-free options. "With desserts," Coll says, "we've been experimenting with rice flours and other flours so that we can offer more gluten-free options."

Other food trends reflect a sudden availability or scarcity of specific ingredients. Vernick says we can expect better-quality farmed fish on menus around the region. Katz points to pipe-cut marrow bones, which until recently were hard to source in Philly because of union regulations for the bigger meat distributors. "Then there's always someone who will come to your kitchen door and try to sell you some new hot ingredient," Kimball says, "and try to convince you it's going to be all the rage."

Coll, Jacobson, and Vernick all mentioned North African spices as a recurring theme they're seeing in the city's kitchens. Katz, who has always embraced harissa and chermoula in his cooking - his family is Moroccan - credits Zahav's Michael Solomonov for opening up local eyes to the potential of these flavors. "What he's doing has taken it to another level."

For all of the research and development that goes into menu creation, it's usually the customer who ultimately decides when a trend's time has come and gone.

"When orders start to drop off, it's a telltale sign that diners are ready for something new," Coll says. She concedes she would like to take the Korean fried chicken off the menu - it's laborious to make in a small kitchen with only two line cooks - but her clientele simply won't allow it. "I like to change the menu as much as I can, but I also want to give my customers what they're looking for."


Korean Fried Chicken

Makes 4 to 5 servings

For the chicken:

1 small Spanish onion

1/4 cup garlic cloves, peeled

1 tablespoon dried Korean

   chili flakes (gochugaru)

1/4 cup sesame oil

Salt and pepper

2 whole eggs, lightly beaten

1 3-pound chicken cut into 2

   wings, 2 thighs, 4 pieces

   of breast and 2                drumsticks

2 quarts soybean oil

16 ounces fine rice flour

16 ounces cornstarch

1/4 cup fine cornmeal

For the sauce:

1/2 cup Korean chili paste

   (gojujang)

3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons mirin

1 tablespoon white vinegar

3 tablespoons ketchup

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1. In a food processor, puree onion, garlic, chili flakes, sesame oil, and one tablespoon each salt and pepper.

2. Pour onion and garlic mixture into a bowl or casserole dish and stir in eggs until evenly combined. Toss chicken in mixture and refrigerate overnight.

3. In a Dutch oven or deep fryer, heat oil to 350°F. Set a baker's rack over a sheet pan. Mix rice flour, cornstarch, cornmeal, and one tablespoon each salt and pepper. Dredge chicken in flour mixture, making sure it is covered well. Fry in batches, keeping the breast pieces separate from the dark meat, agitating with a mesh strainer occasionally, until golden brown, about five minutes. Let the chicken rest on the rack for about 30 minutes. Reheat the oil and fry again to make it extra crispy.

4. Meantime, make the sauce by combining the sauce ingredients.

5. To serve, drizzle the chicken with the sauce and serve immediately.

- From Anne Coll, Meritage

Note: Gojujang and gochugaru can be found in the Asian section of your grocery or at a Korean market.

Per serving (based on 5): 1,072 calories, 63 grams protein, 147 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams sugar, 37 grams fat, 226 milligrams cholesterol, 1,083 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Bourbon Banana Pudding With Salted Caramel and Oreos

Makes 6 servings

For the banana custard:

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons dark-brown

   sugar

2 bananas, sliced

1/2 cup dark-brown sugar

2 tablespoons butter

2 cups half-and-half

5 egg yolks

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons bourbon

Pinch of salt

For the salted caramel:

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons heavy cream

1 teaspoon kosher salt

For assembly:

1 cup crushed Oreo cookies

1. In a saute pan on medium heat, combine 1 tablespoon butter and 2 tablespoons brown sugar, and heat until melted and smooth. Add bananas, and cook until soft and brown. Set aside.

2. In a saucepan on medium heat, combine 1/2 cup dark-brown sugar and 2 tablespoons butter, and heat until melted and smooth. In a double boiler, combine half-and-half, egg yolks, vanilla, bourbon, salt, and brown-sugar mixture. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until thickened to a pudding consistency, about 30 to 40 minutes. Stir in bananas. Refrigerate until cool and firm.

3. Before serving, make the salted caramel: In a saucepan on medium heat, combine water and sugar, and cook until it turns golden brown. Remove from heat, and carefully whisk in cream and salt. Set aside until it cools.

4. To assemble pudding, place a spoonful of Oreos into individual clear bowls or glasses, then a spoonful of pudding, then salted caramel, and repeat. Top it off with whipped cream if you want to splurge.

- From Anne Coll, Meritage

Per serving: 504 calories, 7 grams protein, 63 grams carbohydrates, 47 grams sugar, 26 grams fat, 227 milligrams cholesterol,

646 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Moroccan Kefta

Makes 8 servings

1 pound ground beef

1 pound ground lamb

Half an onion

3 tablespoons chopped

   parsley

3 tablespoons chopped

   cilantro

2 tablespoons ground cumin 2 tablespoons ground

   coriander

1 tablespoon harissa

2 tablespoons ground

   cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon baking soda

Salt and black pepper to

   taste

1. Place the ground lamb and beef together in a large mixing bowl, and grate the onion, using the small holes of a box grater, into the meats.

2. Mix remaining ingredients in with your hands, working thoroughly, but be careful not to overwork the mix.

3. Break a very little piece off the mix, roll it into a ball, then flatten to make a patty. Cook gently on both sides in a pan, and taste it to check the seasoning. If more salt or pepper is needed, add it, and repeat process till seasoning is right.

4. When mix is ready, form into 2-ounce balls, and flatten into patties. When finished, refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour before grilling.

5. Cook the kefta. A charcoal grill is ideal, but a gas grill or a grill pan will work fine as well. Cook each patty on a medium-hot fire for about 3 minutes on each side. Move them to cooler part of the grill for about 5 more minutes. The kefta should be slightly pink inside. Serve immediately.

- From David Katz

 

Note: Harissa can be found at Whole Foods or at Middle Eastern groceries.

Per serving: 231 calories, 34 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrates,

1 gram sugar, 9 grams fat, 102 milligrams cholesterol, 340 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Fig Paste

Makes 6 servings

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1/4 cup hazelnuts, toasted

   and skinned

11/4 cups stemmed, halved

   dried Black Mission figs

1 tablespoon brandy

11/2 teaspoons balsamic

   vinegar

11/2 teaspoons water

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground

   pepper

1. Preheat oven to 200°F. In a small skillet, toast fennel seeds over medium heat just until they start to change color. Transfer to a spice mill or clean coffee grinder and grind into a powder.

2. In a food processor, combine the hazelnuts, figs, brandy, vinegar, and water and process to form a paste. Add the ground fennel and pepper and pulse until evenly incorporated.

3. Transfer the fig paste to a sheet of aluminum foil. Shape it into a rough 6-inch log, then wrap it tightly in the foil and roll to shape it into a cylinder. Unwrap the foil and put the log, still on the foil, on a baking sheet. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the surface of the log dries and hardens a bit. Cool the log completely before wrapping it securely in clean foil. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 months. Serve sliced into coins, cold or at room temperature.

- From Pure Vegan by Joseph Shuldiner

Note: This accompaniment can be part of a vegan "(No) Cheese Plate" of fruit and nuts or served with charcuterie.

Per serving: 130 calories, 2 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams sugar, 2 grams fat, no cholesterol, 5 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.

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