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Eight Key Trends Spotted During a Year of Travels

Last year I spent nearly 150 days on the road researching the most noteworthy restaurants in America — though of course I also kept tabs on the freshest happenings in cities across the country. These fashions in eating, drinking, and aesthetics showed up coast to coast.


TREND OF THE YEAR: Middle Eastern food is emerging in regional splendor

The foods of the Middle East, most often in the form of falafel or shawarma, have long been a part of our casual dining-out mix. But the defining moment for savoring the cuisines of these arid lands is upon us. The fragrant, sunbaked flavors transcend global politics, and country-specific cooking is emerging beyond establishments once given the imprecise label of "Mediterranean." Ana Sortun’s sorcery with Turkish spicing at Oleana in Cambridge, Massachusetts, helped set the stage; so did Michael Solomonov’s melting-pot Israeli cooking at Zahav in Philadelphia. (Both are on this year’s National 38 list.)

Mamnoon

Mamnoon's bateresh in Seattle

Now, cosmopolitan restaurants across North America are serving regionally specific Middle Eastern dishes with pride. Mamnoon in Seattle serves koussa mahshi, Lebanese stuffed zucchini bright and satisfying with tomato, mint, and rice. Bagdad Cafe opened this year in Atlanta touting samak masgouf, a grilled fish recipe that’s one of the calling cards of Iraqi cooking. Takht-e Tavoos, on a stretch Toronto’s multicultural College Street, delves into Iranian breakfast staples: One standout is kaleh pacheh, a potage of sheep’s head and foot swirling with the scents of cinnamon and lemon. (Dizi sangi, a brothy lamb entree with white beans and potato, may be easier to stomach.) Servers at Damas in Montreal guide customers toward sumptuous Syrian fattet mozat, lamb shank jutting out above a fleece of yogurt and rice and scattered with almonds, pistachios, toasted pita and Aleppo pepper flakes.

I’m betting we’ll see more creative riffs on Middle Eastern cuisines as well — like more of what Tel Aviv native Einat Admony does at New York’s Bar Bolonat, with dishes such as lamb neck (a newly popular cut among chefs I’ve spotted on menus across the country) melded evocatively with chickpea puree, date, and preserved lemon. Also, look for more unchained variations on shawarma: Last year I had a particularly outré adaptation at Minibar in Washington D.C., a chicken shawarma wrapped in oblate (transparent potato starch paper from Japan) with crackly chicken skin, herbs like mint and cilantro, and a dollop of Greek yogurt.

The Layered Look

Some of our most innovative chefs have adapted a composition style by which an ingredient or seasoning (a vegetable cut in circles for textural and visual contrast, for instance, or a blanket of spices) obscure a dish’s primary element. Ignacio Mattos at Manhattan’s Estela spearheads the approach: He pairs ribeye with melted taleggio and then covers them in crisp potato coins, and his most arguably famous creation is ricotta dumplings tiled over with button mushroom disks. Last summer at The Catbird Seat in Nashville, Trevor Moran similarly served pork lolling in chicken broth but hidden underneath translucent rounds of green apple and matsutake mushrooms. In his two Los Angeles restaurants, Trois Mec and Petit Trois, Ludo Lefebvre may conceal Dungeness crab salad under sheets of avocado, or bury beef tartare under an avalanche of frizzled shallot bits. Given these chefs’ influence, expect kitchens nationwide to adopt the effect.

The white plate is disappearing

Deviled eggs at Husk in Nashville

Bone china? Boring. Chefs across America have forgone the blank palette of the white plate for dinnerware made of ceramics, glass, and other materials. This trend reaches to every corner of the country, but I’ll point out two I particularly remember. Dishes at Husk Nashville appear on freckled earthenware that’s an extension of the restaurant’s only-in-the-South aesthetic: Tennessee pottery maker Caroline Cercone is among those who supply plates to the restaurant. Sean Brock’s deviled eggs and hot water cornbread arrive on platters fashioned from tree trunks. And at Iliana Regan’s intimate, idiosyncratic Elizabeth in Chicago, the plates displayed on shelves hint at the diversity of dinnerware to land on the table over 20 courses. Beyond the meal’s rainbow of ceramics, Regan’s "bear rice crispy" arrived perched on an oblong stone, and a tiny glass bowl held a macaron-sized orb of red wine vinegar meringue.

Blood sausage moves to the forefront

Often relegated to the far corners of the charcuterie platter during the past decade’s offal takeover, blood sausage is coming into its own as a star attraction. Meat sausages thickened or enhanced with blood (with grains sometimes added for additional bulk) may be regarded squeamishly in America, but they’ve been part of other cultures for centuries. In fact, menus may list it by names in other languages to break down stigmas. Parachute in Chicago, for example, lists its lush, spreadable version as boudin noir and gives it a French-Vietnamese restyling among petals of endive cradling crispy rice, peanuts, and mint. Portland’s Ox, which takes its cues from Argentinian steakhouses, serves house-made morcilla solo and as part of its "asado for two" alongside skirt steak, short ribs, and the granddaddy of accepted offal, sweetbreads.

Post-Neapolitan pizza: Rectangles are the new rounds

Pizzeria Gabbiano

Rectangle slices at Pizzeria Gabbiano

The thin crust, often with a charred, puffy lip; the restrained toppings; the inferno temperatures at which they’re baked: We’ve achieved Neapolitan, or New York-Neapolitan, pizza saturation across the country. Now enterprising cooks are looking to other parts of Italy for inspiration. Two newcomers stood out last year. Pizzeria Gabbiano seduced Seattle with Roman-style pizza, made by topping long loaves of thin focaccia bread (not the bouncy American aberration) with ingredients like mozzarella, mortadella, and pistachio-parsley pesto, or a combination of capicola, caramelized onions, and fennel fronds. The staff cuts off pieces using scissors and sells it by the kilo (or $32 per 2.2 pounds). Across the country in Portland, Maine, Stephen Lanzalotta opened Slab, highlighting Sicilian-inspired street food. His main draw: a one-pound slice of billowy flatbread thinly painted with tomato sauce and specked with mozzarella and provolone. It shares little in common with the dense, rectangular pies often served in Italian-American restaurants, but it was sublime enough to fully distract me from lobster and blueberry pie in midsummer New England.

Fungi in cocktails

I’m not the first to report on the trend of mushrooms in boozy libations, but I was amazed by how often fungi showed up on cocktail lists across the country. Examples of sightings: The bourbon based, straightforwardly named "Mushroom" drink at Pot in Los Angeles, flavored with shiitake; a White Russian made with candy cap-mushroom infused vodka, also at Pot; Champion Justino at New York’s Booker and Dax, made with Cognac, shiitake mushroom "elixir," and mole bitters; and, at Boston’s Alden and Harlow, a concoction called Forage and Fire, in which smoked shiitakes reinforce the campfire flavors of mezcal.

Buckwheat is big

Without much flash, humble buckwheat has insinuated itself as ingredient used in many ways. Maybe its appearance is an offshoot of the gluten-free crusade, or perhaps its earthy nuttiness is simply in line with our predilection for bold flavors. I saw it appear in more savory than sweet dishes: buckwheat pita at Gato in New York; a buckwheat crepe enfolding peas and cauliflower at Vedge in Philadelphia; buckwheat "popcorn" as a starter at Trois Mec in L.A.; and buckwheat pasta lacy with chicken and matsutake mushrooms at Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder, Colorado. It did show up occasionally in desserts, including as a crunchy accent with Madrona bark tea ice cream and salted pear caramel at Seattle’s Sitka & Spruce.

Garnishes du jour: caviar and edible flowers

Catbird Seat tartare

Tartare at The Catbird Seat

Shiny orange trout and salmon roes have been pervasive grace notes in dishes of many for the last half-decade, but this past year I was surprised how often I encountered sturgeon caviar. Not the exorbitantly priced kind garnered from endangered species, but often domestically and sustainably produced varieties from suppliers like Sausalito-based California Caviar Co. And it wasn’t a prominent garnish only in the expected fine-dining pantheons; it was added as a luxury touch in restaurants of all levels. One memorable surprise: the johnnycake capped with smoked salmon tartare and a thimbleful of caviar at Neptune Oyster Bar in Boston’s North End.

And I was amazed at how just how universally the trend toward edible flowers as a finishing touch took hold. It’s easy enough to order multihued pansies from a restaurant supply company, but some wield the idea much more masterfully. At The Catbird Seat, Trevor Moran covered strip loin tartare with gorgeous citrus begonias that, beyond their beauty, also lent a rhubarb-like astringency. Nasturtiums and their greens are reaching ubiquity, but a particular up-and comer is oxalis, a lemony flowering herb that’s part of the sorrel family. At his elegant Grace in Chicago, Curtis Duffy deftly wove in oxalis as the soprano line on a plate of lamb with brown butter-braised artichoke hearts, smoked paprika gastrique, and anchovies.

PLUS: TRENDS THAT SHOW NO LET UP

—The endless predilection for octopus, oysters, pistachios, and Brussels sprouts (though, mercifully, I’ve not seen them all appear on the same plate).

—Eighties playlists: I swear I heard Hall & Oates in dining rooms of every city I visited.

—Toast … though hasn’t toast always been around? As bruschetta and then crostini? I, too, am over the avocado toast onslaught, but I don’t mind crisped bread as a vehicle for sweeter fruits at dessert time. Specific shout-outs to the rhubarb toast surrounded by strawberries at Hotel Herman in Montreal, and toasted milk bread, somewhere between the texture of brioche and tea cake, topped with fresh and dried apricots and bathed in vanilla bean milk at Asta in Boston.

AND ONE TREND I WISH WOULD TAKE OFF

Russian food/cuisines of the post-Soviet states

I traveled and ate last year with my attention tuned mostly to established restaurants that clearly help define their city’s dining scenes. Among the places I tried on the road that opened in 2014, one favorite was Kachka, a charmer in Portland specializing in Russian classics. I savored the creamy, pungent, stratified salad known as "herring under a fur coat;" Siberian pelmeni (meat-filled dumplings); cholodetz, a potent molded terrine of jellied beef shank and veal feet; and trout, mackerel, and Chinook salmon in various smoked and cured guises. There were the expected pleasures of caviar and blini and the unanticipated subtleties discerned in flights of premium vodka. Collectively, the meal felt like an awakening.

Kachka

Herring in a fur coat at Kachka

Why aren’t there more U.S. restaurants that specialize in the foods of the former Soviet Union? Kachka’s chef Bonnie Morales (née Frumkin) grew up outside of Chicago, eating the foods of her mother’s native Belarus, which borders Poland to the West. Morales, like many other chefs with parents who are first-generation Americans, has honed her family’s recipes into dishes that draw restaurant crowds. My meal at Kachka inspired me to read Anya Von Bremzen’s recent memoir Mastering The Art of Soviet Cooking, which makes it clear how vast the cuisines of the post-Soviet states really are. Its sphere draws in flavors of cultures as far flung as Scandinavia, Hungary, Turkey, Afghanistan, Korea, and China.

Which of the region’s cuisines would most readily tempt American palates? I’d bank on the cooking of the Republic of Georgia, which harkens to Persian flavors with its lush combinations of meat and fruit and its lavish use of yogurt, already a trending ingredient in stateside restaurants. Would an enterprising chef with Georgian roots please step forward.

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