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Eight Essential Trends Sweeping American Dining

2016 is the year of the tuna melt

As I wander the country ceaselessly, I often watch in real-time as fashions in eating, drinking, dinnerware, and restaurant decor really solidify as genuine trends. Sometimes they stay isolated to a city (matcha obsession? That’s all you, New York), but other ideas spread across the country in ripples of replication and innovation. See if you can spot any of these in your own backyard — if you haven't run across them yet, you surely will soon.

PIEROGI ARE THE COOLEST DUMPLINGS

Humankind’s love of dumplings takes many forms, encircling countless fillings. Lately, chefs have seized upon the pierogi of Central and Eastern Europe as the dough pocket du jour. Not surprisingly, I’ve spotted them most frequently as point-of-pride nods in cities with large Polish communities, including at Blackbird in Chicago (where they’re toasted and served in kielbasa broth), and at Gold Cash Gold in Detroit, where they’re filled with headcheese. Trevett Hooper, of Pittsburgh restaurant Legume, renders an especially wonderful and homey version that doesn’t stray far from how the dumpling may appear in its natural habitat: He fills circles of dough with mashed potato and homemade farmer’s cheese, boils and sautés them, scatters caramelized onions over the top, and serves them with a side of sour cream.

Pierogi share lineage with Siberian pelmeni (often made smaller and with thinner wrapping) and Ukrainian vareniki (sometimes served with sweet fillings). Portland’s Kachka, which exalts in the sundry cuisines of the former Soviet Union, serves pelmeni in a rich meat broth with smetana (a delicate sour cream) and vareniki stuffed with sour cherries. I’m betting we’ll see more of them across the country when Kachka owners Bonnie and Israel Morales release their cookbook next year.

Pierogis at Butterjoint in Pittsburgh

TARRAGON IS MAKING A COMEBACK

Maybe it’s part of the subtle revival of French and Continental cuisines that’s percolating around the country. Maybe it’s an involuntary reaction to all the ’80s music being drilled into our heads in restaurants (though the formerly ubiquitous Hall & Oates soundtrack is finally dying out; all the cool restaurants seem to have moved on to the Human League). Right on cue, here’s tarragon, an herb that fell out of wide use when nouvelle cuisine disappeared at the end of the last century, at last making its way back into favor. Its sweet licorice zing lit up a pea salad at newcomer Balise in New Orleans last June. At an August meal Commis in Oakland, James Syhabout paired it with finger limes to perfume a palate refresher of frozen melon. And it’s all over the menu at LA’s vegetable-worshipping Gjelina, waking up the earthy flavors of grilled oyster mushrooms and garlicky roasted sunchokes, and lending its classic nip to a simple lettuce salad with Meyer lemon vinaigrette. It deserves its place on modern menus beyond limited appearances in béarnaise sauce.

THE MELT IS THE SANDWICH OF THE MOMENT

The tuna melt at Palace Diner in Portland, ME and the porchetta melt at Gjusta in Los Angeles

Tuna melts and patty melts, those griddled diner staples that irresistibly ooze melted cheese, are the latest sandwiches being transformed by virtuoso chefs. In Maine I wolfed down two particularly exceptional versions of tuna melts: an open-face version at Portland’s Central Provisions that sidestepped the mayo-laden salad and instead blanketed hunks of fish in white cheddar, with a finishing confetti of chile flakes and sliced scallion. Twenty minutes south in Biddeford, Chad Conley and Gregory Mitchell, chefs and co-owners of Palace Diner, have more dramatically re-engineered the prototype: A bottom, inch-plus layer of iceberg lettuce acts almost like box springs for a mattress of dreamy tuna salad. On the other side of the country, in Oakland, Chris Kronner amps the patty melt at his restaurant Kronnerburge: He hard-sears the burger (made from a blend of dry-aged cuts) so the interior remains red, caramelizes onions in beef fat, makes his own spicy mustard, and glosses slices of sourdough with a béchamel that melds with grated cheddar as the sandwich toasts. It has the look and feel of a classic patty melt but the flavor is bigger, brasher, richer.

And my new favorite lunch as soon as I land in Los Angeles is the porchetta melt at Gjusta in Venice. The bitterness of rapini offsets the lusciousness of pork loin wrapped and roasted in pork belly; they comingle under a layer of molten fontina on a split hunk of baguette. This one more resemblance a sub sandwich than the traditional toasty melt. No matter: It’s phenomenal.

DUCK BREAST IS GETTING THE STEAK TREATMENT

Duck at Eleven Madison Park [Photo by Nick Solares]

Dry-aging is a ubiquitous practice in finer steakhouses: The process draws out moisture from a cut of beef, breaks down collagen, tenderizes the protein, and, depending on the duration of the aging, yields a flavor of intense beefiness that can eventually veer into sublime blue-cheesy funkiness. On menus, "dry-aging" communicates labor and luxury.

This year, duck seems to be getting the same kind of attention, to great effect. Fowl is less dense of a protein than beef, so aging affects duck much more quickly; the moisture reduction particularly helps the skin become crisper during roasting. Of course hunters and cooks in both hemispheres have been "hanging" ducks for centuries to improve texture and taste. In September, I enjoyed dry-aged duck breast with spiced and pickled cherries at Seattle’s Italian standard-bearer Altura, a similar cherry-spiked preparation with polenta and pickled cabbage at San Francisco’s Perbacco, and Daniel Humm, of New York’s Eleven Madison Park is the master. He likely helped popularize the dry-aged lingo for duck in 2010 when he debuted his duck for two: Hung for a couple of weeks, glazed with honey, and crusted with lavender, coriander, cumin, and Sichuan peppercorns, it remains a showstopper signature.

DINNER IS SERVED ON GRANDMA’S PLATES

The plateware at Rose's Luxury in Washington, DC

If last year belonged to stoneware and rustic ceramics, this is the year of vintage plates. On my travels I noticed a nationwide predilection for decidedly un-minimalist dinnerware. In particular plates with floral, grandmotherly patterns, and pastel-hued glassware. They’re visual nostalgia, a backwards-looking grace note at some of the country’s most forward-looking restaurants.

The kitchen at Chicago’s Big Jones, for example, may send out corn muffins on a side plate with a swirly pink border. At Maude in Los Angeles, named for chef Curtis Stone’s grandmother, soup is served gilt-edged teacups, and a custardy dessert comes in small glass-edged bowls. In Maude’s tiny, austere space, the surprise and wistfulness of Stone’s choice in dinner contributes its own sub-narrative to the evening. Mark Buley and Sam Hellman-Mass, chefs at Odd Duck in Austin, are grooving in a creative sweet spot, conjuring whammies like goat confit in red chile tumbled over a gordita, scattered with popcorn, and sauced with thinned goat cheese. They’re also obsessed with grandma plates. By racing forward with their food and nodding to the past with their dinnerware, they arrive squarely in the present.

THE SHORT, SMART WINE LIST HAS COME OF AGE

There will always be restaurants with deep, epic, important wine selections — the very souls of icons like Frasca in Boulder or Bern’s Steak House in Tampa (both on this year’s Eater 38) are in their wine cellars. More restaurants, though, are adopting the sanity of a brief but meticulously chosen wine list. The choice is often a matter of practicality as much as conceit: The owners don’t have the capital, the storage capacity, or the staff to manage a sprawling portfolio. But out of the limitation can come a succinct, curated expression of the restaurant’s philosophy. Dirt Candy in New York, for instance, offers a total of just 20 wines, including sparklers, whites, and reds — a concise tour of natural and biodynamic bottles, mostly Old World, to match Amanda Cohen’s vegetarian imaginings like grilled onion salad with fermented black bean dressing, or smoked cabbage hot pot. Olamaie in Austin, serving Southern-inspired cuisine, goes strictly American with its list of 24 bottles; there, California represents with both blockbuster producers (Schramsberg blanc de blanc, Jopeph Phelps Cab) and progressive vineyards (Matthiasson Chardonnay, Cep Pinot Noir). And tiny Petit Trois in LA offers exactly 18 wines — all French save one, a light, dry Messwein rose from a Benedictine monastery in Austria, an ideal complement to the restaurant’s exquisite bistro menu.

POSH DINING ROOMS RETURN ON A GRAND SCALE

Bill Addison

The Grey in Savannah and Antietam in Detroit

Restaurant design has spent enough time splitting its personality between the country-meets-city Americana of reclaimed woods offset by white subway tile, and a stark, steel-girder minimalism. At last, the style is beginning to swing back toward more posh, sumptuous rooms, decked in soft textiles and studded with quiet luxuries from earlier eras. Knockout spaces like The Grey in Savannah and Antietam in Detroit take their cues from the geometric patterns and saturated hues of Art Deco’s heyday. Marcel in Atlanta — with its velvet curtains, hodgepodge of prints, and curios likes light fixtures fashioned from fencing masks — evokes the erogenous chaos of 1930s cabarets. And the plush tufted-banquette and polished woods of the gentlemen’s clubs of yesteryear are being revived in various forms, notably Manhattan’s Polo Bar and the Cherry Circle Room at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. God, it feels good to sink into a plush, tufted banquette again.

Khachapuri Is About to Be a Star

Mark my words: All of America will soon know and love this carb-and-dairy joyride. It’s more than a flatbread hailing from the Republic of Georgia (full name: adjaruli khachapuri); it’s a golden barge with tapered ends that holds in its center a blend of cheeses (often mozzarella and feta), festooned just before leaving the kitchen with a raw egg and a blunt stick of butter. Atop the molten cheeses, the egg cooks and the butter melts. There are other versions — flat and circular, for example, sporting a modest layer of cheese in the middle — but none of them come close to the adjaruli for pure, ravenous glee. The best version I had this year was at Oda House in Manhattan (at the edge of Alphabet City). Friends and I stirred the butter and egg into the lava-like cheese and then swiped and swayed with pleasure until nothing remained but saturated crumbs. You can also find a decadent khachapuri at Compass Rose in Washington DC, and soon everywhere, I’m certain of it.

Enough Already

Of course, some trends overstay their welcome. Here are a few I'd be happy never to see again:

I’m ready for the burrata bubble to burst. It’s officially lost its exoticism, this sack of mozzarella filled with cream and more mozz. More often than not, the burrata is served too old and has lost its elasticity and lifeforce.

Everyone loves sushi and its distant Italian cousin, crudo, but the uncooked fish appetizer craze has gone too far. I don’t need the option of sashimi-grade yellowfin on a Persian-inspired menu.

I’m typically not one to grouse about the high cost of restaurant food: If the meat or produce looks and taste of high quality, I’m generally fine to pony up. But this year I noticed salads of simple lettuces reaching the $15 mark, and not just in New York. No matter how prestigious your purveyor, that crosses a line.

Some people hate communal tables. My concern is more specific: Could restaurants please make their communal tables not so wide? Seating a party of two across from one another is nice, but not when it's an oceanic expanse that separates us, and we literally have to shout to carry on a conversation not because it's loud, but because we're so far away from one another.

It seems increasingly fashionable for pastry chefs, particularly at the end of tasting menus, to take innocent pieces of cake, hack them into cubes, and re-arrange them on plates among artfully slung sauces. The cake usually tastes stale or mushy, and the plating often feels like a way to mask inferior baking skills.

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