At Wildair on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a blizzard of grated smoked cheddar, horseradish, and shaved nuts obscures a jagged circle of beef tartare dotted with parsley sprigs; the effect resembles the first green stems sprouting across winter scenery.
Ten blocks away at Estela, chef Ignacio Mattos’ most famous creation is a moody moonscape of ricotta dumplings overlaid with thin coins of button mushrooms. At Parachute in Chicago, an emerald disc of chopped broccoli conceals dates and pistachios and carries the sweet perfume of North African ras el hanout. Broccoli has shown up at Trois Mec in Los Angeles as charred spears brightening a desert-colored vista of smoked peanut butter, cubed beef cap, and sandy bits of fried shallot.
The aesthetic they share is painterly: layered but not towering, polychromatic, and, ingredient-wise, often as rich in flora as it is in fauna. Dishes are rendered as pretty, geometric, often artistically chaotic landscapes. It isn’t as glaring an aesthetic development as some earlier fads, like the architectural “tall food” and East-West fusion that ruled the 1990s. But in its subtler elegance, what’s happening now is just as significant.
I nicknamed this style the “layered look” in a piece on trend-spotting a couple years back, specifically citing Estela’s Mattos and Trois Mec’s Ludo Lefebvre as innovators. In the same story, I also noted a heightened use of edible flowers — varieties like citrus begonias and oxalis that play stronger visual and flavoring roles than the micro-greens of yore. As I near-constantly travel the country for Eater, this trend has evolved into more than a trend: It’s the culinary ethos of this era. A defining ethos deserves a more sweeping moniker. “The layered look” just won’t cut it. Let’s call it New Romanticism.
Sure, such a formal name might sound rather high-minded, but I put forward that it’s exactly what we’re seeing: This recent culinary direction distinctly recalls the artistic and cultural tenets of nineteenth-century Romanticism. That aesthetic movement emphasized, to quote its strikingly poetic entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica, “the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental.” This is what we’re seeing on the plate: presentations that convey both precision and feeling, a central reverence for nature, and a love of beauty in service of a truly pleasurable experience, rather than mere showmanship.
During a dinner at Staplehouse in Atlanta, where I live, my editor Helen Rosner and I discussed this definition while marveling at (and then devouring) the gorgeous examples of the form that arrived at our table from executive chef Ryan Smith’s open kitchen. For a dish ambiguously described on the menu as “cabbage, fermented shrimp, sake bushi,” Smith poached cabbage leaves in butter for two hours until they melted into soft paisleys. “Sake bushi” is his variation on katsuobushi, Japanese bonito flakes; he makes it using trout or salmon that he grinds, cures, smokes, and ages into a dense block. Smith shaves the preserved fish in pink flurries over the cabbage leaves, which sit atop pools of chive oil and a pale orange sauce rendered from fermented shrimp. When it arrived at our table, the colors blazed and bled like a sunset painted by J.M.W. Turner.
As we mused our way through our meal, Helen and I — with our mutual penchant for puns — considered whether the movement we were discussing ought to be called bromanticism. We wanted to distinguish the intense artistry of what’s happening in these restaurants from that other edible flower-garnished culinary movement gaining steam right now, similarly beautiful on the plate but prioritizing matters of health and wellness rather than pure flavor. Helen calls this category “Princess Food,” and describes it as “cardamom and fairy dust and cashew milk” — in contrast, what’s happening at places like Staplehouse and Parachute is chicken livers, stinging nettles, horseradish, smoke, fire. But giving this movement a “bro” label, even a clever one, would be incorrect. This aesthetic isn’t gender-specific — though I do believe it’s a reaction to the meat-dazed, burger-as-dare, put-some-foie-on-it hyper-masculine trends that bulldozed through the last decade.
New Romanticism didn’t materialize out of nowhere. The emphasis on greenery calls to mind the fascination with foraging touched off by modern Nordic cooking, Rene Redzepi’s Noma philosophy in particular. The freeform whimsy hearkens to Bistronomie, the stripped-down approach to French cooking that reshaped Parisian cooking over the last decade. The delight in textures and diversity of ingredients essentially equate to more luxurious versions of the grain bowls we’re all mad for. And it leaves plenty of room for individuality. Iliana Regan, of Elizabeth and Kitsune in Chicago, expresses the métier by favoring circles and a calming sense of order. Trois Mec’s Lefebvre, with his predilection for ensnarling ingredients and completing dishes with a pummeling of spices or dried or fried bits, conjures a tempestuousness in line with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
In the food of both chefs, though, there is a directness of flavor, a dedication to the basic goodness of the craft of cooking. New Romanticism satisfies a chef’s urges for intellectual innovation, but it also allows her the emotional space to cook from the heart. It’s the opposite of the faux-haphazard squiggles and dots from the squeeze-bottle 1970s and 1980s, or the intellectually detached deconstructionism of the El Bulli-inspired modernists. It channels a more deliberate visual impulse than wood-grilled rusticism, or comfort food upscalification.
In other words, it feels organic and accurate to this moment in America’s culinary evolution. I have a feeling we’ll see more of these odes to nature’s power, these prismatic landscapes on dinner plates, everywhere in the next couple of years. In the hands of the best chefs, their flavors will thrill as much as their appearance. The restaurants nurturing this style are some of the most creatively energized places to eat in the country right now; it’ll be fascinating to see how the style changes and flourishes. And when we see a New Romantic burger at McDonald’s, refashioned into tartare and craftily arrayed with torn shreds of lettuce and pickle slices, we’ll know the era has run its course.