At the buzziest new restaurant in Los Angeles, one of the early standouts is a pink bowl filled with rice porridge and a painter’s palette of earth-tone toppings. Ruptured by the side of my spoon, the onsen egg spilled yellow across the nubby surface, and a stir of XO sauce added savory fire to a comforting bite, a perfect antidote for the chill in the air on the restaurant’s opening night.
This is chef Mei Lin’s congee, already a menu staple at her weeks-old solo debut Nightshade. LA diners have been waiting for it for a long time, and they are ordering it in droves.
Congee, a staple porridge dish in many Asian cultures, is not new — and porridge is too cross-culturally ubiquitous to ever be a “trend.” But as more chefs add versions of congee and other grain porridges to their menus, there’s never been a better time to order a bowl.
“People want it, that’s for sure,” says Lin, noting that a bowl goes out to nearly every table. “I think people want to try it here because I won with it on Top Chef, so they see me and congee being synonymous with each other. When they come to the restaurant, they want to see if it’s worth the hype.”
For the Eater Young Gun (’14), adding congee to the menu was a given. Her goal at Nightshade is to serve “food I grew up eating, but presented in a different way,” whether that’s mapo tofu reimagined as lasagna or a bloomin’ onion with tom yum seasoning and coconut ranch for dipping. Congee, she says, is “part of who I am as a chef.” Where a homemade congee might have once been a way to use the broken and bottom-of-the-bag rice, at Nightshade, Lin and her team use fresh koshihikari rice grown by LA sushi legend Mori Onedero, which has a high moisture content (good for porridge making) and must be kept refrigerated to prevent mold. “The rice grains are perfect little jewels, it’s so luxurious to use them for congee.” In the rendition pictured above, her so-called OG congee, she adds an XO sauce made with expensive ingredients like prosciutto and Chinese baby anchovies as well as a labor-intensive pork floss.
“Congee is a blank canvas,” says Lin (actually, every chef I spoke to for this piece used the word “canvas”). “You can do whatever you want with it.” Which is perhaps why it seems like congee and grain porridges are filling a space on menus that might have been filled by pasta only a few years ago: A base upon which a chef can riff and make a case for their unique culinary vision, where the canvas itself can tell as much a story as the paint does.
At A Rake’s Progress in D.C., hyper-localist chef Spike Gjerde’s “various grain congee” speaks to his relatively newfound ability to serve rice at all. “Rice is something special for us — it’s expensive, we don’t get a lot of it, since we only use rice grown here [in the Mid-Atlantic],” he says. He combines locally grown rice with other grains like millet, rye, barley, sorghum grain, and hulled buckwheat. Gjerde likes how serving a porridge connects to regional classics like grits or even simple oatmeal. “I do like exploring these traditions in the context of our ingredients and there’s a spark of recognition but not making a claim on being traditional or quote-unquote authentic.” The toppings use “the whole range” of the Rake’s kitchen, from vegetables prepared on the restaurant’s large hearth to fish-pepper honey that spotlights one of Gjerde’s favorite heat-builders, a locally available workaround for black pepper. “For us, porridge is delicious, and there’s flexibility in the range — it can even go to sweet, which we’ve had fun with.” (Over in Seattle, award-winning chef Edouardo Jordan is serving sweet porridge as the only item on the permanent dessert menu at his newest restaurant, Lucinda Grain Bar.)
At Jimmy Ly’s two Madame Vo restaurants in New York City, he aims to “showcase the different flavors of Vietnamese food with high quality ingredients” — to “make a difference” in how Vietnamese food is perceived by New York City diners. At his latest restaurant, Madame Vo BBQ, Ly turned to congee as the final course in his take on beef seven ways. He uses fragrant jasmine rice and tops the bowl off with braised oxtail and brown-butter fish sauce. “It’s our showstopper,” he says. “People are saying they’d come back just for that, and they can order it a la carte.” It’s an extravagant dish for a restaurant that’s asserting itself as an option for a big night on the town — a niche not typically open to Vietnamese restaurants in New York at all.
If there’s any single restaurant delivering the hard sell for porridge right now it’s the aptly named Porridge and Puffs in Los Angeles. At the months-old brick-and-mortar evolution of the longtime pop-up of the same name, chef Minh Phan’s bowls have been praised by everyone from the late Jonathan Gold to new arrival Tejal Rao. “Ten to 20 years ago I would not have been able to convince anyone that their main entree would be porridge,” she says. “I finally have succeeded in opening a restaurant where meat is not the center; grains and vegetables are the center.”
For Phan, calling her bowls porridges and not congee was also a considered decision: “I call it porridges because it’s more flexible, I think when you call it ‘congee’ it’s a different thing.” Phan uses California-grown rice from Koda Farms, and cycles through toppings with the aim of activating anything that could potentially go to waste in her kitchen, whether citrus peels or animal bits. To her, porridges reflect pantries: Her porridges are Californian — both in the products that comprise it and in her insistence on acidity — but they are also “very Asian.” “It might not have a different texture than a risotto, but I’m using ginger, soy, and my stock.”
Since porridges rely heavily on a restaurant’s pantry when it comes to flavor-building, it’s no wonder that so many chefs have found it a perfect vehicle for showing diners exactly what their restaurants are about. As Phan puts it, “It’s like a sandwich or a pasta: It’s really versatile. How do you make it your own?”
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor.