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Thursday, December 31,2009

10 worst dining trends of the past decade

By Christopher Borrelli

Decades from now, when you reflect on what dining was like during the fledgling years of the 21st century, on a good day you will picture a heartening trend toward comfort food in the wake of Sept. 11 and a well-meaning push toward locally sourced menus.

But on a bad day, when someone asks what the worst restaurant trends of that first decade were, will you be able to shut up? One restaurant type cracked: “As long as we’re not naming names, I’ll talk. Because now that you ask this, specific chefs and self-important restaurants are coming to mind.”

Then there were those who, like It Boy and New York chef David Chang, when asked to name the worst trends of the decade, simply blurted: “The Cheesecake Factory. The Kobe beef movement was stupid — it was never meant to be a burger! Sliders are stupid too. Sorry, I mean to say ‘a trio of sliders’ is stupid. What else? Walls of wine bottles as decoration. The steakhouse craze — why does there need to be more than a couple of steakhouses in any metropolitan area?” Then, when his outrage subsided, Chang made an excellent point: “Bad trends were usually good trends. They just got watered down into a really bad, overdone trend.”

Which, in a way, is precisely how Tanya Steel, the editor-in-chief of Epicurious (epicurious.com), saw the decade unfolding: “The beginning and the middle were just the height of obnoxiousness, very reminiscent of the 1980s — you call ahead for a table and they tell you ‘5:30 or 10:30’ though there are 10 empty tables at 8 p.m. There were restaurants, especially here in New York, that refused to list a phone number or have the name of the place outside. I would say the second part of the decade didn’t begin until September 2008, when the economy meant no one could afford to act like that now.”

“Worst trend?” said Tim Zagat, co-founder of the Zagat restaurant survey. “Buying wine to show off. It’s not new but it got out of hand with Wall Street types this decade. If you spend $100 on a bottle now, you’re exhibiting some degree of stupidity.”

What follows are the 10 worst restaurant trends of the decade, culled from interviews with chefs, consultants, even the owners of a food bookstore in Maine. I couldn’t include every gripe — mache, water sommeliers, organ-meat entrées, unisex bathrooms, bacon tattoos on chefs, over-flaunted kitchen burns, chefs tables (“usually they’re done as an afterthought, and it shows”) — but here’s what leaped out, in order of annoyance:

10. Fried onion blossoms — A “personal pet peeve,” said Rita Negrete, senior editor at Technomic, a food industry research firm. Oh, Rita — that is so far from personal. We like to believe the fried onion blossom could be done right — i.e., not sweaty, or greasy, without slivers of onion behind monstrous tan shells, served like county fair food on porcelain — but we haven’t seen it yet.

9. Molecular gastronomy— As Chang pointed out, not all trends start bad. That said, “few chefs know how to do (molecular gastronomy), to make food fascinating and delicious at the same time,” Steel said. “Do I see it as a trend that will last? No. As inspiration, maybe. But something feels disconnected when a chef has to buy a machine costing tens of thousands of dollars to cook. If anything, it’s ebbing and will spark a return to beautiful and simple ingredients.”

8. The $40 entrée — Not just at establishments sporting Beard awards and gravitas. At your neighborhood bistro. Enough.

7. The communal table — Said Michael Schwartz, the chef/owner of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami: the communal table “assumes people who don’t know each other want to sit together.”

6. Proudly obnoxious fast food options — Carl’s Jr.’s Big Carl burger (920 calories). Hardee’s Monster Thickburger (1,420 calories). KFC’s Double Down (bacon and cheese between fillets of fried chicken serving as bread). A dare? A brazen red-state response to blue-state delicateness? The genius was to market them not as mere meals but extensions of your civil rights.

5. Knee-jerk online reviews — Extreme Yelpers and likewise. “In particular, the opening-night blog reviewers,” said Don Lindgren, co-owner of Rabelais, a food-centric bookstore in Portland, Maine. “You can’t judge a restaurant from its opening night. It may be exciting to be there early. But to review it based on that first day is crazy and wrong.”

4. Foam — It’s suds. We guess we taste the kiwi-caramel tones. (Wait, no, we can’t.)

3. The menu as book — There is nothing wrong with “artisanal” or “local,” or “Vermont-raised,” and nothing wrong with identifying the source of the goat milk you are being served, but when menu items grow to entire paragraphs, it’s a bit much.

2. The chef as media whore — They cook, of course. They also sell shoes and star in reality shows. Sometimes they cook. Rocco DiSpirito, a middecade pan flash, is arguably the finest example. “There are celebrity chefs who manage to stay chefs and run excellent restaurants,” said Zagat, “but there are times when you wonder what a chef is supposed to be doing. TV brings people into their restaurant. But when do they find time to cook?”

1. Deconstruction — Said Joyce Goldstein, a San Francisco-based chef, cookbook author and restaurant consultant: “I do not want a poached egg on top of carbonara sauce and the pasta on the side. I don’t want the ingredients laid out before me anymore. I want a chef to show me how it is brought together. Cooking has become an intellectual thing, but it’s not a sensual thing. We have all gotten so smart about food, we are losing touch with sex appeal. Everything else is getting so exhausting — a lot of chefs saying, ‘Look at me,’ and ‘Look at this technique,’ and, next decade, I would prefer not to look at them for a while.”

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune.

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