Two CHOW editors on a caloric extravaganza exploring innovation, novelty, and deliciousness. RSS
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What’s Innovative About SF, LA, and NY, Part 2 (Lessley’s Take)

We’re flying home to San Francisco, and New York is still fresh in my mind (and on my shirt via crumbs from the very good flaky Turkish pastry I picked up before leaving, in Hell’s Kitchen). Compared to San Francisco and LA, not surprisingly, New York had a great deal of innovation and exciting food. And also not surprisingly, you could find any type of dining experience you could possibly want, from the best of expense-account dining (Eleven Madison Park) to riffs on hand-held ethnic street food (BaoHaus). A disproportionate number of my favorite dishes from the CHOW Tour were found in NY, but I was often more uncomfortable eating them than I would have been in another city (more standing up, less air conditioning, usually more expensive.) But I’ve been to NY in July before—I didn’t need to go on a work-sponsored tour in search of Innovation to figure that out. So now that it’s all over, what’s going on with new and interesting food and dining in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles?

East Asian food is hot, hot, hot Korean-fusion.
Anything you can put Sriracha on. Rice bowls at Chego! Everything at Momofuku. Taiwanese steamed buns at BaoHaus. Hot dogs with kimchee at the Brooklyn Flea. Grill your own meats, Korean-Japanese style, at Takashi. Ribs with fish sauce at Fatty ’Cue. San Francisco seemed a bit behind the curve on this one, probably because of our preoccupation with burritos.

Food blogging is not universally loved and encouraged.
Allowing flash photography is synonymous with encouraging food blogging, because in many restaurants, you just can’t get a good photo of the food without the flash. In San Francisco and LA, no problem. In New York? Not on your life. The blog/Twitter/Facebook universe has been hugely responsible for generating excitement about the food scene in San Francisco and LA, building food stars (Kogi/Chego!, the Starry Kitchen, Mission Street Food/Mission Chinese Food) seemingly overnight. The New York dining scene has benefited less from social media. So keep your flash off, and know that you’re going to be in the minority fiddling with your SLR in a New York restaurant.

Molecular gastronomy isn’t dead.
It just went underground. In New York, Wylie Dufresne and his compatriot, Dave Arnold at the French Culinary Institute, are still playing with lab equipment and colloids, and talking about it as “research.” But elsewhere, chefs are quietly using methods and ingredients formerly described as molecular gastronomy, too, they just aren’t making a big noise about them. Except at LA’s Bazaar, where everything that can be big is big, including the billowing clouds of liquid nitrogen coming off the bar cart.

People just want to eat stuff that’s bad for them.
As previously noted, meat is still cool (hello Animal, with your heart attack sausage gravy biscuit topped with foie gras). But what this trip has proven is that people—many, many people—just want to eat stuff you’d find at the fair: hot dogs, doughnuts, pretzels, ice cream. Casting it as gourmet, locavore, innovative, or sustainable gives people a good excuse to eat mushy, salty, fatty, and/or sweet food. Like the lobster roll appetizer at WD-50, wrapped in a smushed hot dog bun and served with a side of mini potato chips. The image that really sealed the deal for me was seeing the long lines outside all the Danny Meyer Shake Shacks in NY. Shake Shack, like In-N-Out Burger in California, is a McDonald’s for people who feel guilty eating at McDonald’s. It’s just a burger and fries in a paper bag.

Ultracasual is in.
Not breaking news, I know. The recession has made casual the new fine dining, and street food the new casual. But what’s new and interesting is the degree to which diners are willing to be unfancy, like the super-ultra-divey Chinese food restaurant covered in spider webs that’s home to Mission Chinese Food in SF, or the diner out on a desolate stretch of road in Queens that’s attracting food dorks.

Stuff coming to a restaurant near you …
Things we saw that seem destined to become widespread trends. I could go on and on, but here are a handful:

  • Seaweed: Several different kinds draped over the potato dish we loved at COI, nori in compound butter by Michael Voltaggio at the Langham, nori garnish at Momofuku.
  • Québecois Food: Judging from all the excitement about M. Wells diner, and the love being showered on the Montreal gravy-n-fries dish poutine at Animal, this cuisine’s gonna blow up.
  • Liquid Nitrogen: More chefs—maybe even home chefs, eventually—are going to use this stuff. You can get amazing textures of frozen ice creams and cocktails. And for pete’s sake, you can get a giant container of it at any welding shop!
  • Kati Rolls and Bao Buns: If they haven’t made an appearance in your city yet, just wait!
  • Stuff That’s Not Pastrami Prepared Like Pastrami: Who doesn’t love corned stuff? Why do we only eat it in delis and on St. Pat’s? We reckon this’ll change, after having pastrami pigeon by Michael Voltaggio at the Langham and corned veal tongue at Eleven Madison Park.
  • Milk: Remember when people started putting eggs on everything? I predict milk is the next egg. There’s already Milk Bar and its cereal milk soft serve, and we had a milk and honey dessert at Eleven Madison Park, where the milk was frozen in a ball from which honey oozed. With all the interest in raw milk these days, this seems destined to be the next spotlighted ingredient.