As the year 2010 dawned, SlashFood's Hanna Raskin made a perplexing observation. "If there was one trend that defined the first breaths of this millennium," she wrote, "it was a general resistance to trendiness." Are you kidding me?
Over the past decade, it seems that every high-end, big-city restaurant added at least one pomegranate-laden item to its menu or devised a dish with foam. Or both.
Have we moved beyond the era of "molecular gastronomy" and pomegranate pretentiousness? Can we speak in past tense of the Foam Decade? Let's hope so. The love affair for showmanship in many restaurants has tried our patience.
Some chefs' desire to improvise has made it tricky for diners to know what kind of food they'll get. I wasn't the only one astonished to learn that the owner of Fenouil, a French brasserie in Portland, Oregon, decided to hire a new chef who actually said, "I don't dislike cooking French food, but it's never been my focus."
What's next? Will Alice Waters confess, "I don't mind using organic ingredients, but they've never been my focus"?
Over the past decade, a number of chefs have used words such as "innovative" to justify self-indulgent dishes with very mismatched ingredients. Red mullet with sausage and cherries?
As foodies, we collectively bit our tongue when we heard the Catalonian restaurant El Bulli concocted a dessert pairing pine nuts with pine cones. We rolled our eyes upon hearing that a New York City ice cream outlet planned to make a caramelized onion flavor. We tried to ignore the news that Eleven 79 in New Orleans constructed a "Leaning Tower of Lasagna" -- all 101 layers of it.
But many foodies have had enough.
There's a fine line between fun and farce. F. Scott Fitzgerald sometimes ate his meals in reverse order -- starting with dessert and ending with soup. But he didn't force others to follow this charade.
Over the past year or so, foodies have raised their voices, striking back against trend-chasing chefs who focus on the razzle-dazzle of cooking. Taste should always trump technique.
Earlier this year, food blogger John Curtas examined restaurants' growing affection for the sous vide style of cooking. "You're paying top dollar for food that's prepared the same way as Birdseye and Stouffer's!" Curtas howled.
Last year, the Chicago Tribune rightly called "foam" one of the dining scene's worst trends. "It's suds," wrote the Tribune's Christopher Borrelli. "We guess we taste the kiwi-caramel tones. Wait, no, we can't." Washingtonian magazine slapped a northern Italian restaurant for a caprese salad with buffalo-milk foam -- "it feels forced."
A visitor to the food portal Serious Eats is as over the pomegranate invasion as I am. Preeya writes that although the pomegranate is a nice fruit, "I'm getting so tired of seeing it everywhere I look!"
Even Frommer's has had enough. Instead of its typically staid and innocuous reviews, the travel guide dressed down one of New Orleans' toniest kitchens, Restaurant August: "Too much use of foam and other nouvelle gimmicks, too dainty and fussy, too many flavors and ingredients crammed on a plate ..."
To be fair, culinary spectacle is not new. It began centuries ago, long before foam-topped entrées starting showing up in restaurants. The visit by France's King Henri III to Venice in 1574 was celebrated with a bizarre meal in which 1,286 items -- everything from bread to forks -- were created out of spun sugar.
Making a dinner out of cotton candy may amuse the ranks of royalty, but it's not my idea of a meal. I hesitated to even mention this Renaissance-era dinner for fear that it might encourage the frivolous instincts of some chefs. Is it possible to make foam out of confectioner's sugar? Sadly, we may soon find out.
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