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Backstory. In the early ’70s, when Alice Waters decided that it was essential to show her diners at Chez Panisse the connection between farm and plate, the practice of delivering the backstory of each dish helped to launch a revolution in food. A generation later, it has become the tic of ambitious chefs everywhere—a strutting display of one’s sources, minus the emphasis on sustainability and locality. What does the diner in Seattle know of Happy Mountain Valley Ranch in upstate New York? Likewise, the exhaustive listing of every single ingredient in a dish is often as laughable as it is enlightening. I once ordered a rack of lamb at a prominent D.C. restaurant because I was intrigued by the inclusion of fried artichoke. Alas, I couldn’t find it. I passed the plate to my wife, who plucked a papery shred from the edge of the pooled wine reduction. “Does this look like artichoke to you?” she asked. It didn’t—it looked like a pencil shaving. I snatched it from her fingers and bit in. I still couldn’t tell. My wife waved over the waiter, who confirmed that it was, in fact, the artichoke as billed.
Candy Sendoffs. From the paper cones of caramel corn at Ceiba to the homemade lollipops at Komi, plugged-in chefs are ditching the petits fours that have traditionally brought an evening of fine dining to a sweet, civilizing end. Instead, they are sending their customers home with the sort of junk-food goodies that are guaranteed to bring smiles to the faces of even the most cynical Boomers and Gen-Xers—nostalgic treats in the same shrewd commercial vein as big-box reissues and old-skool sneakers.
Carpaccio. In the absence of stellar product—namely, thinly shaved, beautifully aged and marbled beef that delivers some of the full-throttle savor of a good, bloody steak—“carpaccio” might as well be Italian for “lunchmeat.” (If you don’t mind eating deli at deluxified prices, be my guest. You probably also don’t mind eating bad french fries so long as they’re called frites.) As disappointing as most beef carpaccio is, it’s got nothing on the beet carpaccio, in which savvy restaurateurs slice up half of a simple roasted beet and pass it off to the diner as a delicate expression of summer.
Charcuterie. There is good charcuterie, sure, but you’re going to have to pony up the, um, bacon to get it. Otherwise, you’re more likely to be whiling away the night at some corner bistro with a plate of sliced meats that, for all their purported curing and smoking and spicing, hold only slightly more interest than—well, a plate of lunchmeat.
Kobe Beef. This delicacy, though frequently invoked on the menus of upscale restaurants, is rarely in evidence. Order Kobe beef and what is more likely to turn up at the table is Wagyu— “American Kobe.” Wagyu is tasty free-range beef, but it lacks the lush richness of true Kobe, the super-marbled flesh of Japanese-bred cows that have been fed sake mash and given frequent massages. Most chefs, when pressed, will tell you that the reason they don’t serve actual Kobe is because of the prohibitive cost of the beef. See, it only sounds like beef-and-switch—it’s actually saving them and you money. At least with “Texas caviar,” you know you’re getting beans.
The Neighborhood Restaurant. Nowadays every new restaurant wants to be regarded as a neighborhood restaurant, and why not? The term is suggestive of community, mutuality of purpose, and, in this era of virtual connectivity, the possibility of a legitimate, lasting connection. But restaurants would do well to remember that it’s the neighborhood that adopts the restaurant, not the other way around. Plopping a communal table in the center of the dining room? Purely gestural. A relationship can’t be forced; it has to happen at its own pace. Good food and good service can help things along, but a neighborhood restaurant is so much more than the sum of those parts. Put it another way: You don’t create a Fenway Park; you build a ballpark and hope that it one day becomes as vital, as lovable to the community as a Fenway Park. Character and personality can’t be imposed from outside, though God bless all those earnest urban revivalists for trying.
Seviche. This bracing cocktail can be a brilliant showcase for quality fish or seafood. However, with its inclusion on countless New American menus around town, it now seems to serve the same catchall function as soup—only without the labor-intensive ness that goes into constructing a broth from scratch. Soak the unlovely ends of the catch of the day in a little citrus, spoon the marinated bits into a martini glass, and voilà!—a clever, pricey piece of thrift.
Tartlets. How is it that comfort food shows no signs of dying out, yet outside the South and Midwest you’re as likely to find a piece of pie at an upscale restaurant as you are a mutton chop? Don’t get me wrong: The evolution of dessert is a wonderful thing, and I’m thrilled that pastry chefs are seizing their new freedom. But this experimentalism has resulted in a concomitant reluctance among them to turn out something as undazzling as mere pie. Perhaps someday they will feel relaxed and confident enough to try their expert hands at this diner staple. For now, we have tartlets. Which is to say: Pie that’s not pie. Pie that refuses to be pie.
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Mark Kornell.