In my first year as your trusty guide to matters culinary in Washington, I’ve sampled an awful lot of meals. I took down a 24-course tasting menu at R.J. Cooper’s Rogue 24, sampled an assembly-line Vietnamese hoagie at ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, and slurped ramen after braving the grueling wait at Toki Underground.
But as I supped, I got the sense that there were certain tastes I was sampling more frequently than others. A lot more frequently. Food, they say, is fashion. And just as the runways of 2011 teemed with feather hair extensions and platform pumps, our restaurant tables were laden with short ribs and duck fat fries. I dug in with enthusiasm.
But like skinny jeans and ironic tees, some restaurant fashions have lingered far too long—persisting, right there on the plate in front of you, past the point of self-parody, if not the grocer’s sell-by date. Some got tired. Others were simply bad ideas to begin with. Either way, it’s time to start 2012 right: by foreswearing the most annoying of culinary holdovers from the old year.
To that end, I’ve polled the various pet peeves of my City Paper newsletter subscribers and my own personal dining companions in order to compile a hit list of the most puzzling, most distasteful and most overdone dining trends that need to be euthanized, for their own good, hopefully within the next 12 months.
Herewith, my New Year’s dissolutions:
10. Skid marks!
You know what I’m talking about. Those streaks of dark glop wiped across white plates like the work of some abstract expressionist saucier, probably intending to evoke brush strokes. Too often, it looks like shit stains on Hanes. Not appetizing, not even at Adour.
9. Truffle oil on everything
Adding the highfalutin’ fungus oil is an easy device for making any simple dish (French fries, mac ‘n’ cheese) instantly seem fancy—and worth the added surcharge. It’s also overused to the point of abuse. Popcorn tastes good on its own, so why must it now smell funky and cost upwards of $7 per serving? I’m looking at you, The Reef.
8. Foams, gels, and anything else that sounds like a hair product
The chef-as-mad-scientist genre has gotten absurd. Yes, the rise of molecular gastronomy has enlightened us to the technical and creative prowess of our kitchen professionals. Why, look at that—olives in liquefied and crumbly frozen form. Fascinating. Now, chef R.J. Cooper, how ’bout you just make me a sandwich or something? I’m starving over here.
7. Chef reality shows
It’s not that the TV cooking is so bad. It’s the whole whiny drama of it all. The inevitable back-stabbings and emotional breakdowns make televised cooking contests appear just as trashy as The Apprentice or even The Hills. Hey, Top Chef: Want to make your show worthy of its name? Then put our hometown cooks back to work for us.
6. Locavores gone loco
Of the top 10 “hottest restaurant menu trends” compiled for 2012 by the National Restaurant Association, four included the buzzword “local.” No big surprise there. From “locally sourced meats and grains” to “locally grown produce” to “locally produced booze” to other “hyper-local items,” urban restaurants now pimp their rural farmer neighbors like never before. I’m all for eco-consciousness in the kitchen. I’m just tired of reading menu descriptions that seem as long as a Victorian novel. Honestly, I don’t need to know the origin of every animal, mineral and vegetable on the plate. And I don’t need you, Restaurant Nora, name-dropping every honest Farmer Joe on your roster to try to justify your pricing schemes.
5. Cutesy stuff on a stick
I’ve tried the lobster corn dog at Liberty Tree. It’s precious and stylishly presented. But it’s not really a corn dog—more like a stringy-centered hush puppy. And there are better uses for lobster than suffocating it with cornmeal.
4. Steely interiors
What’s that? I can’t seem to make out what you’re saying in this modish echo chamber of metallic fixtures. It’s so loud! My unsolicited interior-design advice to prolific restaurateurs Eric and Ian Hilton, among others: Invest in some velvety curtains.
3. No-photo policies
I’m sorry if my split-second flash ruins the whole carefully orchestrated vibe of your chi-chi eatery, or briefly disrupts the awkwardly silent dinner for two at the next table. Or, worse still, presents an unprofessional portrait of your immaculate cuisine on Facebook. But, if I’m paying for the meal (and, at Rogue 24, I’m paying a lot), it’s mine, and I’m entitled to a few snapshots as souvenirs.
Need I even explain this one? Dainty shops specializing in the miniature frosted desserts now seem more common than the corner Chinese-chicken-pizza-subs carry-outs that have dominated D.C. for decades. In one notable case, a cupcakery has even adopted the traditional carry-out’s signature design feature: bulletproof glass protecting the register. Who are we fooling? The cupcake will never die. It’s the cockroach of the culinary scene. Still, Sprinkles, Crumbs, Red Velvet, and your ilk, it would be nice to find an actual full-size slice of cake every once in a while.
1. Small plates
I get it. D.C. is the birthplace of America’s tapas craze. And there are plenty of reasons for its proliferation. Diners like it because it’s good for sharing. Chefs like it because they can crank ’em in any order. Owners like it because they can charge double digits for what is essentially an appetizer. But now, every other place in town seems to think it’s Zaytinya, and it just ain’t so. The tipping point came this summer, when Toledo Lounge, of all places, emboldened by new ownership, got rid of its go-to burger and replaced it with tiny portions of goat cheese-stuffed peppers. Toledo Lounge! Thankfully, the little red-lit dive has since reneged on its small-plate strategy. Here’s to hoping that other entrée-averse operators heed the lesson.
Illustrations by Jandos Rothstein
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