As you’ve probably noted, the trend toward craft beer, small plates and house-made charcuterie is everywhere. These trends will continue, but 2015 is a year of bold flavors and a growing emphasis on nutrition. Fine dining will embrace the more casual vibe that propelled Rooster & the Till. And SideBern’s, minus its superb degustations, rises phoenix-like transformed as the Haven wine bar.
The continuation of local sourcing morphs not just from farm to table, but seed to table as the ethical food movement strives for food-worker justice. More restaurants will create signature dishes from their kitchen gardens, as well as house-made, farm-branded and artisan foodstuffs, covering the gamut from pickles to savory ice cream.
As American palates become more sophisticated and adventuresome, chefs are developing fresh fusion cuisines to reflect regional flavors (think Ulele). Pistachios are the nut of the year. England’s Pimm’s Cup No. 1 is coming back, as are shaved ice desserts. The watchword is drink local, with more craft gin and whiskey producers. And many kitchens are adopting a new focus on plant-based proteins.
More restaurants will embrace technology, using tablets to let guests order food or drinks from their table, and then pay with smartphones. Restaurants with backlogs of reservations are following the lead of Chicago’s Next, using a system where diners buy nonrefundable “tickets” like a trip to the theater. They’ll dump expensive frills and no-shows, and for less risk, with meal prices that vary by demand (early Tuesday is cheap, and 7 p.m. Saturday is prime). Farmtable Kitchen at Locale Market will offer splendid degustations with the prebooked ticket model. I can’t wait!
Interest is growing in sour over sweet, so more fermented products (yogurt, tempeh or sauerkraut) will find their way onto menus. Chefs are also experimenting with holding vegetables at precise temperatures (as if they were dry-aging meat) developing flavors in a way we haven’t experienced at restaurants before. Old-fashioned pickling and fermenting is making a comeback as restaurants explore house-crafted pickles, ethnic fusion flavors and specialty vinegars. Bitterness will balance richness the same way that citrus does, but in more sophisticated modes: bitter greens, chocolate or coffee in dishes. Clashing flavor combinations will appear on virtuoso dessert menus with sweet-salty-bitter-spicy marriages.
Kale’s ubiquitous nature seems to be fading. And under the influence of Denmark’s Noma restaurant, with new-Nordic cooks foraging under tree stumps and boulders, chefs are integrating seaweed into broths, sauces and risotto for a punch of umami and a hint of the sea. Also, look for more sweet-spicy sauces, butters, dressings, jams and jellies as chefs experiment with piquant honey brimming with spicy habanero and jalapeño.
Just when you thought the bacon fetish may have dipped, the demand for smoked and fire-roasted foods has risen. Chefs are smoking and grilling to impart new tastes, not only with proteins, but also in vegetables, butters and cocktails. Expect more guanciale, pancetta and nduja, the bold-flavored spreadable salami that’s highlighted on Ava’s wonderful charcuterie plate.
The fervor for cold-pressed juices will now include nut milks as “cold pressed,” solidifying its place as a synonym for purity and, therefore, quality. Healthy, ethical, guilt-free food to-go will gain momentum in 2015, as the 11 kitchens at Locale demonstrate. And don’t miss next week’s visit to Fresh Kitchen, an exemplar of this trend.
As inlets and tidal basins are being detoxed, oyster farmers are reseeding old beds. The Chesapeake Bay’s oyster harvest alone grew eightfold between 2006 and 2012. With oysters now affordable and widely available, sommeliers are widely sourcing crisp white wines. Herbal liqueurs are trending, too; watch for absinthe cocktails with shellfish. What once were stand-alone before or after dinner drinks, Chartreuse, maraschino, Bénédictine and absinthe, especially, are adding body and depth to inventive cocktails. All of these give rise to multiplying variations on the classic Negroni. Fresh gin and tonic variations will incorporate bitters for added flavor.
Elsewhere at the bar, brown spirits at long last have sprinted past vodka sales. Bourbon, rye and Scotch are enjoying a revitalization because drinkers want more depth and body. Plus, all the flavored vodka that surged in popularity in recent years isn’t crafted like local distilleries’ small-batch whiskies, which ride the natural-local-authentic wave in a grain-to-bottle movement.
If you ever doubted you were firmly ensconced in the 21st century, Charles Spence of England’s Oxford University has led the way in the new field of neurogastronomy, exploring how our senses cumulatively react to food, and how restaurants can profitably manipulate those senses. For example, a room with real grass and bird sounds make single malts taste grassier; red lighting and curved furnishings allow drinks to taste sweeter; and creaking floorboards, a crackling fire and a double bass provide the most pleasurable bar experience. Spence demonstrates that a pink strawberry dessert tastes 10 percent sweeter on a white plate than a black one, and even sweeter on a round plate than a square one. Who knew?