2014 Dining Trends

What did Stone Age man eat? Horse and wild honey, according to cave paintings. What are we eating today? Vegan and gluten-free, smalls and mains and magic-bullet foods like kale and goji berries.

What we eat, where, when and why, tells us a lot about the era we live in—as food does in any era. And what goes around often comes around again; just look at the farm-to-table movement. Hot trends from cool little trendlets grow. It’s fun to track them, think about what they mean and, best of all, enjoy them because at the moment, there’re a lot to enjoy.

More Than a Spectator Sport
You don’t need to go to the CIA (we’re talking Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park) or Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island to take cooking lessons from a professional chef. You might not have to go farther than your favorite restaurant now that some of Connecticut’s finest chefs are teaching cooking classes for increasingly food-savvy home cooks. Chef Christopher Eddy cooks from the kitchen garden he created for Winvian. Large, lush and entirely organic, the garden supplies most of the fresh ingredients for the four-star meals he prepares for this Relais & Chateaux resort in Morris. At Winvian he teaches hotel guests and visitors how he does it. His curriculum includes soup, fish, meat and pasta classes. In the works: pastry classes.

Chef Christopher Prosperi, whose Metro Bis restaurant in Simsbury recently ranked among the top five American restaurants in the state according to Zagat, teaches classes and demonstrates bistro cooking at venues ranging from the Epcot Food & Wine Festival at Walt Disney World in Florida to the Scottsdale Culinary Festival in Arizona. But he still finds time to teach regular cooking classes right here in Connecticut. His most popular classes are Thai food and sushi. Coming up, by popular demand, “All things Bacon.” (What’s next? “Crockpots.”)

Carole Peck, chef, cookbook author and owner of the celebrated Good News Cafe in Woodbury, regularly gives classes at The Silo Cooking School in New Milford. But for fans with wanderlust, she has an exciting alternative: Cook with Peck in her own kitchen in Montfrin, a charming Medieval village in the Langue­doc-Roussillon region in the South of France. Peck and her husband, Bernard Jarrier, have a charming home there that they use as a base for culinary tours and cooking classes. The 2014 schedule: June 9-15, Sept. 22-28 and Oct. 6 to 12.  
 

In From the Fringe

Once a niche market, healthy eating is not only hot, it’s haute, with First Lady Michelle Obama championing the cause, restaurant chains like Chipotle hopping on the farm-to-fork bandwagon and four-star restaurants leading the parade. Millwright’s in Simsbury features stunning dishes like pickled beets with chartreuse yogurt, apple, puffed quinoa and arugula, and roast cauliflower “steak” with grains, turnip purée and black currant. And who’d gave guessed that one day we’d see black bean burgers (at right) and grilled organic tofu on the menu at West Street Grill in Litchfield? Chef-owner James O’Shea himself recently went vegan.

Which brings us to . . .
 

Magic Bullets
We keep looking for them, the super-foods, the nutritional blockbusters that will supply all our vitamin and mineral needs, strengthen our bodies, sharpen our minds, protect us from future maladies and maybe mitigate, if not undo, the damage done by last night’s chocolate lava cake à la mode. Then we learn that chocolate is good because it has antioxidants in it. Conflicting reports keep coming in, and we keep chasing after the fountain of youth in vegetable or fruit form. Goji berries had their 15 minutes of fame. Used in Chinese medicine for a thousand years, their claims were hard to resist: Highest concentration of protein of any fruit, high in fiber, calcium, selenium and zinc, antioxidant and anti-fungal. But reports of adverse affects from high levels of pesticides used in China and Tibet, where gojis are grown, put a damper on enthusiasm. Goodbye, goji. Hello, blueberries. We didn’t know you had so many health benefits. Now that we do, we’re eating them cooked, raw, in muffins, in desserts. Where to find them? Everywhere.

Then along came kale, which we’re told supplies 200 percent of our vitamin C needs, 180 percent of our vitamin K needs along with all manner of anti-aging agents. How come we haven’t been gobbling up this miracle veggie before now? Because we hated it! Its bitter flavor and tough leaves were just too hard to love. But enterprising restaurant chefs soon fixed that, glamorizing this ugly duckling of the cabbage family so effectively that it began to be seen everywhere. (The New York Times dubbed it the official vegetable of Brooklyn.) West Street Grill serves a chopped kale salad made with cranberries, goat cheese, Granny Smith apples in a balsamic vinaigrette. Six Main in Chester tosses it with avocado, celery, red peppercorns, walnuts and pear. Whole Foods Markets now sell bags of Tasty Kale chips (invented by a couple of guys in Woodbridge) in five flavors, crisp and addictive as potato chips, but because the kale (grown in Connecticut) is dehydrated, not fried, we munch without guilt—and get all those health benefits.  

Lentils have been around forever but demand for them is increasing: lentils and other legumes make an excellent protein source for today’s growing numbers of vegetarian and vegan diners. Another ancient edible, Greek yogurt, has been rediscovered, and frozen-yogurt places have sprouted everywhere, with a Pinkberry or its like in every town. (Though the big draw here is a candy store’s worth of toppings ranging from Heath Bar chunks to buttered pecans and mango chips. )

Juice Bars are style-page news. Runway models are juicing for days before the show. Baristas are competing to invent the most efficacious concoction. Papaya, tofu, lentils and pumpkin seed—with a dash of bitters? I made that one up but it’s got to be dynamite.
 

Counter Culture
I like to think that Arturo Franco-Camacho started it, wielding his pots and pans behind a communal counter at Roomba, the enchanting grottolike restaurant he and his wife, Suzette, created years ago in the basement of a brick building on Chapel Street in New Haven. Of course, people have always liked hanging out in bars where the snacks were good enough to make a meal. But Roomba was different. It wasn’t about the liquor, it was about the exciting Nuevo Latino food, and the conviviality, with the chef entering in. But whether or not chef Camacho had anything to do with it, sitting at a counter watching chefs do their thing is currently a cool thing to do.

Westport’s Tarry Lodge has carrera marble-topped bar with a prime view of pizza makers whirling the dough, topping it and sliding the finished creation into the wood-burning Mugnaini oven. At Elm in New Canaan, guests can sit at a counter facing an elegant state-of-the-art kitchen where chef Brian Lewis performs culinary magic and reveals tricks of the trade. The counter seating at David  Burke  Prime at Foxwoods Casino & Resort puts diners where the action is, in the swinging bar. At The Mill at   2T, an intimate seven-table restaurant in Simsbury, the most coveted seats are at a counter in front of the stove, so close to chef Ryan Jones that he could (and sometimes does) toss you a tidbit of whatever he’s preparing. It’s sort of like eating in the kitchen at a friend’s house.
 

Family Dining
Eating out with the kids is so in, home dining rooms may be an endangered species. But togetherness counts and restaurants have the message. River Tavern in Chester offers family dinner on Sundays when kids dine free. At East Side Restaurant in New Britain, a children’s menu offers entrées that come with vegetables and a choice of French fries, mashed potatoes or potato pancakes—plus beverage and dessert—for $7.95. Entrées include roast turkey, chicken nuggets and German pot roast. Beverages range from chocolate milk to Shirley Temples, with sundaes, sherbet and Jell-o for dessert.

Italian and Asian restaurants also love families, and the feeling is mutual. Is sushi the new pizza? Maybe not yet. But whatever’s on the plate, count on seeing more and more families dining out together. How nice is that?
 

Vive le French Bistro
French is toast, the pundits declared, and the stuffy formal French fare laden with rich heavy sauces they were talking about is indeed out of style. But the appeal of simple, fresh, deeply satisfying French bistro food—moules, escargots, duck confit, steak frites, coq au vin—served in a warm, friendly setting shows no sign of abating. Hip, hot, lively and loud with a Paris-now vibe, these new bistros are a whole new breed.

Two of the coolest of these jeunes enfants, i.e., new kids on the block, are less than three months old: Rouge Brasserie & Oyster Bar in Greenwich and A Vert Brasserie in West Hartford. Rouge, tall, dark and handsome with a row of ruby-colored blown glass “lillies” over the bar, proffers a carefully curated menu of bistro favorites boldly seasoned and sometimes whimsically presented (see “fish eggs and chips”). A Vert, with a lively zinc bar and a dining room filled with booths and cozy nooks, blows us away with the deliciousness of the food, classic French bistro cuisine prepared with talent and passion by David Borselle, who’s cooked at four-star restaurants Union League and Bar Bouchée) and Dorjan Puka, who owns Treva (spell it backward) around the corner.

Earlier in the year, Westport welcomed back Eric Sierra, who’d helmed the beloved Bistro des Amis in town years before. His new place, Rive Bistro, with a wonderful location on the Saugatuck River, is a whole new boules game with state-of-the-art lighting and au courant fare. Meanwhile, Le Penguin, which replaced long-reigning Restaurant Jean-Louis, has become the gotta-go-to place for bistro food and fun in Greenwich.
 

Designer Doggie Bags
Doggie bags are putting on the dog, often so stylishly that hip fashionistas repurpose them as tote bags. Acqua, Mediterraneo, Soleil and Terra restaurants acknowledge their family connection with a tall pale gray bag listing each restaurant along with a bright yellow symbol—a fish, the sun, an urn of flowers. The Willows at Bristol’s DoubleTree by Hilton sends desserts home in a chocolate-brown box inscribed “just say mmmm.” But the most tastefully gorgeous take-away package I’ve encountered is Thomas Henkelmann’s shiny square fold-out bag striped magenta and scarlet with a moss green braided handle and a monogram heavily embossed in gold. The Greenwich address of the restaurant is discreetly printed inside—in gold, of course. The Tiffany of take-out bags. You could take it anywhere. And I plan to.  
 

Private Rooms
You’re in Barcelona, Genoa, Paris. A friend there invites you to meet his family and friends for dinner at his favorite restaurant. You take a taxi to the address, and think you or the driver has made a mistake. It’s a tiny bar, but when you say your friend’s name a genial host leads you through an inconspicuous side door into a private dining room with a table set for 10.

Now it’s catching on, this idea of booking a private room in a popular restaurant, not only for special occasions but whenever you need a quiet place for a get-together with family, friends or business colleagues. Maybe that’s because so many hip restaurants are so noisy. Or because so many of us would like to entertain at home but don’t have time to cook. Maybe it’s just that some of these private dining rooms are so captivating it’s love at first sight. One look and I’m dreaming up guest lists.

Options range from the cushy banquettes in oversize alcoves adjoining Rooftop 120’s spectacular four-seasons rooftop bar in Glastonbury to the Cave Room at Geron­imo Tequila Bar & Southwest Grill in New Haven, a raffish grotto with brick walls, a cedar ceiling, its own bar and dinner seating for up to 35. In Seymour, Tavern  1757 offers private dining in a sleek new wine cellar with seating for 20 at a handcrafted cherrywood table positioned on a rectangle of polished black marble.

The rule is getting to be if you don’t have a private dining room, create one. When Chris Prosperi moved Metro Bis into Simsbury 1820 House recently, he put the main dining room on the first floor and transformed the downstairs dining area into charming banquet rooms for small and large parties. When Rive Bstro in Westport opened without a private dining room, its owners quickly saw the need and reconfigured the attic to create two large rooms with sweeping river views.

The new Capital  Grille in Hartford has three private rooms that seat 12, 20 and 24, plus a covered patio for 30.

But for Old World elegance, it’s hard to beat Valbella in Greenwich where, for a price, you can dine in a beautifully furnished wine cellar at a heated granite table in front of the fireplace or in an elegant wine room at a table meticulously set with silver, china and crystal stemware surrounded by carved mahogany wine racks housing selections from the restaurant’s 1,600-bottle collection of international vintages. Shall we have a Methuselah Richebourg 1996 for $22,000? Perhaps something a bit more modest? A Benziger Chardonnay 2007 for $60. How festive it all is. Let’s party!

 

2014 Dining Trends

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