From the lofty heights of haute airplane food to the secretive confines of underground dining, our ever-shifting gastronomic landscape continues to see its share of peaks and valleys. In some cases, it finds a happy middle-ground. Consider that high-end fast food now puts foie gras on corndogs, while wine lists rub elbows with beguiling new craft cocktail line-ups. Gluten-free fare continues to spread, with some churches even offering gluten-free communion wafers! See what more the culinary year has in store.
The Next Level for Craft Cocktails
Cocktails, despite their recent surge in popularity, were in years past really just a primer for a meal but lacked the culinary stature of, say, a vintage Bordeaux. Today, however, the craft cocktail is taken to the next level by mixologists, cocktail enthusiasts, and most importantly chefs, who are pairing them with specific dishes and meals. Eleven Madison Park's tasting menu now touts "beverage pairings" instead of "wine pairings," and barman Leo Robitschek suggests complementing suckling pig with the "Repossession" made with reposado tequila, Amontillado sherry, apricot liqueur and lemon.
Chefs are also looking at cocktails as a course or culinary creation unto itself. At Grant Achatz' The Aviary in Chicago (attached to his Next Restaurant), the "Midnight Mary" melds North Shore Aquavit, fresh heirloom tomato, galangal syrup and nitrogen-frozen basil foam. The foam is presented tableside, and spooned into your smoking glass, then muddled into powder and poured with the finished cocktail. Don't try this at home!
Gluten-Free: Against the Grain
Gluten-free has become one of the world's fastest-growing diet trends, sparking a $7 billion industry. While it's estimated that only one percent of Americans actually have celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder causing intestinal damage as the result of exposure to gluten), many people claim their "gluten sensitivity" makes them feel bloated and fatigued when they eat things made with wheat, barley and rye.
No matter how you slice it, gluten-free means big bucks. Grocery store shelves bulge with more products every day, celebrities are bashing wheat, and churches are even offering gluten-free communion wafers. A growing number of restaurants offer gluten-free gastronomy, but that doesn't mean you have to deny your palate. Boston's Legal Sea Foods chain has a special gluten-free menu that lets guests splurge on a lobster bake; in New York, Richard Sandoval's Zengo features Peking duck and daikon tacos. In San Francisco, the chef of Minako Organic Japanese Restaurant tested gluten-free versions of traditional Japanese dishes to add eel, tempura and teriyaki to the menu.
Gourmet Airplane Food
Even if you're flying coach, you can still grab a first-class meal on the ground at many international airports, which are taking advantage of their captive audiences by expanding dining choices in the terminals. At New York's JFK, good steaks are easily found at Todd English's Bonfire steakhouse or the Palm Bar & Grille. In Paris, at Charles de Gaulle Airport, say "oui" to Miyou, a new gourmet fast food concept in a modern setting from chef Guy Martin of Paris' Le Grand Véfour. Los Angeles International Airport has invested $80 million into revamping its international terminal with options such as Michael Voltaggio's sandwich shop ink.sack, and — the sky's the limit — a caviar depot by Petrossian.
Snowed in at Chicago's O'Hare? Make it a fiesta! At Rick Bayless' Tortas Frontera, we recently enjoyed a delightful roasted corn and poblano chowder with cilantro crema, alongside tender Yucatan pulled pork with crunchy pickled red onions. You can also sip elegant, hand-shaken margaritas there, made with fresh lime juice and Tesoro Anejo tequila at the cozy bar overlooking the tarmac.
Savvy airport restaurateurs are also capitalizing on to-go options. At London Heathrow's Terminal 5, Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food offers dining in the handsome restaurant or a picnic option served in a Gordon Ramsay shoulder bag for in-flight dining — with choices of smoked Scottish salmon, roasted Hereford rump of beef, and an English cheese selection with quince and berries.
From Underground Dining To Pop-Ups
Both gastronauts and chefs alike have succumbed to the ephemeral thrills of the pop-up restaurant, which help push contemporary cuisine and the dining scene to new frontiers. Pop-ups are legal, and involve a guest chef preparing inventive dishes in a host restaurant with virtually no menu limits. Other for-pay dinner parties operate "underground" out of private homes, sometimes hosted by foodies or by chefs themselves. Social media like Facebook and Twitter have propelled the phenomenon.
Some young chefs cultivate a devoted following this way, while others use pop-ups to further their fame. Ludo Lefebvre cooked at L'Orangerie and Bastide before virtually abandoning the strictures of a formal restaurant to create his own popular pop-up called "LudoBites." He is now a judge/mentor on ABC-TV's The Taste.
High-End Fast Food
When we don't have time for a nine-course tasting menu, there are lots of options for "gourmet" grub on the go with star chefs getting in on some of the action. Bobby Flay sizzles up signature burgers (paired with bourbon milk shakes) at Bobby's Burger Palace. The Counter chain offers build-your-own burgers with dozens of choices for toppings, including Danish blue cheese, garlic aïoli, corn and black bean salsa, and peanut sauce.
Salad has also become more of a mainstream entrée with places like Tender Greens and Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop expanding in California, Michigan's franchise The Big Salad (which plans to roll out 200 locations in the next decade), and bigger national chains including Chop't Creative Salad Company, Tossed and Saladworks. Even Wolfgang Puck Express brings the top toque's famous Chinois chicken salad to the masses.
Formerly mundane foods like sausage and soda feel the love, too. In Los Angeles, Wurstküche dishes up exotic sausages made from buffalo, duck, crocodile, rattlesnake and pheasant, washed down by new fizzy faves like Mr. Q. Cumber soda or Fentimans Dandelion & Burdock. The most creative take on the sausage genre? Perhaps the foie gras corndog from Chicago's Bangers & Lace, made with French garlic sausage covered in brioche cornbread and served up with orange marmalade, foie gras mousse and maple butter. Let's hope this combination of high-quality and low-brow goes together better than Sandra Bullock and Jesse James!
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