Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My crystal ball has some static

Call me old-fashioned, but there’s something perverse about running Christmas commercials during World Series broadcasts. Marketers are so determined to get a jump on the all-important sales season that we can only hope they’re flogging gift ideas for this year’s holidays, not 2010’s.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the year-end prognosticators are breaking out the tea leaves and animal entrails a bit earlier this year. It’s only Dec. 1, but at least seven lists of next year’s restaurant trends have already been divined and released by wise seers.

They vary greatly, to a degree I intend to explore here when the forecast tally climbs to 10, or probably sometime tomorrow morning. But suffice it to say we’re heading into a year where restaurants will simplify their menus, use more animal innards, and hawk fried chicken the way they ballyhooed sliders in 2009. Yes, fried chicken is widely expected to be the next pork belly, or the new bacon, depending on which forecast you read.

What surprises me on first flush is how few noted the two trends that will certainly be on my predictions list, which is on the to-do list right after “Finish leftover cranberry sauce.” Perhaps that’s because they’re not really great leaps from what was happening in ’09.

Chefs and restaurants at all price levels will continue to showcase burgers, to be sure. But, as a colleague from Restuarants & Institutions noted in a recent Twitter posting, tacos are replacing burgers as the low cost/high flavor item that’s being taken up by fine-dining chefs. Rick Bayless is featuring them at Xoco, Paul Kahan is showcasing his riff at Big Star, and today brought news that Traci Des Jardins will extend her early lead in the taqueria wave by opening a second Mijita in San Francisco.

The other prediction is more of a stretch, though there is some evidence to support my supposition. I think we’re going to see the opening next year of what, for lack of a better term, I’m calling whim restaurants—places were chefs can forego a set menu and instead indulge their creativity with whatever’s seasonably available and they feel like cooking. It’s sort of like being invited over to their home for dinner.

It’s exactly what Thomas Keller is doing to great effect at his Ad Hoc in the Napa Valley, or close to what Tom Colicchio has attempted with Tom: Tuesday Dinner, one of the more creative responses we saw last year to the economic freefall. When private-room bookings tanked at Colicchio’s Craft in New York City, the chef turned one of his function spaces in a restaurant-within-a-restaurant twice a month that he called Tom: Tuesday Dinner. The hook was that he’d plan the dinner and cook it himself while you watched, just as you might at the home of a friend. Except in considerably posh surroundings, with a polished staff waiting on you.

Tom: Tuesday Dinner was only open on two non-successive Tuesdays per month. Today Colicchio told Eater NY that he plans to open a restaurant next year that will use the same approach as the limited-time Tom: Tuesday. He suggested that the menu might not change nightly, a result of what he learned with Tuesday Dinner. He explained to Eater that he and his staff needed some time to master each dinner roster. Yet it was all for naught because then the menu would change. So they decided to stay with a menu for at least two successive Tuesday sessions, he recounted.

It remains to be seen if other chefs follow those two kitchen gods in developing concepts where they can indulge their creativity as the spirit moves them.

Fortunately, with probably a few dozen more forecasts to go, we may get an indication as to whether it will happen in 2010.


Peter Romeo said...

More on whim restaurants, this time from Michael Bauer, the insightful critic and blogger for the San Francisco Chronicle: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/mbauer/detail?blogid=26&entry_id=52755

Peter Romeo said...

And yet another example of a whim restaurant, though the proponent has dubbed his a guerilla restaurant: http://eatsblog.dallasnews.com/archives/2009/12/smoke-team-to-launch-guerilla.html