Here's an idea for a great new "reality" program: Take a group of malleable--in other words, trendy--people and tell them to find an upscale restaurant in Dallas that shuns crème brûlée. Survivors will next scour Oak Lawn, Knox-Henderson and West Village in search of a place without a martini menu. Finally, the remaining contestants face the dreaded scramble to locate a calamari-free establishment.
The show easily could run for months.
Our working title for this program is The Burning Question Crew's Great New Reality Series Idea That We'll Happily Sell to a Network for Beer Money, although we expect that to change once it goes into production.
Perhaps no one has picked up on this, but Dallas is a tad image-conscious. This idolatrous mentality affects everything from the cars we lease to the restaurant menus we peruse. Thus certain dishes saturate the market. Establishments serving European, New American or fusion cuisine offer an array of menu items that vary only in the degree of bastardization or menu verbiage, which conjures up the old too-much-of-a-good-thing quandary. Or, to put it in Burning Question terms: Which dishes have been beaten to death?
"The most famous would be crème brûlée," says Avner Samuel, executive chef at Lombardi Mare. He claims to have lifted the custard dish with the caramelized lid from Wolfgang Puck during a stint at Spago and introduced it to Dallas upon his return to The Mansion. "Within two or three months, it was across the entire city," Samuel recalls. "They make different flavors, and under every one it says 'best in Dallas,' 'best in Dallas,' 'best in Dallas.' Today, instead of one crème brûlée, I serve three." A dish that captures the public imagination and spreads throughout the restaurant community expands inexorably toward a good beating. In order to distinguish his or her crème brûlée from one served at another establishment, a chef must tinker with the recipe, adding coffee or raspberry or whatever. "How many ways do we do crème brûlée?" ponders Kent Rathbun, executive chef of Abacus. "And it's still a best seller." He estimates that the dish accounts for 40 percent of the restaurant's dessert sales.
Beaten to death, in other words, implies a level of popularity. "I equate it to me having strip steak on the menu just because you have to have steak on the menu," Rathbun continues. "It's not too creative and motivating to work with steak. For a pastry chef, crème brûlée is like that. It's just vanilla custard with sugar on top." Steak, of course, is a staple item immune from our categorization because of longevity, food pyramids and such. A dish achieves beaten status when it emerges suddenly on the scene and shortly thereafter appears in various forms on menu after menu after menu, without a corresponding drop in popularity.
"Some of them are on my menu," admits James Neel, chef-owner of Tramontana and Bistro Latino, "but people want certain things."
Chris Svalesen, chef at Thirty-Six Degrees, considers anything ending in "cake" beaten beyond recognition: crab cakes, lobster cakes, shrimp cakes...perhaps even pancakes. He likens the cake suffix proliferation to the blackened trend a decade ago. "The blackened stuff just got out of hand," he recalls. "Nine or 10 things on each menu would be blackened." Indeed, the style became so popular that McCormick, the spice company, sought to create mass-produced blackening spices--completing the testing process just as the trend died.
Critics blame chefs for over-replicating trendy cuisine, effectively belittling the dish before it has a chance to develop into a staple item. "The whole Asian fusion thing is getting tiresome," says Nancy Nichols, senior editor of D magazine, revealing the wearying effects of market saturation. "It's time to move on to something new." Southwestern cuisine is another oft-cited example, victimized by a dependence on spicy flavors and kitschy interiors as establishments veered away from authenticity in order to stand apart from the competition.
"If you do something well, everyone tries to copy it," Samuel says with a shrug. "You then go away from the original, but the original is better than all of the others combined."
Others accuse the media, particularly Bon Appétit magazine and television chefs (sadly overlooking the vast influence of the Burning Question crew), of fostering trends. Demographic shifts also influence menus. Northerners moving into the Southwest demand familiar flavors, for example.
Whatever the cause, chefs must consider popular items when organizing dishes. "We have a moral obligation to put them on the menu," explains Marc Cassel, executive chef of the Green Room. "We're guilty of that." Thus items like crème brûlée or spring rolls appear everywhere, and chefs seem resigned to the phenomenon. "You can do tuna a zillion different ways," says Garreth Dickey, executive chef of Jeroboam, "but everywhere I see it, it's seared and served with some soy-wasabi mixture." Yet in a recent survey, more than 70 percent of restaurants with average tabs of at least $25 reported an increase in seafood sales. Calamari is driving an appetizer craze. At the beginning of the 1990s, only 87 percent of restaurant menus included appetizers. By the end of the decade, more than 95 percent listed small plates, partly as the result of fried-squid mania. "I serve a billion pounds of it a week," says Svalesen, who apparently uses the services of Arthur Andersen. And it seems every place upscale from McDonald's serves the stuff.
"When Friday's starts serving it, it's overdone," Neel says with a chuckle. "But it makes ours taste better."
Other foods beaten to death range from flavored mashed potatoes to molten chocolate cake. "Caesar salad's been FUBAR'd so many times," Cassel adds. "It gets abused a lot." Nichols points out the preponderance of "anything in a martini glass, even martinis." Weerayut Utedpornratanakul--for some reason they call him Uti--chef at Bay Leaf, marvels at the rise and fall of sea bass.
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Then there's the comment from a Dallas Morning News writer who chimed in upon overhearing the Burning Question crew ask this week's question: "I'm over fancy beef. Just give me a fucking piece of meat."
And if that doesn't answer this week's Burning Question, perhaps this will: Dishes are constantly beaten to death as fads come and go. It's a curious mark of human behavior that trendy foods grip the industry from time to time. "It's because we're all lemmings," Nichols says with some disgust. "If one person does it, it catches on; everybody has to have it." In other words, we demand both proliferation and bastardization.
"You resign yourself to delivering what people want," Rathbun concludes. "Hey, man, we're in a business."
Meanwhile, we await a call from Fox.