The first major 2011 restaurant trend survey was released last week, and it looks like the coming year may be more about farm than table.
According to the study conducted by the National Restaurant Association, in which more than 1,500 chefs were polled for their predictions, locally sourced meat, seafood and produce will be 2011's hottest trends. Other trends on the 20-item list include sustainability, restaurant gardens, sustainable seafood, simplicity, farm-branded ingredients, organic produce, nutrition, fruits and vegetables as children's side items and artisan cheeses.
I love a plate of chilled asparagus, a hard-boiled farm-fresh egg and sliced radishes as much as the next food writer, but I'm not persuaded I need a chef to prepare it for me. Stripped-down flavors are lovely, but they're not completely compatible with the restaurant experience, which should showcase craftsmanship the customer can't easily reproduce at home.
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Of course, there are chefs who work wonders with Brussels sprouts, butter and salt, and I don't want to discount their artistry. But there are many more chefs who, citing the current ethos of simplicity, crib their brilliance from the sun, dirt, rain and hard-working farmers. Not every eater was taken with molecular gastronomy, but the style at least provided a rationale for restaurant-going, since very few of us keep micro-evaporators and Gastrovacs in our home kitchens.
Restaurants provide far more than just food. But it's still nice to feast on dishes that don't inspire eaters to silently calculate how much they could have saved by making the same meal themselves. Whether restaurants achieve distinction though equipment -- such as a wood-fired barbecue pit or a coal-burning pizza oven -- or expertise, they owe their customers more than a restrained shake of salt and pepper.
I've been grappling with these issues over the last few weeks as I've scrutinized the Dallas dining scene for an upcoming feature story: I believe many of the city's restaurants have done themselves a disservice by prioritizing simplicity over bold seasoning. But I'm not the only one wondering how much further the field-to-fork balance can tip toward the soil without rendering restaurants less relevant. As Atlanta Journal-Constitution food critic John Kessler wrote in a "Behind the Review" blog post last Friday: "It's great to celebrate outstanding local product but, well, a fine sweet potato is a fine sweet potato is a fine sweet potato."
What do you think? Are you heartened by the continuing local food trend? Is there such a thing as too-simple restaurant cooking?