The Grub Report: Critics and Commentators Survey the State of Our Food Union

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Grub Street presents the Grub Report, a survey snapshot of the restaurant world in summer 2009. We polled eleven prolific eaters from around the country and in various parts of the restaurant business on ten questions, ranging from Most Important Chef to Most Overhyped Trend. What did we learn? Dave Chang is both one of the most important and most overrated chefs cooking today. Fine dining will return, but in different forms. Portland, Oregon, could be the model for how we’ll all eat one day. And, if these people have anything to say about it, the end of the burger craze, and of chalkboard menus, may be nigh.

With thanks to Tony Bourdain, Jonathan Gold, Gael Greene, Kate Krader, Ed Levine, Michael Nagrant, Adam Platt, Alan Richman, Lee Schrager, Regina Schrambling, and Bret Thorn.

1. Who are the three most important chefs in the U.S. today?

Winners: Mario Batali, David Chang, Grant Achatz.

Kate Krader, Food & Wine: I’m going to paraphrase the New Yorker’s Zev Borow here: Dave Chang is to most chefs in America as excellent heroin is to Capri Sun juice boxes. Also: Roy Choi and the Kogi truck. You cannot overestimate the power of Twitter and spontaneous information in the world of food, and Kogi really put it out there. Not only do they get their message directly to customers but they also get instantaneous feedback — “the short ribs today were overcooked.” It’s an amazing way to build communities.

Jonathan Gold, LA Weekly: Mario Batali is probably more devoted to authenticity than any Italian chef in America at the moment, but more important, he has an unerring sense of what tastes good — and he seems to have mastered a formula for choosing interesting chefs for the restaurants in his empire and leaving them more or less alone.

Bret Thorn, Nation’s Restaurant News: Grant Achatz, because he helps keep molecular gastronomy (for lack of a better word) relevant by making the results of it taste good.

Honorable Mentions: Daniel Boulud, Guy Fieri, April Bloomfield.

Regina Schrambling, Gastropoda: Daniel Boulud because he’s an American go-getter in a French package and leads the way in less-than-obvious ways. You have to wonder if the burger insanity would be so insane if not for his DB reinvention.

Michael Nagrant, Hungry Mag: Guy Fieri has more frat boys wearing sunglasses on the back of their heads at a single Dave Matthews concert than Thomas Keller has served meals in his lifetime. Go to any non-foodie cocktail party in the nation and I’m willing to bet seven out of ten people won’t even know who Ferran Adrià or Grant Achatz are. The road to eating at Robuchon for the majority of people goes through Rachael Ray. Ray and Fieri are the culinary versions of marijuana, the food-TV gateway drug to eating and cooking either bigger, better, and badder food, or, for lazier folks, a lifetime of the cooking equivalent of smoking really bad weed.

Tony Bourdain: April Bloomfield. Because she worships (appropriately) at the Church of Fergus — and because she’s good for the world.

2. What is the most important restaurant city in the country right now?

Winner: New York.

Alan Richman: Alas, it remains New York, and the reason for the regretful tone is not because I think less of New York but because the competition has backslid in these hard times even more than New York has, if you can say that New York has backslid at all. Life is more fun, where food journalism is concerned, when New York is under pressure. Economically, Vegas is in trouble. Not much is going on in Chicago. Oddly, L.A. restaurants seem to be doing quite well, with a number of impressive new places, but it’s got too far to come to be a challenger. New York just got Aldea and Marea, both significant. On the low and medium end, nothing on earth is more important than pizza these days, and New York is so far ahead of any other city that the race for pizza supremacy is done. Finally, there’s the David Chang factor. He’s been America’s hot young chef seemingly forever, even if he must be 65 by now. The next challenger might be the city with a young chef to supplant him.

Kate Krader: New York City, but I think L.A. is really interesting because they have the chance to do more idiosyncratic ethnic food than we do in general. Besides Kogi, I think Sang Yoon’s noodle bar is going to be super interesting. And the upscale-Mexican trend there is terrific. I also like that it’s home to José Andrés and his wacky bazaar concept.

Bret Thorn: New York is still the center of the culinary universe, although I wish New Yorkers would remember that it’s not the only place in the universe, and I don’t understand why it’s so hard to find a good biscuit here.

Honorable mentions: Los Angeles, Portland.

Jonathan Gold: I’m duty-bound to say Los Angeles, aren’t I? But even if I weren’t, there is no city in the world with nearly as much diversity in its restaurants, as much access to splendid ingredients, or as much devotion to the competing concepts of tradition and change. It is not for nothing that such a huge percentage of national trends begin here.

Michael Nagrant: Portland, Oregon. Here you have a progressive semi-urban setting nestled in the cradle of agricultural milk and honey. The cooks who are innovating and feeding people here have every tool at their disposal and they’ve done it at a relatively accessible and diverse cultural level. I really believe Portland has everything at hand to be the model for how everyone in the nation can eat well. Places like Chicago or NYC are undeniably influential, but there’s an artifice to the locality and sustainability, because even the closest good farms are still hundreds of miles away and everything has to be trucked in. There’s also a general cost inaccessibility to everything that happens in those places. Portland is the goddamned Fertile Crescent. If they can’t make it work, we’re all doomed.

3. Who is the most overrated chef cooking today?

Winner: David Chang. Many respondents declined to answer this question, but Chang scored the most votes from those who did.

Adam Platt: You’d have to say Chang, and I think he’d agree. His food is great, but there are all sorts of chefs around who are technically superior.

Regina Schrambling: I hate to pick on Mario Batali, but it seems as if he’s where Emeril was ten years ago: The shtick has overtaken what kitchen brilliance he had. But then, American Italian is even less my favorite food than Italian Italian.

Gael Greene, Insatiable Critic: How can I say Ferran Adrià when I’ve not eaten his food, only the imitations? He’s certainly the most toxic chef to date.

4. Which current trend is least deserving of the hype?

Michael Nagrant: Chalkboard menus. I’d rather you burn down a forest of trees printing menus instead of invoking cheap Parisian-brasserie- or Italian-trattoria-inspired lemminglike interior-design nostalgia and thus forcing me to crane my neck and squint to see the night’s specials.

Regina Schrambling: Burgers. It’s out of control. It’s like chefs are retreating to the nursery or the fallout shelter in scary times. The greatest burger in the world is never going to be the revelation a fully and artfully conceived dish would be.

Kate Krader: Pizza can’t go for one more minute, but I feel like we’ve gotten a lot of good pies out of it. Also, this isn’t necessarily a trend, but I wish people would stop applying the steakhouse label to every single restaurant that has steak on the menu. After the Minetta review, everyone is trying to get extra credit for having a good steak; it’s ridiculous.

Honorable Mentions: Cocktail “programs” (Bourdain). Cupcakes (Bourdain, Levine). Beer pairings (Bourdain). Restaurants with no phone numbers for reservations (Schrager). Lounge-restaurants (Gold). Air and foam (Greene). Rooms so dark you can’t see your food (Greene). Faux speakeasies (Platt). Pork belly (Thorn).

5. What is the last restaurant to which you voluntarily returned?

Bret Thorn: Aquavit, partly because it’s across the street from my office, but also because, although more than twenty years old, it still has a distinct style and food that’s different from anyplace else that I’ve been to in New York.

Adam Platt: Num Pang Sandwich Shop, on 12th Street between University Place and Fifth, for the lunchtime five-spice glazed-pork-belly special (garnished with crunchy pickled rhubarb).

Michael Nagrant: The Bristol in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood (which ironically has a chalkboard menu). I returned because I’d been super hard on it in an early review and felt a responsibility to see if anything had changed (God strike down any critic who relishes knocking a place down), and also out of a piqued curiosity spurred by one particular dish of pork liver, maybe the best thing I ate in 2008 that I had on one of those early visits. Doing so, I was rewarded with the finest hunk of tender grilled pork heart swimming in a smoky chili broth that was one of the best things I’ve eaten this year so far. Chris Pandel may be one of the best organ-meat cooks in the country right now, a Yankee Fergus Henderson on the rise.

Honorable Mentions: Per Se (Bourdain), Ssäm Bar (Krader), Locanda Verde (Krader, Greene), Spotted Pig (Krader), Pizzeria Veloce (Krader), Europane (Pasadena; Gold), Aquavit, Standard Grill (Greene), DBGB (Greene), Salumeria Rosi (Greene), Marea (Schrager), Gramercy Tavern (Levine), Bar Bao (Levine), West Branch (Levine), Bar Boulud (Levine), the New French (Schrambling).

6. When and how will fine dining rebound?

Adam Platt: A new, stripped-down version of “Fine Dining” was already emerging prior to the recession, in places like Blue Hill, Momo[fuku] Ko, Craft, and even Per Se. As the money comes back, this snooty, pared-down, back-to-nature style will continue to flourish, dominate, and then, like everything else under the sun, it will crash under its own weight.

Tony Bourdain: “I think some things will soon be gone forever. A certain style of service, abandoned during hard times, will be looked back on with incredulity and a sense of relief that it’s not around anymore. You already see the direction the grand masters of fine dining are going — the smart ones, anyway: toward the type of food and types of places they themselves like to eat. It’s also a function of a newly empowered chef class — they don’t have to create a whole bogus, front-of-the-house stage set. People will trust them — and will pay what’s needed for top-quality ingredients. They don’t need the bullshit anymore. So why complicate their lives? I mean … who likes dealing with expensive linens and crystal?

Ed Levine, Serious Eats: By the end of the year, fine dining will rebound thanks to an improving economy. But only those fine-dining establishments that understand that the price/value ratio is just as important in what they do as it is in fast-food joints will flourish.

Bret Thorn: Give it about two years. It will rebound in part because of economic recovery, and in part because fine-dining restaurants are responding to customers’ desire for flexibility, especially with regard to the amount of time it takes to enjoy a meal. Customers who have the money (and they will have it again someday) will spend it on food that they like, but many of them don’t want to spend three hours eating it.

7. What should be the next big ethnic food?

Bret Thorn: It should be Indian, which keeps emerging in fits and spurts just to vanish in the shadows again. I hope at some point soon it will achieve the critical mass of popularity that it needs to cross over to the mainstream. It’s varied and delicious and our country’s palates would benefit from further exposure to it. But I think the next big ethnic food just might be Korean.

Jonathan Gold: It’s all ethnic food, from Le Bernardin to Babbo to Apple Pan. That being said, in my corner of the universe, extremely regional Mexican food seems to be coming into vogue.

Gael Greene: I’m perfectly content with Vietnamese as the ethnic food of the moment. Certainly I’m not panting for Croatian. I’d welcome a revival of classic French cooking à la Julia with lots of butter.

Honorable Mentions: Singaporan hawker food (Bourdain). Peruvian (Schrager). “Real goddamned” Chinese (Platt).

8. What’s the best thing you’ve eaten this year for less than $10?

Michael Nagrant: For $8.23 (based on $140 for a seventeen-course meal), Curtis Duffy’s (of Avenues) King Crab, Steelhead Roe, Kalamansi, and Togaroshi. It was as revelatory and ultimately as fun and satisfying as Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls and Grant Achatz’s Black Truffle Explosion.

Jonathan Gold: So many of the best things cost less than $10. But I just got back from Umbria, so I’ll say the hot torta al testo from Failero on the south shore of Lake Trasimeno, about twenty minutes west of Perugia. It’s a sandwich of flatbread baked to order over a roaring olivewood fire and stuffed with oozy stracchino cheese and a handful of lightly boiled greens. Ten bucks gets you both the torta and a half-liter of wine to go with it.

Sandwiches at Num Pang (Platt, Levine)
Signature baogette at Pho Sure (Platt)
Gray’s Papaya Recession Special (Levine)
A slice of pizza bianco from Sullivan Street Bakery (Levine)
A slice at Sal & Carmine’s (Levine)
A mini-bagel with scallion cream cheese at Absolute Bagels (Levine)
Hamburger at White Manna in Hackensack (Bourdain)
Greek spreads for two at Kefi (Schrambling)
Special bánh mì at Fatty Crab (Schrambling)
Clam pizza at Veloce Pizza (Schrager)
Macaroni and cheese at the Smith (Greene)
Coffee-caramel ice-cream sundae with brownies, candied pecans, and chocolate sauce at DBGB (Greene)
Sunflower shoots from Evolutionary Organics at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket (Thorn)

9. What should Dave Chang do next?

Jonathan Gold: Perhaps take a stab at reinventing classic Korean cooking, like the Gaon tries to do in the Apujeong neighborhood of Seoul.

Regina Schrambling: Clone himself so the magazines/blogs/networks could obsess on someone else for a change.

Tony Bourdain: He should relax and rest on his laurels — somewhere warm where he can cook crabs, drink beer, and argue about the New England Transcendentalists with a good friend.

Adam Platt: Chang should do whatever he wants. Just don’t open a burger bar.

10. Which foreign chef would you most like to see come to America?

Jonathan Gold: Albert Adrià, the brother of (and pastry chef for) his more famous brother, when he isn’t at his fantastically wonderful Barcelona tapas bar Inopia. Ferran may aspire to be the best chef in the world, but Albert aspires to make the best sardine sandwich in the world. I know where my sympathies lie.

Martin Picard (Bourdain), Francis Mallmann (Bourdain), Andoni Aduriz (Bourdain), Ferran Adrià (Platt, Levine), Jamie Oliver (Schrambling), Heston Blumenthal (Levine), Fergus Henderson (Levine), David Thompson (Thorn), Even Thais (Thorn), Tetsuya Wakuda (Greene), Michel Guerard (Greene).

The Grub Report: Critics and Commentators Survey the State of Our Food Union