Beer, for one, found its way into more and more high-end contexts.
As we look back on the year in eating and contemplate a year-end trend roundup, it strikes us that 2012 was not an earth-shattering year for Bay Area food. Everywhere besides the Mission, which is still hitting puberty in its restaurant proliferation, the local food world’s recent growth spurt was calming down and settling in to its own, reaffirming that casual is the new luxury, that San Franciscans will try pretty much anything once, and that fifty percent will Instagram it. One of the most noteworthy and critically adored new kids on the block, State Bird Provisions, opened a full year ago on New Year’s Eve, and proceeded to dominate many a local and national best-of list — though it’s still too early to tell how much the dim-sum-style service idea is going to get copied elsewhere.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t a broader trend of lightening up around the dining experience in general. While the Bay Area has prided itself in the last few decades on an earnestness that borders on Portlandia-worthy comedy when it comes to farm-name-dropping, local-source-touting, and reverent ingredient worship, there are signs that restaurants are giving equal due lately to service flourishes, presentation, architecture, and plain old fun. Finally, maybe, San Francisco restaurants will be known for more than just their elocution and good breeding, which leads us to the first item on our list…
Talk to chefs in other cities (José Andrés and David Burke come first to mind) and they’ll tell you that customers appreciate a little showmanship to go with their dinner. Even though tableside flambé and dessert carts are things of the past, suddenly in 2012 the Bay Area saw the first signs of a new generation of restaurants where the dining experience promises not to be all hushed tones discussing the pedigree of a carrot. State Bird Provisions was the most talked about example, with its dining room alive with the movement of carts and servers bouncing about with trays of delights for the taking. But other restaurants embraced a sense of whimsy in their presentation and some more showy service styles too: We’re thinking of the noodle dancers at M.Y. China; the seamless cellophane that appears to make a canapé float on air at Saison; the canapés presented atop pages of an open book at Meadowood; the fun, family-style, Hawaiian-inspired fare (including masaladas served in a paper bag) at Ravi Kapur’s LihoLiho Yacht Club; and even the Japanese whiskey service at Michael Mina.
Orange wine — not to be confused with rotgut made from actual oranges — is a type of white or rosé-style wine in which the wine has a bit more skin contact, and sometimes more oxidation, than a typical white, giving it a golden or orange hue. Some of the most orange examples come from Friuli, and they’re great food wines, and 2012 was the year that foodinistas pounced on this next new thing. St. Vincent serves one from Slovenia; Local’s Corner just put one on the winter menu in place of rosé; SPQR serves two (Locanda has them too) called Coenobium, made by nuns in Lazio; and Delfina even did a 50 Shades of Orange Wine flight this fall.
In New York, the discussion of how food has supplanted rock-and-roll as an obsession of youth culture came front and center around the time of the Great Googa Mooga fest in Brooklyn this past spring — which was essentially a food fest where bands played second fiddle to some NYC rock star chefs. Here in the Bay Area, this has felt like the case for a while. Outside Lands, now in its fifth year, has taken the music festival model to whole new, bougie, foodie heights. And the local celebrities everyone follows on Twitter are people like Chris Cosentino (who won Top Chef Masters this year), Tyler Florence, and Danny Bowien.
For a couple years now, chef Joshua Skenes at Saison (pictured) has been experimenting with various, sometimes lengthy aging times for beef, fowl, game, and even fish. He’s taken beef up to a year in a temperature-controlled environment, and he served things like 32-day dry-aged pigeon, 70-day dry-aged pigeon, 68-day lamb, seven-day aged fish, 80-day aged tuna belly, and tuna ham. He says he’s trying to push the flavor to the point where it “still tastes like what it is,” but takes on more interesting dimensions. Meanwhile we’re seeing the trend starting to appear elsewhere, with dry-aged lamb at Benu, and steakhouses advertising lengthier aging times for their cuts of beef. But, meat is also becoming less of a priority on some higher end tasting menus… (see next slide)
It’s no longer the case that a meal in a fine restaurant has to finish with a huge filet. More and more we’re seeing tasting menus that emphasize a series of inventive vegetable courses (a dish of celtuce by Daniel Patterson’s Coi, pictured, was the star of a recent meal there), and conclude with the smallest piece of lamb, or beef, or fowl, leaving you more inclined to appreciate dessert, and more in tune with Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma ethos. Also, it’s a sign that more American diners may be inclined to pay for artistry in dishes than to insist on filling proteins, and to understand that vegetables and perfect pieces of fish cost money too.
Benu chef Corey Lee paired an izakaya-inspired course of fried items with a glass of Belgian beer in one of his original tasting menus in 2010, and this is becoming commonplace now at other fine dining establishments where certain dishes demand a pungent ale or rich porter more than a delicate wine pairing. At restuarants like Abbot’s Cellar and Bar Tartine, beer and food go hand in hand, and even wine-centric St. Vincent made sure to carefully curate a beer list as well.
Over the last two years, the tech boom in the Bay Area has helped buoy the food-service world and kept restaurant spending pretty high, and the dark days of 2009 now feel long gone. We’d cite the opening of the high-profile Hakkasan (pictured) — with its seven-million-dollar buildout and gold-foil-lined business cards — and the beautifully designed new One Up restaurant and lounge at the Grand Hyatt as strong signs of confidence in the city as not just a food-magazine-reader’s paradise, but a place where high rollers drop big sums on dinner these days too.
One of the bigger news items in the state, and especially in food-obsessed S.F., was the day the prohibition of foie gras went into effect: July 1. It may come back someday — some legal wrangling is ongoing, and it may also happen in the state legislature next year — but for now, all we have are the memories of the pretty, unctuous dishes around town that we can’t have anymore.
Photo: Brian Smeets/Brian Smeets 2012
From the chocolate and torched apple that smoke up a glass at Michael Mina before it’s used to serve Japanese whiskey, to Brian Means’ hand-smoked cocktail ingredients at Fifth Floor, to smoky cocktail tinctures at Wilson & Wilson, to this dessert (pictured) of spice eggplant “coal,” “ash” made from citrus-coal meringue, and dry ice “smoke” by Juan Contreras at Atelier Crenn, smoke was a big trend all over in unexpected places.
You may have heard of this place Mission Chinese Food. Every food person in the country had to try it once it expanded to the Lower East Side in New York, and subsequently chef Danny Bowien became a celebrity chef of the newest order. Anthony Bourdain called it the best new restaurant in the country, and everyone upon everyone talked about it. It spawned a very public discussion about whether authenticity really needs to matter, and why shouldn’t more chefs be playing with specific ethnic traditions without the scourge of the word “fusion” being slapped on their food? In any event, the rest of the country is waiting with bated breath to see what more brilliance comes out of San Francisco, and for that you should all feel at least a twinge of pride.