Chefs are lining up to get their hands on stinging nettles, kabocha squash, figs, Persian mulberries, watermelon, heirloom beans, pistachios, tiny vegetables and miniature kiwis. Biodynamic farming is ultra-fashionable, as are sustainable agriculture and fishing: Chefs are exploring "trash fish" like wolffish as more-popular species grow scarce. And, after an infatuation with mild-flavored Chilean sea bass, people are coming around to "fishy" fish like mackerel, sardines and fresh anchovies. Strong flavors are big in meat and poultry, too, with wild boar, venison and guinea fowl newly cool. Another meat trend is heirloom livestock: Get ready to learn about breeds of beef and lamb you've never heard of. Fusion may be passé, but a judicious use of Asian ingredients, such as tofu, artisanal soy sauce and sea veggies, is not. That annoying moment when a waiter pours a pool of olive oil is, thankfully, on the wane; the fats of choice for bread are an old friend, butter, and a new friend, goat butter.
ON THE MENU
Look for variations on a theme, like roast duck breast with duck confit and a duck spring roll on the side. Everybody and his brother now makes his own charcuterie; other favorite preparations are gelée and aspic, sauerkraut (no kidding) and upscale egg dishes, plus fried eggs as garnishes. The favored chef toys of the moment are woks, clay pots, induction cooktops and machines that vacuum-seal food in plastic envelopes for sous-vide cooking at low temperatures. At the other end of the heat spectrum is noncooking. Raw seafood is ubiquitous; the latest craze in San Francisco is Hawaiian poke (tuna seasoned with ginger and spices). Au courant pastry-chef tricks include, again, variations on a theme (like a tasting of four flavors of cr&232;me brûlée), lollipops, warm chocolate chip cookies and salty or spicy desserts, a trend echoed in savory ice creams and sorbets served between, or with, appetizers and main coursesthink celery gelato.
Many bartenders (and even some sommeliers) are making their own liqueurs and infused spirits from fruit, and using fresh herbs to create new cocktails. Anise-flavored spirits are popular, including pastis, ouzo and raki. Bubble tea and jelly drinks, those colorfully surreal concoctions with tapioca pearls or gelatin, are starting to appear outside Chinatown. And there's water, water everywhere, whether it's from ancient glaciers in Greenland or from laboratories where it's been fortified with vitamins and minerals.
MAKING THE SCENE
Is any place safe from baby lettuce? It seems not, as upscale dining rooms turn up atairports, theme parks, stadiums, race tracks and aquariums.Restaurant designers are looking back to the space-age '60s (egg-shaped chairs and white vinyl) and the rec-room '70s (stacked-stone walls and upholstery in orange and brown). Another nod to the era is the proliferation of "secret" entrances and hidden roomslike the Ghost Bar inside Nine in Chicagothat make in-the-know patrons feel like Rat Packers. Custom ceramics shaped by the chef are increasingly common. One strange recent trend in theme restaurants: politics, as seen in two new Washington, D.C., places owned by inside-the-Beltway types, and at a restaurant in Phoenix named after Richard Nixon (who once said, if memory serves, "I am not a cook"). Finally, as the New Economy takes a breather, look for a break in spiraling restaurant prices: value is making a comeback.