Recipes for change: At local restaurants, many factors shape menus
Sauteed foie gras with pomegranate seeds, hickory nuts and parsnip bread, dressed with balsamic vinegar at Eleven. The Strip District restaurant's executive chef Derek Stevens decided to keep foie gras on the menu after visiting its producer and observing the feeding process.
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In today's culinary world, we prize independent restaurants for their individuality, particularly when it comes to the food they serve. Chefs can draw on a global pantry of ingredients, innovative technology and their own creativity in hopes of pleasing diners' ever more adventurous palates. But after surveying menus around the city over the past five years, it's clear that there are other forces at work on restaurant menus, which guide trends and specific dishes, and shape the local dining culture.
From crab cakes to beef tartarE
Five years ago, there were a handful of dishes that seemed to be on every restaurant menu: Fried zucchini, French onion soup, crab cakes and crème brulee. Today, there are fewer restaurants that offer all of them, along with many restaurants that offer none.
A new set of common dishes has emerged among the large number of restaurants that have opened recently: Beef tartare, bone marrow, beet salads, gourmet mac 'n' cheese and cioppino, or fish soups. In fact, you might be hard-pressed to find a contemporary Pittsburgh restaurant that doesn't serve at least one or two of them.
In five or 10 years, chefs will undoubtedly have moved on to new ingredients and preparations.
Locally and nationally, restaurants are showing a greater affinity for vegetables. There are more vegetarian and vegan options, and the trend of hyper-local cooking has greatly expanded chefs' and diners' interest in heirloom vegetables and grains, especially those indigenous to the surrounding areas.
Theoretically, this is a good change, as public health organizations and new government guidelines are encouraging us all to eat more fruits, vegetables and seafood, and less meat, sugar and salt.
But for all this talk of lighter, healthier foods, restaurants have remained destinations for indulgence. In recent years, the trendiest dishes have included bone marrow, beef tartare, spiked milkshakes, burgers, bourbon, doughnuts, cupcakes and pork belly. Those newly fashionable vegetables have a hard time competing.
One could blame restaurants for serving up all of these high-calorie dishes, but if diners didn't order them, restaurants wouldn't serve them.
Public health experts might find this frustrating, but it's also fascinating. When we go out to eat, our ids take over, and the pleasure of culinary indulgence trumps all of the potential negative effects.
So while Pittsburgh's gourmet burger joints offer house-made veggie burgers, it's the spiked, candy-laden milkshakes, meat-topped beef burgers and lengthy beer lists that ensure a near-constant wait. At Lidia's Pittsburgh in the Strip District, possibly the most traditional Italian restaurant in town, there's an all-you-can-eat pasta trio, the antithesis of the Italian way of eating. And Pittsburgh's most popular new dish of 2011, now served at half-a-dozen restaurants and growing, is poutine -- French fries topped with gravy and cheese curds.
Ethics have long played a role in culinary choices both at home and in restaurants, but chefs today are faced with greater pressures than past generations on our food supply, as well as a more knowledgeable public. Many people aren't afraid to make their opinions known.
Take foie gras, the fattened liver of ducks or geese, one of the most decadent and controversial ingredients in a cook's arsenal. Most chefs agree on the culinary value of the traditional ingredient.
"It's obviously extremely delicious," said Derek Stevens, executive chef of Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the Strip District. "It's rich, it's indulgent, and it's so flavorful. It has an intense and very distinct flavor. Nothing else tastes like that."
But despite its incredible taste, Mr. Stevens has considered the ethics of serving foie gras, which is made by force-feeding ducks and geese so that their livers enlarge with fat, mimicking their natural tendency to gorge on food before migrating for the winter.
Eleven, as well as other local restaurants that serve foie gras, has been picketed by animal-rights activists and has also been periodically targeted by less law-abiding protestors who have broken glass doors, spray-painted walls and committed other vandalism.
But Mr. Stevens wanted to make up his own mind based on facts, not other people's opinions. Last year, when they put foie gras back on the menu, he and his sous chef at the time went to visit the producer, Hudson Valley.
"Driving up there I thought, I'm going to take foie gras off my menu," said Mr. Stevens, "[but] I had the exact opposite reaction. I was pretty amazed at how simple the process is and how well the animals are treated."
Foie gras is an extreme example, but contemporary chefs are faced with dozens of equally difficult decisions about when to trust their sources and when to find a replacement for an ingredient, even if it tastes good. From ethically sourced chocolate, to sustainable fish to less popular types of meat, chefs today are picking different ingredients than they might have in the past.
Chefs respond to customers, but they are also taste-makers. The best menus around the city tend to be relatively short and to change throughout the year, giving the kitchen flexibility, and keeping customers excited. Despite all of the forces that push chefs toward similar ingredients and dishes, I believe that menus today are more exciting and innovative than they were in the past, because diners are more willing to trust chefs and to try something new.