David Tamarkin packs a potent punch into a recent short article for Gourmet: in it he wonders whether Chicago, long a flagship city of experimental cuisine and molecular gastronomy, is riding the pendulum back towards a simpler, more straightforward culinary experience: "I first noticed it at The Publican," he reports, "where you’d be hard pressed to order anything that has more than five ingredients. At Taxim, a dish can take the simple form of a braid of phyllo and a chunk of feta. My unsauced, wood-grilled trout at Nightwood shared the plate with a little pile of lentils. And their cheeseburger is, well, a cheeseburger—no fried egg on top, no pâté stuffed in the middle." It's certainly the case that the preponderance of newly opened restaurants are no-frills, but we do question Tamarkin's hypothesis that back-to-basics is an actual backlash against molecular gastronomy.
For starters, there's the economic question: opening a restaurant dedicated to simple preparations is simply less costly than, say, acquiring a weapons-grade laser for use in the kitchen (Moto) or enough liquid nitrogen to host nitro dance parties (Alinea). If you look at the number of molecular gastronomy restaurants in Chicago (or whatever phrase they use to self-identify their cuisine), you'll get maybe half a dozen. So of course a majority of the openings will be less complex, more accessible, more simplistic in their presentations.
That said, we're not sure that's entirely what Tamarkin's getting at. It's more the idea of what's trendy, rather than what's simply got the dominant numbers. In that respect, we agree that the move towards simple, high-quality food is a blessed relief: it feels wonderful to wave goodbye to the molecular gastronomy's popular diffusion, the Adria-for-dummies platings of foams and powders that seemed to plague every third menu item. Now that the culinary trend is for things to taste good more than look pretty, restaurants that focus on quality and depth of flavor are praised, encouraged, and — ideally — rewarded with patronage. But that doesn't mean that restaurants like Alinea, Moto, L2O, and Avenues should stop doing what they're doing — or that they're going to die out anytime soon (whether or not Achatz says he's tired of molecular gastronomy), wiped out at the hand of simple, market-driven menus. We say: why not happily live and eat in a city that houses both? [Gourmet]
[Photo of mezethes at Taxim via ehfisher, MP Flickr Pool]