'A Steak, Please, but Hold the Bells and Whistles'

Food trends in New York show that customers want exotic and elegant fare, with less ruffles and flourishes

New Yorkers love culinary buzzwords. In the 1980s and early '90s they were eating "Pacific-rim," "Southwestern," and "California French." It was the heyday of fusion cuisine - that sometimes forced marriage of non-Western cooking with classic French techniques.

These days fusion has given way to more authentic variations on a new range of unfamiliar cooking styles. On the tips of fashionable palates are terms like "Nuevo Latino" and "Med-rim" - upscale interpretations of the regional cooking of Latin America and the Mediterranean.

Sharing center stage with this gustatory detour is a return to the old-world luxury of the '40s and '50s - or more recently, the 1980s.

More New Yorkers are slicing into thick steaks and eating more dollops of Beluga caviar.

One day they may dive into a light and refreshing Peruvian-style seviche at Nobu, the fashionable nouveau Japanese spot co-owned by Robert DeNiro, while the next day they might enjoy assaulting a block of aged sirloin at any number of new steakhouses.

Never mind the contradictions, New Yorkers are enjoying themselves. Overall, say the critics, there's never been a better time to be hungry - if you have money to spend.

"New York is a boom town," says Michael Whiteman, a restaurant consultant whose company owns one of the loftiest restaurants in the city, the Rainbow Room, on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center. "A huge amount of cash is sloshing around New York again looking for a place to be spent. It is a very good time to be in the restaurant business."

Michael Batterberry, founding publisher of Food Arts, a glossy magazine that tracks trends for the restaurant industry, agrees. "It's a great time to be a food lover," he says. "You can find just about anything in New York, in both stylized and authentic versions."

In New York, a handful of chefs is leading the charge in setting the culinary agenda;. chefs like Douglas Rodriguez, a native of Miami who brought his pioneering take on Latin American cooking to New York tables a few years ago when he opened Patria in the Flatiron District, the hottest new food neighborhood in the city.

Mr. Rodriguez's use of ingredients like yucca and banana leaves has launched an explosion in upscale Latin American dining in New York. Chefs who are not opening Nuevo Latino establishments are dabbling in these fun and festive ingredients. These include mostly unusual fruits, vegetables, and grains, and help chefs stay on the cutting edge of food fashion.

And there's a hidden bonus: They are exceptionally inexpensive. Upscale retail outlets like Balducci's and Dean & Deluca are riding the Latin wave as well, stocking more ingredients like jicama and quinoa.

"Latin cooking has an almost hip quality to it," Mr. Batterberry says. "There's a bit of fantasy to the food. It's like vacation food."

Less colorful but no less festive cooking is taking place at the dozens of new Mediterranean restaurants that have popped up in New York.

The Med-rim craze takes a regional approach to the sun-drenched flavors of the Mediterranean, splashing on generous doses of new ingredients, like za'atar, a peculiar Israeli spice mixture, and pomegranate seeds. Both items appear on the menu at Layla, the latest addition to restaurateur Drew Nieporent's restaurant empire, which includes Nobu and the TriBeCa Grill, both co-owned by Robert De Niroa and both among the hardest reservations to land.

But the Mediterranean trend has been quietly simmering on the stoves of a number of fashionable eateries for several years. Andre Abramoff, owner-chef at Cafe Crocodile, a modest Upper East Side restaurant with an emphasis on North African and Southern French flavors, has received an award from Food Arts for introducing Mediterranean cooking to New York.

"When we first opened in 1978 people would call up asking what is Mediterranean," Abramoff says. "We were the first to serve paella, couscous, and bouillabaisse on the same menu." Abramoff, whose background is French, Greek, and Turkish, says that while what much of the new young crop of chefs are producing is flavorful and beautiful, it is anything but authentic.

"This is the cooking of my aunts and grandmothers," Abramoff says. "What the new restaurants are serving tastes good but it's more trendy."

Food consultant Whiteman sees Med-rim and Nuevo Latino as a more general appreciation of bolder flavors. "People are interested in more intense and vibrant flavors from anywhere palm trees grow," he says.

Whiteman worked closely with the chef in developing the menu at his latest venture, the newly refurbished Windows on the World, on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. The restaurant sells large amounts of truffles, foie gras, and lobster - each dish with its own global accent.

"New York is halfway between California and Europe," Whiteman says. "We get the best of the entire world."

The return of grand luxe means that places like Windows, the Rainbow Room, and Central Park's Tavern on the Green, are now the hottest places to blow a couple of hundred dollars on a Saturday night. And the same diners who are enjoying that scale of food when they go out are serving more of it at home when they entertain. Retail outlets are selling more ingredients like caviar, foie gras, and white truffle oil.

At Balducci's, a venerable old gourmet food store in Greenwich Village, New York foodies can be overwhelmed by the number of ingredients available. There are hundreds of cheeses, 20 kinds of olive oil, 17 varieties of cured olives, 10 different wild mushrooms, a half dozen baby lettuces, and 10 varieties of smoked salmon. Hot new ingredients that appear at Balducci's and on restaurant menus include fresh dates - stuffed with goat cheese - and sun-dried cherries, cranberries, and strawberries.

"There's a dynamic interaction between the restaurants and the retail shops," says Giorgio Deluca, one of the owners of Dean & Deluca, another Manhattan gourmet food chain, with a similar stock of upscale food merchandise. "To some degree we follow and to some degree we lead. The restaurant scene makes people aware of certain food products."

One product that has been popular on European menus for centuries but never caught on in the US is rabbit. New York chefs are trying to remedy that, doing more with rabbit dishes than ever.

Why rabbit? New York chefs are always on the lookout for new and underutilized ingredients. Rabbit meat, which is light and versatile - it can be served rare, roasted, seared, or sauteed - was ripe for a comeback "The chefs and tastemakers put something different on their menus and then everybody starts serving it," says Batterberry.

"People are treating themselves well again and not feeling guilty," Whiteman says. "They no longer feel like they are picking through a minefield when they read a menu."

What next for New York? Carrie Conan, food editor at Restaurant Business magazine, foresees a continuation of the trend away from fusion towards authenticity. "Chefs are paying more attention to how the food is cooked without so many bells and whistles," she says.

Batterberry, who also foresees an increase in authentic cooking, says the next big thing may be Korean barbecue. Mirezi, a new upscale Korean restaurant that opened in Greenwich Village this year, may be the sign of things to come.

In December, the restaurant, which serves dishes like Red Snapper in Crisp Rice Paper and Black Rice and Tea Smoked Duck Salad, received two stars from The New York Times, often enough to usher in the next food craze.

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