Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out
Sometimes I find myself getting cranky about the excessive bounty of vine fruits and root vegetables that seems to overload restaurant menus like a seasonal cornucopia this time of year. (I know it’s true because I just re-read my column from this time last year.)
I’ve taken a break from the professional kitchen all summer, so I thought I’d be a bit more sanguine about fall menus, but I still find myself prickly about all the beets and butternut on the latest seasonal offerings.
Please note: I do not need a dried cranberry in every salad I order. Nor do I require a seed of any sort (toasted or not) or sorghum vinaigrette. Leave the zucchini out of my sorbet, please, and feel free to skimp on the dehydrated yellow squash chips garnishing my whatever. Yes, fall is wonderful, what with the crackling leaves underfoot and the bonfire smoke and all (where air-pollution regs permit). And, of course, the bounty of produce is delicious, but take note, menu writers — do not overwhelm me with things that scream “autumn!”
I do understand the appeal of seasonal ingredients. Spring and summer bring us to the apogee of fresh (and perishable) produce. Fall produce is much sturdier and can hang around a little longer, like a distant uncle who won’t seem to end his visit, sleeping on your sofa bed night after night. Will this be the week Uncle Sweet Potato goes home? Is Aunt Pumpkin-Flavored-Everything going with him?
Now, I want to be sensible here. Of course we should make the most of these ingredients when they are at the height of their season. I just feel strongly about how they seem to saturate every menu in sight. Ice cream does not need to be made of golden beets. It’s a novel idea, and I’d be willing to try it had I not just spent my other three courses navigating rivers of cinnamon-and-nutmeg-scented butternut squash puree, a tower of candied yams and a miniature acorn squash stuffed with sage and breadcrumbs.
I don’t want my every restaurant meal this time of year to look like the front flap of a Hallmark Thanksgiving card and smell like the Yankee Candle store in October. (By the way, who gives Thanksgiving cards? Have you ever seen anyone buy one?) Can’t we, as chefs and menu writers, rein ourselves in a little bit?
How about a lovely stew, or a take on shepherd’s pie? Or why don’t you offer me the most amazing mashed potatoes in the world, so fluffy they seem to want to float away across the dining room before you can get a fork in? I wouldn’t look askance at the silkiest mushroom soup ever, either — and don’t hold back on the sherry. Just keep your pumpkin puree out of my cannoli, even if it’s shaped like a cornucopia. (Somewhere right now, I just hope some pastry chef isn’t high-fiving himself, saying, “Yesss! Pumpkin cannoli!”)
Dare I bring up the sins of the culinary mini-season that follows Thanksgiving? Are chefs going to bury us in chocolate and peppermint in December? Possibly. Cousin Cranberry won’t have gone home, either — oh my, not even close. Cranberry shakes, cranberry soda cocktails, cranberry vinaigrette — it makes my head spin.
And then here comes gingerbread. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good ginger snap or three, but I don’t need gingerbread flavoring in my latte three times a week for a month. There’ll be cheesecake with gingerbread crust, salad with gingerbread croutons (and cranberries!). Peppermint old fashioned, anyone? Cranberry chocolatini? Ugh. Much like the drifted mounds of torn wrapping paper covering the floor on Christmas morning, that last eggnog brownie just seems to hang around underneath its Tupperware dome forever.
I don’t mean to sound bitter. Maybe I need a Scrooge-like intervention. A sous-chef Marley bound in chains made from heads of garlic. A ghost of Thanksgiving future shaped like a turkey drawn in crayon around someone’s splayed fingers. Are these the shadows of things that must be? I say no.
Let’s all resist the urge to overuse fall and holiday flavors this upcoming season. Now, finish your cream of pumpkin soup before it gets cold. Is that cinnamon bark on top?
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou.