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Knife, Fork, Cocktail

Trends of the year in food

By Christina Waters

IN A YEAR of military smoke and mirrors, many of us turned to bigger portions. Comfort food muscled its way into the very center of many "masculine" menus. Naturally, that category includes pasta, but the Italian craze--which for years showed no signs of calming down--finally began to give way. The menus of 2003 seemed to take two distinct directions. Think of the giant SUVs vs. the diminutive designer cell phones as two ends of the continuum--the huge and the chichi. Those were the two biggest trends I spotted in a year's worth of dining all over the Bay Area.

Platters loaded with big protein-intensive steaks got bigger--the platters and the steaks--and more expensive as Atkin's-fueled demand for meat beefed up prices. While mashed potatoes still provided most of the partnerships, many places chose to give us steak all by itself. Side dishes were a la carte, as they tend to be in European and East Coast urban restaurants.

Along with those all-American (think W) hunks of beef came another retro accessory, the cocktail. Before you could say "one for the road," restaurants transformed themselves into swank drinking establishments that served a little food on the side. The reigning cocktail of the late 20th century, the Cosmopolitan, spawned dozens of high-octane siblings and the twentysomethings began downing hard liquor as frequently as their designated drivers would allow.

The other trend, a happier one as far as my palate is concerned, was the presence of at least one or two Asiatic dishes on every menu. And I mean every menu. An Italian restaurant that offers spring roll antipasti? You bet. Stir-fried specialties showcased in palaces of California cuisine, a bit of teriyaki pizza, even dessert sushi. Restaurateurs were getting the point--California is gifted with lots of Asian culinary legacies, and diners wanted their tastes honored.

What began as a few Japanese specialties adorning sophisticated hotel dining rooms soon spread to include Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese and Japanese seasonings and styles on every enlightened menu. The smart chef knows her clientele, and from where I'm sitting most chefs decided this was not the year for escargot and Wiener schnitzel.

The size issue didn't necessarily mean SUV big. As if to buy some time for the "other side," many new small restaurants have started a tasteful backlash against the "bigger is better" mentality of new steakhouses and grills. The small plate is rapidly catching fire, especially with diners who have some health awareness and don't need to pig out on plates of epic proportions just to feel good about themselves.

Sure, tapas came to us right around the height of the Mediterranean craze. Little plates filled with bright, piquant flavors. Pretty finger food--glorified bar food, actually. Tapas now goes by a broader label, "small plates," which look to me and other veteran food watchers a lot like nouvelle-size portions. Driven by concept and freshness, these menus often feature organic, local produce, stress seasonal availability and make each bite matter.

Weary of gargantuan plates piled with more food than anyone short of an NBA star could possibly consume, chefs are taking time to make distinctive luxury items look and taste great. Two fat scallops, seared perfectly and topped with pomegranate something and a few toasted almonds, are all that's needed to thrill the taste buds. Four scallops are too much, with apologies to Bubba and the "they really give you a lot of food!" school.

The small plate trend is really a global variation on sushi-style dining. A little of this, a little of that--nobody gets bored slogging their way through a huge monochromatic plate of one recipe.

I look for even more Asian accents on menus and a trend away from big, fried and carbo-loaded. Potatoes on the side will go the way of the Edsel. Atkin's adherents may find themselves cutting out some of the steak in the wake of the Mad Cow scare--which may portend, at last, a drop in beef prices. Bon appétit in 2004!

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From the January 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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