Recipes for Change at Local Restaurants, Many Factors Shape Menus

By Millman, China | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), February 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

Recipes for Change at Local Restaurants, Many Factors Shape Menus


Millman, China, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


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 creme 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.

LET THEM EAT CAKE

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. …

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