It's a new year and an opportunity for a fresh new start. We asked professionals from Houston's restaurant industry -- chefs, bartenders and fellow food writers -- to share which trends they think need to be left behind in 2014. Some answers were about food and service trends. Others delved deeper into our restaurant culture. In more than one instance, one person's beef was the exactly opposite of another's complaint.
Let's start with one of my own:
15. Enough With the Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Beet Salads I love roasted Brussels sprouts and beet salads, but I would not be sorry not to see another one for at least a year. They need to be left in the same memory book as "The Great Bonito Flaking of 2013."
How about some broccoli or new takes on spinach? Bok choy isn't getting enough attention from "nice" restaurants. Can someone invent a green bean casserole that doesn't involve limp, stringy ghosts of Thanksgivings past? There are other vegetables out there and they need love, too. One chef that I spoke with, though, has a valid addition to my point: If beets and Brussels sprouts are in season, it's fine to use them. Otherwise, there's no reason for them to be on menus year-round.
14. Trying Too Hard to Keep Ramen Relevant Felice Sloan of the Urban Swank blog says, "Enough with trying to take the Ramen craze to the next level with crazy recreations. I mean Ramen donuts, Ramen wings, Ramen Burgers -- enough already or should I just say, 'Bye Felicia!'"
13. And Even More Played-Out Food Trends Dr. Ricky of the Science Based Cuisine blog has his own list of dishes he's seen enough of: "Kobe burgers, bread pudding and macaroni and cheese." It's also time to rethink the term "Asian-inspired." "I think it's the politically correct replacement for 'Oriental,'" he says.
12. Sparkling or Tap Water? Someone trying to upsell you on water, of all things, has always been annoying. It seems, though, as if more restaurants are doing it than ever before. The minute you sit down, the server is upon you, demanding, "Still or sparkling?" or "Sparkling or tap?" (Tap water is supposed to sound more unappealing, of course.) Ricky Craig of Hubcap Grill says, "Stop it. If I wanted sparkling, I'd ask for it. Also, put ice in my glass. I hate room temperature water."
11. No One Wants to Read an Encyclopedia at Dinner Craig also pointed out the trend of long-winded menus, and add to that wine lists. If there's a sommelier in the house, he or she should be able to use that knowledge and create a well-edited list that matches the food served. Menus and wine lists should be helpful, not overwhelming.
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10. Houston Needs to Grow a Thicker Skin The same issue was brought up by three different industry pros: When it comes to criticism, Houston needs to move on to the next stage of its evolution. For years, our outstanding culinary scene was steadfastly ignored by national media and food organizations. When you're not the popular kid on the block, you need support from your friends to keep going. Indeed, one of the things Houston should always be proud of is how incredibly supportive our industry professionals are of each other.
However, constructive criticism is a needed component of growth and improvement, and it's time to shuck the insecurity that demands perpetual ego-stroking. Yelling "Rah, rah Houston!" about each new high-profile restaurant opening only gets us so far. To quote the villain Syndrome from the animated flick The Incredibles: "When everyone's super, no one is."
One chef commented, "Taking criticism and learning from it is a key part of growth as you work your way up in this business. Any industry veteran will tell you that. I hate the notion that becoming an owner suddenly means you are above any sort of accountability at your establishment; if anything, it should be the opposite. Owners who handle criticism with grace and understanding are the ones who will go far in the long term."
9. Intellectual Criticism With Integrity The other side of the coin, however, is that criticism must be balanced, informed and honest. One chef commented, "We have really good restaurants and chefs. Writers move to the next thing so quickly, nothing can develop. Places need real, honest criticism from people who know what they're talking about. If you root for Houston in general, that's a good thing. We just need more constructive criticism."
8. Greedy Landlords Need to Get a Grip One contributor has had enough of the attitude of landlords in Houston's burgeoning real estate market (although we'll see how long that lasts with the current low price-per-barrel of oil). He wrote:
"Landlords in New York city have an entitled attitude, to the effect of, 'How dare you expect to turn a profit in our space! You should be paying us for the privilege of having a visible storefront in New York!'
Many Houston landlords are starting to spew the same bullshit, so you know we've lost touch with reality. I've lost count of how many potential landlords have told me 'I couldn't care less if you go out of business.' Even places in 'up and coming' areas like East Downtown, the near Northside, and Garden Oaks are asking absurd prices, which is exactly why those neighborhoods will stay 'up and coming' until the next market crash (which I am unapologetically hoping happens sooner rather than later)."
7. Would-Be Restaurateurs Need to Look Outside the Loop The counterpoint to #8: Culturemap Houston's Eric Sandler says, "I'm tired of hearing complaints about the cost of rent in popular Inner Loop neighborhoods like Montrose and The Heights. If your concept can't generate enough revenue to support the space, head to Bellaire (like Bernie's Burger Bus), Oak Forest (like Sassafras) or any of dozens of other places around the city that would probably flock to a well-executed, independently owned restaurant. Hopefully, Bramble and The Del will find an audience in Briargrove and demonstrate to operators that underserved neighborhoods have real potential."
6. Excessive Expansion One commenter feels that some of our homegrown chains are growing too fast to maintain quality. "It feels like everyone in Houston wants to turn into a chain, and it's sad to see great restaurants dropping off in quality because their owners are too busy trying to open new restaurants rather than manage the ones they already own. I'm sick of hearing owners talk about how they're putting their hearts and souls into a restaurant, only to abandon it a year later to open the next big thing. How about taking pride in the businesses you already have first?"
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5. Upscale Comfort Food Multiple people noted they are over the "upscale comfort food" trend in which things such as fried chicken and chicken-fried steak are served in a nice restaurant environment and prices for these items tend to be double those of a country cafe. Sandler says, "I'm mostly over upscale comfort food. Chefs who put part of their personality into the food they create, instead of serving something just because they think it will sell, will always be more interesting to me. I'm not saying I've never had a $20+ chicken-fried steak that I thought was delicious, but the margin for error is so small at that price point, it's almost always a disappointment. "
Another contributor agrees, saying, "People who care about food go out to high-end restaurants to enjoy a chef's creativity, not eat a poor imitation of Grandma's cooking at 3x the price."
4. The Hype Machine Needs to Chill: There's More to Houston than Oxheart, Underbelly, The Pass and Hugo's "Look at any list or write up of Houston from a national publication, and it's the same tired handful of restaurants. The rest of the country thinks we only have 5 restaurants because outside food writers are too damn lazy to do their own research and exploring. They just call their PR contacts and have them walk them through places they have personal or financial interests in. If so, that's awful, and exactly the reason why I'll take Yelp over food magazines any day."
Another contributor noted that some of Houston's older establishments are roundly ignored, even though they remain some of the best in the city. "People should mention Da Marco every once in awhile."
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3. But We Need More Places Like Oxheart, Underbelly and The Pass While we need to talk about places other than Oxheart and Underbelly, we need more restaurants of the same quality. "We only have one Oxheart and one Underbelly. We don't have enough, probably because Houston is so finicky. For the fourth largest city, our restaurant scene is quite small. In Portland, there are 40 Underbellys all doing high-quality food. We need four restaurants doing what The Pass does."
2. Tired Old Buzzwords Both Ricky Craig of Hubcap Grill and Dr. Ricky of the Science Based Cuisine web site believe the buzzwords of those who market under the banner of healthy cuisine have gotten out of control, specifically "organic, local, sustainable and natural." "Who cares?" says Craig.
1. There Are Very Few Actual Farm-to-Table Restaurants in Houston Speaking of "local": In theory, "farm-to-table" means regular deliveries of fresh, in-season produce, but not every restaurant that claims to be farm-to-table delivers on that promise. One chef says, "Nobody really does farm-to-table except Chris [Shepherd, at Underbelly] and Justin [Yu, at Oxheart]. If you have the same menu for years, you are NOT farm-to-table! How is it farm-to-table cooking when the menu never changes? When Chris Shepherd gets in citrus, he gets in hundreds. They use what they can and pickle and preserve the excess to use later. That's what farm-to-table is really about."
What are your thoughts about which trends need to go away and where Houston needs to go as a nationally respected food city? Leave your comments below.