Cloudy with a chance of, whoa, meatballs were everywhere. It was this year’s homey comfort food to be obsessed over by chefs who are carefully balling up fine-quality meat blends and cooking them in rich, slow-cooked sauces. Some restaurants are even going for sphere-centric menus. The Meatball Shop, which opened last year, now has a cookbook deal (100 meatball recipes? impressive) and a third location in the works. Meatball Factory (same philosophy: why order a non-meatball when you can order a meatball?) opened in the East Village this October. Since just about every ethnic cuisine has some form of meatball—from the sweeter Swedish meatballs to the minty Greek meatballs to gravy-smothered Polish meatballs—there’s plenty of room for experimentation.
Loving sandwiches is nothing new to us. Shoot, we eat two a day, at least. So we’re kind of tickled by this influx of sandwicheries. There are so many components in sandwich anatomy to toy with: the bread, the quality and orientation of the fillings, the condiments. In Los Angeles, Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio opened ink.sack (unfortunate name) where all the sandwiches are served on petite baguettes and stuffed with almost entirely housemade ingredients. (Their Cold-Fried Chicken was one of our favorite sandwiches of 2011). In Manhattan, No.7 in the Ace Hotel makes all sorts of ridiculous, mad-scientisty sandwiches like roast beef layered with pickled blueberries, as well as lamb with peanut butter. Basically if you can put it between two slices of bread, it's happening.
What doesn’t get better in a barrel? This is what we've learned. Breweries are aging beers in wine, rum, and brandy barrels. Captain Lawrence released a “Smoke of the Oak” limited pack with three bottles, where each was aged in a different barrel so you could taste the nuances (we liked the wine barrel version best). Another big hit was barrel-aged cocktails; this trend is mostly credited to cocktail wizard Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. You’ll also find Hugh Reynolds of Temple Bar in Cambridge aging Negronis in a charred oak, single-malt whiskey barrel from New York’s Tuthilltown Spirits, one of many distilleries selling used barrels to restaurants for inhouse barrel-aging. The Negroni ingredients (gin, campari, and sweet vermouth) are dumped into a cask and, weeks later, transform into a rounder, smoother, more complex version of the cocktail's former self. In Chicago, at Stephanie Izard's Girl and the Goat, they are barrel-aging Manhattans in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. (How many drops of bitters goes into a barrel when a single-serving calls for a “dash"? That can be a stumper.) Moving out of the drinks genre, there’s also Blis Bourbon Barrel Maple Syrup aged in (you guessed it) bourbon barrels for up to a year. The bourbon’s warm smoky notes really complement the sweet, sticky maple.
Regional Burger Chain Expansion
When In-N-Out opened its first Texas location in May, which meant building a new meat processing plant in Texas, people queued up for hours. Some cried. Some missed their kids’ graduation ceremonies for a taste of the juicy Double-Double. People have incredible cosmic connections to regional burger chains. Other growing burger chains include organic burger chain Elevation Burger, built-your-own-burger chain The Counter, Texas-based Moo-Yah, New York City-based Shake Shack, Connecticut-based Jake's Wayback Burgers, and Virginia-based Five Guys, just to name a few. Umami Burger gets an honorable mention for being on the path to nation-wide domination. They currently have six locations in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco, but this year announced plans to launch a fast food burger concept and expand Umami Burger to other major cities outside California.
Amaro and Vermouth
No longer just a post-dinner digestif for the geriatric crowd, more cocktail drinkers are developing a liking for these bitter, herbaceous drinks. Amari, the plural of amaro, are traditionally made by infusing grape brandy with a mishmash of herbs, flowers, citrus peel and spices, that is then sweetened and aged. It's bitter, sweet, and aromatically complex all at the same time. Vermouth can play a supporting role in so many cocktails that it's easy to take it for granted, but it’s finally being appreciated alone more.
Food Trucks Go Brick and Mortar
Flip back to the 2009 and 2010 year-end lists and you’ll find street food all over them. Everyone and their mom, and their mom’s dogwalker, had a food cart or truck. But this year, some of the popular vendors moved indoors. The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck opened in the East Village, slashing the “truck” part of their name, adding “shop.” The Treats Truck is planning to open in Brooklyn. Over in Seattle, Skillet Street Food has been on the street for four years and now has a restaurant, too. They’re keeping their shimmery silver Airstream trailer on the streets, believing it still has powerful branding power (ha, street cred). These expansions of course mean bigger kitchens, ergo bigger menus. Also, drier and warmer customers.
At one point you had to wear a beret and fly to Paris to find truly magnificent macarons tucked away at Pierre Hermé's patisserie. Now they’re behind just about every bakery glass counter over here too. Why the macaron explosion? The dainty confections are essentially two smooth cookies sandwiching delicately-flavored ganache, jam, or buttercream. They're also notoriously difficult to make, hence all the bad ones. But a macaron made right is utterly refined and pleasing. After trying hundreds in NYC, we found some winners.
If Brussels sprouts were the hip veggie last year, kale has been the hottest on the block this year. What other dark leafy green has broken into the chip aisle? Kale chips are finding a prominent spot in stores, nestled right next to pita chips and pretzels. Kale salads are all over menus. The hearty, sturdy, slightly peppery leaves don’t wilt like other greens. Just this month, a Vermont guy who's been making "Eat More Kale" t-shirts for more than a decade was accused of infringing on Chick-fil-A's "Eat More Chikin" trademark. (Could you really confuse kale with chickin?) It doesn’t hurt that kale is on all the power-food lists so you feel pretty virtuous eating a bundle of it.
Artisanal Jewish Deli Food?
It was only a matter of time before Bubbe would be all the rage. New-agey delis are opening and smoking their own brisket in-house, pickling fennel for Pickle Plates, and making sandwiches on organic rye. But what would Bubbe say?! She might recognize the familiar flavors but not the caviar on top. At the recently opened Kutsher's, which is named after the Catskill’s resort in the “Borscht Belt,” they serve latkes topped with a trio of salty, briny caviars. They also make gefilte fish from wild halibut, which lacks that eerie goo you’ll remember from the jarred supermarket version. Over in Portland, Oregon, Kenny and Zuke’s makes a pastrami reuben with seven ounces of carefully hand-sliced pastrami on homemade rye. And in Brooklyn, Mile End’s deli menu includes a simple dish of Schmaltzed Radish that readily demonstrates the powers of chicken fat. So, schmaltz is the new duck fat?