Sometimes food critics - especially in big cities like New York - declare widespread trends. "Pork Belly is out, Bone Marrow is in," or, "Rice is outdated, every Asian-themed dish needs to have noodles these days."These are sweeping generalizations that few restaurants can substantiate, but here in the Vail Valley, there are some trends, maybe better called necessities, popping up among some of the area's popular fine dining establishments.
The No. 1 common thread of late is the use of "secondary" cuts of red meat. Rather than a trend, however, this is a simple reality. "Right off the cuff, the biggest processes I've seen heading into 2013 is what's happened with the drought and what will influence the food chain in the next few months, specifically, the gestation of cattle," said Atwater executive chef Todd Bemis. "We'll see an increase in the price of cattle. The price will not decrease as it usually does in the spring months. Restaurants will turn to secondary cuts: hanger steaks, a tri tip, a flat iron. What will normally happen at the nicer restaurants, instead of buying a choice tri tip, we'll bump up to a prime cut. With the increased fat content, they're going to be a lot more palatable to the average guest."Luckily, these cuts happen to be extremely tasty, so to most restaurant goers, the presence of certain items looks totally planned, even trendy."You're seeing a lot of bone marrow and pork belly," said Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard Chef Paul Anders. "Cheaper cuts are becoming much more common. A lot of that is because at the moment, the pieces of primal steaks, they're gastronomical."Another recent characteristic you find at nearly every local fine dining restaurant is a wealth of information regarding the origin of your food.
"Take something like sustainable fish. You won't find anything on the menu that isn't the most wholesome version available," said 8100 chef Christian Apetz. "It's where the industry is headed. Although the demand is there, the supply can't meet it yet, but we make sure to do everything we can to find the most wholesome items. The shrimp we serve throughout the hotel is phosphate-free. It's not readily available. Most shrimp you find has phosphates and water added. The salmon we source is Shetland's Best. It's an amazing fish. The beef I use is from a farmer in Southern California - Brandt Farms. We use Bear Mountain bison. From a trending standpoint, we definitely place an emphasis on sourcing the most natural products."Mountain Standard takes it so far as to inform its guests of where exactly each fish was caught, on what boat steered by which captain. This is all courtesy of the Sea2Table program for the restaurant's catch of the day. Several local restaurants are making a point of telling you - especially here in landlocked Colorado - where your seafood is coming from. Beaver Creek's Saddleridge gets its trout from the rivers of Idaho and Cima's cod comes directly from Chatham, Mass. You may have seen Skuna Bay salmon on local restaurant menus, like at Mountain Standard, over at Leonora in The Sebastian in Vail or at Larkspur Restaurant. The fish are raised in Nootka Sound, off the coast of Vancouver Island, Canada, and while they're a sustainably-raised fish, the color and taste are nearly identical to wild salmon.In addition to selecting purveyors that are renowned to be natural and fresh, of course, there is a huge trend sweeping the nation's restaurants in the use of locally grown products. This certainly holds true for the valley's restaurants, several of which have their own gardens to pluck from. In the winter, however, procuring local produce becomes a challenge.
"When you say 'farm-to-table' and 'local,' remember that we're in Colorado," Bemis said. "I have guests that want asparagus. It's not local and it wouldn't be available if we were staying local. Farm-to-table has been a marketing trend, most definitely. They're all good with it until they can't get asparagus in January, or raspberries in February. It's different if you're in L.A. or New York City, where the climate is milder and you can always find fresh produce."Still, there are several Colorado products available year-round and local restaurants are using them more and more. The first example: beer."Seeing as Colorado is the hotbed of beer, we've been using beer in cooking. Also, beer in dessert is huge," Apetz said. "We put beer floats on the menu, like an adult version of a root beer float. It's homemade ice creams with 1554, Lefthand Stout ... It was the brainchild of our pastry chef. I don't think that's anything that's going away."Indeed. Mountain Standard offers only Colorado beer on its menu and Atwater does regular beer and food pairings.
Another trend that is likely here to stay - especially in the winter - is the constant offering of comfort food."It's amazing the number of people who will come in and order mash potatoes or mac and cheese," Bemis said. "People will come in and splurge. Humans, when it gets cold and dark early, they crave comfort food.""The whole comfort food and rustic style, it's more how people want to eat," Anders concurs. "In the winter we use the heartier root vegetables. We know there are going to be people who come in and want to have a hamburger. We want to accommodate everyone every day."Besides the go-to basics, there is also a trend in the typical diner wanting to be exotic - but sometimes only slightly so. "One thing you'll notice with 8100, we don't do any of the old school sauces like the demis and hollandaise," Apetz points out. "Citrus is starting to come in, so we'll hop on the Meyer lemons and blood oranges when they're in season and make those fresh chutneys with star anise, turmeric, cinnamon ... some of those Indian spices."When Anders added Bone Marrow to Mountain Standard's menu, he thought it would be a dish sought exclusively by foodies but he's been surprised by its popularity among regular guests. Also, dishes with a little flare - enough to take diners back to a delicious meal they've had in the past - are a big focus in local restaurants these days."On the national food chain, you're going to continue seeing people going after unique foods that they can recognize - more Korean, more Chinese. People are aware of those Asian markets," Bemis said. "What we'll get away from is the expensive, one-off items. Truffles are great. I like them. But even now when people are coming up here with disposable incomes, they'll go out and want something familiar. Variety will increase in menus, but you're not going to see asparagus and green beans go away. People want the things that strike a memory."