The `tall food' restaurant trend of the 1990s has tumbled like the stock market. In these more frugal times, chefs are creating dishes that stick closer to the plate.

August 14, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The stock market's been down and so has restaurant food.

You may have missed the latter development, as it has not been accompanied by big headlines and photographs of traders moping and gesturing like figures in a Mannerist religious painting. Restaurant food has apparently fallen from dizzying heights of plate presentation without statistical analysis or Alan Greenspan commentary, although this turn of events has been noted and perhaps over-predicted.

In 2000, New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes breathed a rhetorical sigh of relief in writing that the craze for presenting an entree as a stack of poker chips, 4, 5, 6 and more inches high, "seems to be over." Only months ago, however, Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, displeased with a soaring construction of seared ahi tuna and foie gras, huffed, "Aren't we over tall food yet?"

Consider the life cycle of a food fashion.

Tall food has or has not run its course, depending on your point of view. The development in either case seems to have been driven by purely aesthetic values and the quest for novelty rather than, say, the introduction of a new ingredient or technology, significant demographic shift, developments in agriculture or international trade.

Food simply went wildly up. In certain places, so it remains.

Roy's in Inner Harbor East serves a seared tuna on a plinth of sticky rice and atop the tuna a peak of spun ponzu vegetables - a tangle of beets, carrots and sprouts. This little tower resists not only gravity but the ruthless press of time.

Whether tall food is passe "all depends on who you ask," says Bill Trevino, sous-chef at Roy's. Trevino says the tall tuna is one of Roy Yamaguchi's signature creations from the late 1980s and will continue to be offered regardless of shifting fashion.

Roy's is no haunted Haussner's, but in this respect it seems a throwback. The word in the food pages for a few years has been that the vertical entree belongs to another historic moment, along with Bill, the Blue Dress, 26-year-old dom-com millionaires and public faith in corporate earnings reports.

As the NASDAQ went in the 1990s, so went restaurant food. The sky seemed the limit as chefs built astonishing towers of meat, fish, starch and greens. Rosemary sprigs rose from the peaks of these creations like flags planted by triumphant mountaineers. Shoestring fried potatoes became frizzy wire sculpture aloft on countless edible monuments.

In those days, you could eat at the Gotham Bar & Grill in Lower Manhattan and wonder why you didn't order your meal with a stepladder on the side. The entree would make its breathtaking entrance, only to leave you to wonder: Shall I eat it? Photograph it for National Geographic? If it falls on me, can I sue?

Vertical food has been in Baltimore at least since the mid-1990s. At Corks restaurant in Federal Hill, the house salad featured sprigs of chives growing from a lettuce tower. Even more extravagant expressions could be found at the Joy America Cafe. That time roughly corresponds to the point when tall food appears to have reached its peak of popularity among New York chefs, who soon thereafter began to abandon the practice, which had appeared in Manhattan and other big cities in the late 1980s.

Food fashions move in eccentric ways and paces. Tapas, for example, arrived in Baltimore with the opening of Tapas Teatro in 2001, 18 years after the first tapas place opened in Manhattan. The trip would have been faster by covered wagon.

What a shame there's no Doppler radar tracking food fashions, as these things seem analogous to nothing so much as weather. Picture some TV forecaster with a U.S. map crisscrossed with arrows, babbling about Asian-fusion fronts emerging from Southern California, widely scattered balsamic vinegar reductions and locally heavy heirloom tomatoes.

"The food is always evolving," says Charlie Trotter, the chef-owner of the eponymous and highly touted restaurant in Chicago, which had become known for vertical presentations.

For him, food verticality was "almost an intellectual exercise, ... trying to be analytical with the food. ... In my case, vertical food was less about standing things up than layering things, more an attempt to gain texture by weaving things together."

That was in the late 1980s, though, before every other chef was doing tall food. What were these people thinking? Near as Trotter could tell, many were not thinking at all, just doing height for height's sake. The approach got a bad name. He says he hasn't done much of it in 10 years.

In the wrong hands, it's madness, says David Burke, the corporate chef of the Manhattan-based Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group.

"There is a method to it. It's not just stacking," says Burke. You take the wrong approach to combining crisp and moist elements, "the next thing you know, you're eating a soggy mess."

Burke is familiar with reports that tall food is over, but he's not convinced.

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