We've all heard about Noma, the Danish restaurant at the forefront of the Nordic food movement headed by chef Rene Redzepi. But what does the impact of Nordic cuisine (and other influences on modern dining) look like on the plate at Chicago's leading restaurants? (Hint: It's not just about herring.)
Many Chicago chefs are embracing a relaxed approach to plating. The diner experiences a landscapelike array of food, which allows the fork to travel across the plate, instead of a tight, overworked stack of precariously plated elements.
Who's doing it: Jason Hamel's organically gorgeous plates at Lula Cafe are at once casual and stylish, just like the Logan Square neighborhood they reside in.
The catchword of the Nordic food movement, foraging represents everything from mushroom hunting and wild blueberry picking to the harvest of wildflowers and fig-tree sap (a vegetable rennet used to coagulate milk for cheese). The local food movement gets taken to the next level, as chefs call for (or hunt for) hand-gathered ingredients to set their dishes apart.
Who's doing it: Iliana Regan's "root to branch" cooking at Lincoln Square's tiny Elizabeth. Recent menus have featured raccoon and pheasant trapped in Indiana, Queen Anne's lace jelly and spicebush berries from deep in the Midwest woods.
Sense of place
The food on the plate speaks of a time and a location. Chef Dave Beran of Next has been at the vanguard of this contextual dining concept, as diners in 2012 were transported to Sicily, Spain and Kyoto. In 2013, the first menu, called The Hunt, will take the diner on a woodland journey.
Who's doing it: Chef Thomas Lents of Sixteen in the Trump Hotel, a Battle Creek, Mich., native, takes diners to the Midwest "by presenting the setting, the moment and the cuisine of a place." His 16-course winter tasting menu reads like a poetic ode to the season, including a "Frozen Winter Morning's Landscape" represented by smoked sturgeon, caviar and fennel captured midstream beneath a sheer layer of ice.
Next up: Expect the modernist manipulation of food to lessen as chem lab techniques and additives continue to become more integrated into everyday restaurant cooking. Local and seasonal will continue to morph into more hand-harvested and personally gathered ingredients. And fermentation techniques like pickling, curing, brining and beyond will continue their bold uptick on menus. Watch for more kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, mead, tempeh and dozens of other house-fermented items as chefs follow the experiments at Redzepi's Nordic Food Lab.
Potato crisps with anise and chocolate
From ''NOMA Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine''
2 medium potatoes such as Yukon Gold
Grapeseed oil (enough for a depth of 2 inches)
14 ounces couverture chocolate*
ounce powdered cocoa butter*
2 teaspoons green anise seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1) Peel the potatoes and slice them very thinly into cold water. Leave the slices in the cold water until the starch has rinsed out and then pat dry. 2) Heat the oil carefully in a deep fryer or saucepan to approximately 340 degrees and fry the potatoes until crisp. Cool on grease-absorbant paper.
3) Melt the chocolate and the cocoa butter and bring to 120 degrees. Temper it to 80 degrees, and then increase the temperature back up to 85 degrees. Pull the potatoes through the tempered chocolate to cover them completely, then cool on a tray. 4) Sprinkle the anise and fennel seeds and a little sea salt over the potatoes before they have cooled completely. * 1 pound of a good quality dark coating chocolate can be substituted for the couverture chocolate and powdered cocoa butter. Skip tempering process; melt to 85 to 90 degrees.