What is "American cuisine" now?In search of answers, we traveled to 10 of our most forward-thinking food capitals to bring you the best examples and the top tables in each. As we discovered, choice is the new buzzword: from "small plates" to big ideas, celebrity scenes to intimate neighborhood gems, multimillion-dollar design temples to chic storefronts, the iconoclasts of a new generation are profoundly altering the culinary landscape. Meanwhile, other chefs are taking up the mantle of Alice Waters, romancing farmers' markets and kitchen gardens, preferring a revolution in the smallest details. Over the past year we've seen American chefs (and diners) turn their backs on gussied-up comfort food in favor of food that makes you sit up and take note. Whether they're in Boston or San Francisco, restaurants have become destinations for gustatory thrill rides. Luckily, culinary adventurers need not look beyond our shores to get a taste of the best. Read on.
Cairo-born chef Michael Mina is no stranger to the limelight. He has wowed San Franciscans with his mythic tuna tartare at Aqua, and outperformed Cirque du Soleil with theatrical tableside service at its offshoot in Las Vegas. Given all the fanfare that greeted the opening of Michael Mina (Westin St. Francis, 335 Powell St.; 415/397-9222; dinner for two $150) last summer, you'd think Escoffier himself had risen from the grave. It doesn't hurt that Andre Agassi is a backer. Or that celebrity designer Barbara Barry revamped the old dining room of the St. Francis Hotel overlooking Union Square—swathing it in calming shades of cream and celadon—to the tune of $4.5 million. "Diners lose interest after just a few bites of one dish," Mina says, explaining his ingenious idea of refracting a main ingredient—Dover sole, Kobe beef—into six sublime tasting portions arranged in three hot and cold pairs on fragile, custom-made Royal Doulton china especially designed to showcase miniature servings. Diver scallops, for instance, come seared and as ceviche, and are accessorized three ways: with lemon and caviar, truffles and corn, and tomatoes and lobster. The troika of bread puddings—peach and raspberry, banana and strawberry, fig and blackberry—proves that one dessert is never enough.
Daniel Patterson, formerly of Elisabeth Daniel, belongs to the new generation of scientifically minded chefs whose innovations are reawakening palates numbed by comfort-food overdose. He is now installed at Frisson (244 Jackson St.; 415/956-3004; dinner for two $95), a Mid-Century-Modern-inspired restaurant-supper club with a luminous backlit dome and a menu that is a testament to Patterson's latest obsession: aromas. Working with a perfumer to develop natural essential oils, Patterson explores the relationship between flavor and smell in his bold but disciplined creations. Lavender-scented onions provide an intriguing dimension to cornmeal-crusted foie gras. Black bass with braised lettuce is transformed by a peppery touch of Litsea cubeba (the fruit of the Chinese may chang tree). After serious gourmands depart, revelers sink into the lounge's oversized sofas and groove to an eclectic sound track mixed by resident DJ's.
Could it be?A restaurant this seemingly unpretentious generating such buzz?Book a full month in advance and see why Quince (1701 Octavia St.; 415/775-8500; dinner for two $100) basks in cultlike devotion. Chef Michael Tusk indulges lovers of haute-rustic flavors with a purist northern-California spin on Mediterranean food. It took clever maneuvering—partitions, flattering lighting, a Murano-glass chandelier—to make the diminutive former Victorian apothecary look so inviting. Still, what you'll remember is the quiet intelligence that shines through each dish on the market-driven menu. Here are chickpea ravioli in a pepper-zapped squid sauce, followed by squab cooked under a weight, or a Roman-style oxtail stew subtly seasoned with cloves and cinnamon. After buckwheat crêpes with prunes and Armagnac, you'll stroll away composing flowery sonnets to the pleasures of veal cheeks, wild nettles, and artisanal olive oils.
Ten-month-old T'afia (3701 Travis St.; 713/524-6922; dinner for two $80) is a Berkeley restaurant that just happens to have interesting Hill Country and Galveston County vintages on its wine list, a menu that romances Texas ingredients, and an address on a fast-gentrifying stretch of Houston's emerging Midtown. Monica Pope, one of the founders of the city's wildly popular farmers' market and the Republic of Alice Waters's ambassador to the Lone Star State, preaches the garden-to-table gospel with dishes such as a salad of house-cured duck prosciutto with fennel and blood orange; a terrifically tender and smoky venison served with a reassuringly homey sweet-potato purée and a sauce of buttermilk grits; or an earthy buckwheat and wild mushroom gâteau. The bare bones-chic, 16-table dining room, with exposed brick walls and acrylic-frosted tables, is saved from austerity by the excitement that hangs in the air as guests share in Pope's latest discoveries: an unusual Texas chèvre, a particularly sweet carrot from a farmer named Gita. A few sips of the punch made with the house-distilled ratafia—the Mediterranean fruit-infused liqueur that lends the restaurant its name—and the space positively glows.
The walls at Rouge (812 Westheimer St.; 713/520-7955; dinner for two $80) bring to mind a soak in a tub of Shiraz, and the wraparound eye-level mirrors make spying on your fellow diners obligatory (these range from mink-draped divas to deal-making moguls to foodies who are clearly here just for the rabbit terrine). Edelberto Gonçalves, a young Frenchman with the face of an angel and a past that includes stints at several Michelin-starred restaurants, knows how to please them all. Vaguely New American, more than a little bit French, his food says ambition, bordering on the baroque, but stopping short of the excess that plagues so many Houston chefs. Just taste his buttery-rich salmon confit sprinkled with fleur de sel. Or his impossibly fragrant lobster tagine—the whole crustacean is first presented in a tagine pot before being whisked back to the kitchen for carving. Please exercise restraint when attacking that sweet coconut tamale: everyone's watching.
It was a happy day in Houston when Claire Smith, once chef-owner of the Daily Review Café, reappeared on the scene after a three-year hiatus. Shade (250 W. 19th St.; 713/863-7500; dinner for two $70), her warm, minimalist neighborhood haunt in the Heights, is the first serious restaurant in a district Houstonians love for its eclectic mix of biker bars, antiques shops, groovy boutiques, and gingerbread Victorian manses. The cross-cultural menu leaps from Mexican-inflected quail with pickled Nopalito cactus to Chinese five spice-seared tuna carpaccio to Southern chicken-fried pork chops, but Smith is always in command of her flavors. She spikes ultra-fresh grouper with a wasabi crust and refreshing cucumber "scales"; and sauces roast lamb with a velvety eggplant-goat cheese purée. The retro coconut cream pie updated with a crumbly hazelnut shortbread crust is reason alone to come here.
NEXT GREAT NEIGHBORHOOD With the light-rail metro finally finished, Houston's Midtown is now home to new shops, bars, and restaurants. • White-napped tables pose against hot-red walls at Julia's Bistro (3722 Main St.; 713/807-0090; dinner for two $65). Jazzy Nuevo Latino cuisine—duck taquitos, churrasco-style pork tenderloin with red chimichurri—comes courtesy of chef José Garcia, most recently of Artista, another Houston favorite. • Fried catfish with grits and eggs, a delicious wings-and-waffles combo, and a comfy, lived-in vibe draw locals to the Breakfast Klub (3711 Travis St.; 713/528-8561; breakfast for two $17). • For three years running, the city's best-loved-restaurant award has gone to Ibiza Food & Wine Bar (2450 Louisiana St.; 713/524-0004; dinner for two $80), for the bright, welcoming room, the extensive wine cellar, the addictive slow-cooked lamb shank and mint couscous—to say nothing of the tableside cocktail carts.