For Your Next Meal, Are Organs On The Menu?

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema travels the country sampling the latest dishes. He gives host Michel Martin a slice of what's in and what's out in the food world, including some unusual experiments "ear to tail" cooking.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. That's something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. The Washington Post Spring Dining Guide came out this weekend, but even if you don't live in or visit Washington, D.C., we thought food critic Tom Sietsema is a good person to talk about the dining trends you will probably be seeing at a restaurant near you.

So, Tom Sietsema, thanks so much for joining us once again.

TOM SIETSEMA: Thank you for having me. Good to be here.

MARTIN: So, before we get to the food, I want to talk about the food business. The last time you came onto the program, we talked a lot about the way the economic downturn - the recession, if you will, even though the recession is officially over - but how, you know, difficult economic times are affecting the way people eat out, even in an area like Washington, D.C., which is not as so profoundly affected because there's a lot of government spending and so forth.

But what have you observed? Last time, you talked a lot about doing away with things like the bread basket and the tablecloths and things of that sort. What are you seeing in the ensuing year?

SIETSEMA: Well, that's still going on. You know, I was out for dinner last night and the restaurant had tablecloths and I thought, what's different about this restaurant? And it's the fact that every other new restaurant that opens in this market and in other markets, too - I travel quite a bit for The Post - seems to be doing away with these things, these practicalities that we used to have.

The break basket, for instance, which can cost $1 to $3 a table. You know, you add that up on a - you know, during the course of business, it can add up to hundreds of dollars. Same thing for linens. Linens are very expensive. Very oftentimes, there's a monopoly in the market, so you know, you need the linens. You're not going to invest in your own, you know, washing machine or whatever.

And then, to go along with this, too, a lot of new restaurants aren't dressing up very much. You know, we're seeing fewer luxury restaurants and more restaurants moving into spaces where they're keeping the distressed walls, keeping the cement floors, bringing in repurposed wood. You know, I can't remember the last time I was in a luxury restaurant.

MARTIN: Well, you know, and you can imagine, for some people, eating out anywhere is a luxury, so for some people, this is kind of a - just a - you know, this is kind of a useless conversation.

But for people that are at the other end of the spectrum, is there any - do you hear kind of a restlessness about this? Do you hear that people at the other end of the spectrum who are kind of bored and looking for the next new thing - how are people meeting that need or that desire?

SIETSEMA: I think there will always be special places to go to, special luxury places. You look at Noma over in Copenhagen. You know, these highly experimental restaurants - that's another thing that's simultaneously happening right now. A lot of younger chefs are breaking off from established chefs and opening up their own mini-bars, so to speak. Now, mini-bar, for people who don't live in Washington, is this highly experimental Spanish laboratory from the Chef Jose Andres, and he's spun off a lot of other restaurants around the country and other imitators around the country. I still think he happens to do it best.

Another part of this, too - another side of this coin is the rise in things like organ meats. You know, we all say we're trying to eat healthy, but one thing I notice, too, is there's a lot more liver on menus. There's tongue. Nose-to-tail eating is what we call it or nose-to-tail butchering and chefs are using these cheaper or lesser parts for dinner.

Last week, I was in a neighborhood restaurant in Arlington called the Green Pig Bistro - a young chef who is using the whole animal - and I bit into a taco and it was unusually crunchy and it turned out to be pig ear.

MARTIN: Oh, dear. My guest is Tom Sietsema. He's the food critic...

SIETSEMA: It was delicious.

MARTIN: I'll take your word for it. He's the food critic for The Washington Post. His annual Spring Dining Guide was featured in this week's Post magazine and we're just checking in with him on trends that he's seeing in dining around the country.

Are there other trends that you want to tell us about? For example, you know, this is a very international city, Washington, D.C. So we're kind of used to a lot of kind of cuisines rising into prominence. Have you seen - have you observed that there are sort of ethnic cuisines that are getting new prominence around the country?

SIETSEMA: Well, we're lucky because, whenever there's a trouble spot in the world, Washington benefits. You know, in the '70s, we had the rise of Persian restaurants. In the '80s, we had lots of Salvadoran restaurants, you know, and the same with Vietnamese restaurants in the '70s and '80s.

What I see now nationally, though, is a sort of a rise or an interest in Nordic cuisine. We spent a lot of time in sunny or Mediterranean climes and now we're looking north, the next hot thing, at Nordic food. And we're seeing a lot of - I see this across the country, too.

MARTIN: Why is that, though? That's not a trouble spot.

SIETSEMA: Well, I think it's sort of unlike - taking Washington out of this equation, I think it's - everyone can relate to meatballs and a little lingonberry or aquavit in their wine, which is sort of a punch grog that they like to make. Gravlax. I see more smorgasbords. All these sort of Nordic things are coming at the fore right now.

And there's a wonderful restaurant in Minneapolis called The Bachelor Farmer, which was opened not too long ago by the sons of the Governor Dayton there, and they specialize in this and it just - I'm from the Midwest. I'm from Minnesota, so it made me feel very much at home.

MARTIN: Comfort food for you?

SIETSEMA: Comfort food. Exactly.

MARTIN: Wonderful. You mentioned earlier that we're supposed to be - air quotes here - thinking about eating healthier, more healthful food, or at least trying to think about eating more healthful food. Are you seeing more healthful options available on menus? Or how are people addressing that desire for it? I mean, I sometimes see people saying - menus saying things like, ask us what's in this, or we can modify this to your taste or your dietary needs. But is there any general trend toward the kinds of food choices that, for example, the first lady is trying to encourage people to make?

SIETSEMA: Sure. I think people say one thing and do another, and they might monitor their eating at home, but when they go out, they tend to be celebrating and you're not going to go and get the eggless souffle, or whatever. You know what I mean? People just want to treat themselves when they eat out, unless it's - well, even with a business lunch or, you know, depending upon the occasion. People feel like they've earned that right.

And, by the way, you know, those little heart healthy symbols on menus and everything don't work very well. They sort of kill a dish. I've heard more chefs talk about that. You know, when they try and do these things, they result in fewer sales. If you don't tell people about them, though - their heart healthfulness and their general healthfulness - they're more apt to buy it.

MARTIN: So it's the finger scold in the back of the head. People kind of see the - they hear the finger scold with the little heart healthy thing, even if it isn't really there. What about - we see more about, like, vegetarian. People having an interest in vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free dining. Are you seeing that appearing on menus or is it the same thing? It's a buzz kill.

SIETSEMA: Well, it can be a buzz kill, but you know, certain things, I see more. Even chain restaurants are doing gluten-free menus right now, and one of the more interesting chain restaurants is Seasons 52. It opened two branches this year in Washington, but they've got dozens of restaurants around the country. It's all about celebrating food and the seasons, but no dish is more than - greater than 450 calories or something like that. They don't have butter in their restaurant. They don't have fryers in the restaurant, but they have very good flatbreads with nice toppings.

And this is another trend, too. Or mini desserts. So you get little votives of maybe three desserts, a miniature cheesecake and a pudding or custard or something else and, somehow, two or three bites of two or three really good things is meant to satisfy us, and I think it does.

MARTIN: Does it? I was going to say - I was going to - does it, really?

SIETSEMA: It does, but you might want three more of those little votives, too.

MARTIN: That's right. What's the best thing you ate all year? I know you try to be fair, but what's the best thing you ate all year? Putting you on the spot.

SIETSEMA: Oh, the best thing? That is...

MARTIN: Yeah. Best thing.

SIETSEMA: That is really hard. I've eaten so many good things. You know what? I will say this. A hamburger is a real luxury. I love the hamburgers at Palena. Former White House chef, Frank Ruta, does one of the best in town. I think it's simple and elegant and basic. He makes his own pickles with it. He makes his own brioche bun.

MARTIN: All right.

SIETSEMA: And it's less than 10 bucks.

MARTIN: OK. I'm hungry now. Tom Sietsema is a food critic for The Washington Post. His annual Spring Dining Guide was featured in this week's Washington Post Magazine and he was nice enough to stop by our D.C. studios and didn't bring us any snacks, Tom. Thank you.

SIETSEMA: Left my carry-out at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, in 1985, Patrice Gaines was a young feature writer who was assigned to follow a gruesome story about a woman who was beaten to death in an alley in Washington, D.C., but her research contradicted the official story.

PATRICE GAINES: The police had told us that there was a gang that had killed this woman, this mother, and the first thing I found that was curious was that no one knew that there was a gang in the neighborhood.

MARTIN: Now, attorneys are fighting for a new trial for the men who served years in prison for a crime they may not have committed. We'll talk to Patrice Gaines just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Actress Tia Mowry found fame starring with her twin sister, Tamera, in the show, "Sister, Sister," but as she grew up, married and wanted to start a family, she wondered if she could really have it all.

TIA MOWRY: Ever since I had Cree, it seems like my career has opened up even more.

MARTIN: And now, she's passing on her tips for living large as a mom in her new book. That's next time on TELL ME MORE.

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