Cafe Society

The Shlock of the New

Wild-mushroom-and-Fontina grilled cheese. Frittatas; toasted-oat pancakes that taste like giant oatmeal raisin cookies laced with wispy vanilla; seared tuna in a soy-ginger glaze. Eggs Benedict made with poached eggs wrapped in smoky Nova lox and topped with crème fraîche, and a breakfast pizza assembled from scrambled eggs, beef tenderloin, sprigged fresh thyme and the hollandaise that should have been on the Benedict but wasn't. Wild arugula and the pride of Napa, Laura Chennel goat cheese. An orzo salad threaded with orange zest on a bed of bitter greens. A Kobe-beef hamburger. Truffled french fries.

And that's it. Not the extent of the menu at Cafe Bisque, chef/owner Alex Gurevich's year-old New American breakfast bar in Lakewood, but possibly of my patience. For me, New American food is done. Over like the dinosaurs, like LA Gear sneakers and Members Only jackets. In the past few years, the New American moniker has become a catch-all descriptive, a lazy man's out for chefs who don't feel like cooking to any sort of standard, a crutch for those who want to mix the quasi-French technique and Old World classics on their menus with Italian preparations, Asian insight and American ingredients without taking the time to understand any of them.

Far be it from me to lament the bad old days of American haute, but there was a time when New American meant something. Granted, it was a broke-leg, cross-eyed, crippled offshoot of a méthode de cuisine terribly flawed in its own right (California cuisine, the original sin of American cookery from which a little good and nearly all evil has sprung), but there was a point to it, a reason for its existence, and at least the presumption of a method to the madness it unleashed on the world.

In the beginning (which means about thirty years ago), New American cuisine was exactly this: an over-the-top response by hometown chefs to the notion that all great cuisine began and ended in France. The advent of California cuisine, of Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and all their timely ilk, coupled with the sudden appearance of several classically trained chefs (most of them of Continental origin) who were eschewing the French canon and identifying their tastes and styles as purely American gave rise to the idea that honest American cuisine without a French accent was worthy on its own merits. We were poor in tradition, sure, stunted in appreciation, besotted with fast and frozen foods. But we were also possessed of an abundance of local product, a repertoire informed both by regional specialization and decades of virtual occupation by the brigades of Europe, as well as by a seemingly unique talent for culinary innovation. After being trained through long exposure to international haute cuisine to be ashamed of our grits, our pork chops and applesauce, our baked beans, étouffee and collard greens, the New American culinary revolt was a reactionary shedding of these froggish shackles. It was an attempt to prove that we as Americans had a culinary tradition and an undeniable style that deserved to be recognized as valid and true.

It was a war of grilled-cheese sandwiches versus coq au vin, tomato soup against consommé. And we lost. One of the reasons for this failure was that American chefs have yet to produce our own canon of acceptable practices, agreed-upon measures of absolute rightness, and standards for individual preparations that represent the best of our cuisine to the world without having to offer fries on the side and delivery in thirty minutes or it's free. Also sealing our fate was the fact that the New American label was almost immediately co-opted as a fantastically profitable buzzword that could be used to describe menus ranging from the successful, ironic playfulness of Thomas Keller's French Laundry (our New American avatar, the Luke Skywalker in this foie gras opera) to the new theme-bar roster at T.G.I.McPtomaine's Good Time Foodeteria. That irresistible urge for pandering that exists in the deepest heart of every American hack blew any chance we ever had of victory.

Still, we fight on. As American culinarians, we may never work our way out from beneath the mountains of crap that we're universally known to love so dearly -- our jalapeño poppers and flash-frozen fried chicken and half-gallon buckets of soda pop. But the struggle, doomed though it may be, is a noble one, because its premise is sound. We do have some great food of our very own, and some great chefs constantly trying to finesse it into something indisputably fine.

So you should be careful when bandying about the term "New American." It's a nom de guerre that comes with a certain weight, a certain responsibility -- and a few rules.

For starters, if you're going to call yourself a New American restaurant, as Cafe Bisque does, don't front-load your menu with French, Spanish, Italian and Asian dishes. Yes, those influences are present in modern American dining, but they are just that: influences. Not the body of the cuisine, but its adornments. If you choose, like Cafe Bisque, to play that globe-trotting culinary-melting-pot game and hype your imported Fontina, Bavarian ham and Madagascar vanilla, then suck it up, admit that you're really a fusion restaurant and take your lumps. Sorry, but one Napa Valley goat cheese does not a New American restaurant make.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan