AM I THE only one who feels like everywhere I go lately I’m sucking lemons? In the last few years chefs such as Renee Erickson of Boat Street Café and The Walrus and the Carpenter and Matt Dillon of Sitka and Spruce and The Corson Building have begun to tart up dishes with pickled turnips and sour gooseberries and tangy housemade yogurts; Erickson even launched her own line of pickled raisins, figs, and French plums. Asian-fusion restaurants began to appear—Joule in Wallingford, Nettletown in Eastlake—which showcase the chefs’ Asian heritages in the form of fermented kimchis and chili-kissed pickled sandwich slaws. There’s a resurgence of sweets made from barely sweetened rhubarb, and the hottest emerging microbrews are sour beers. Even the newest wave of popular frozen yogurt franchises like Red Mango feature just two flavors: pucker up and pucker harder.
Apparently, it’s not just me. Those who study such things report that the American palate is undergoing a profound shift toward tart and sour flavors, just as it did a little over a decade ago when it threw over sweet for bitter. (That’s when we embraced strong coffee, bitter greens, dark chocolate, potent microbrews, and green tea.)
Why the march toward tangy, acidic flavors? Balance. The rise of fatty meats—witness the renaissance of fried chicken, the ongoing ubiquity of pork belly, our almost panicky annual binge on Copper River salmon—leaves our palates in need of a foil. “When you have these flat, thick, unctuous flavors covering your tongue, it’s important to offset them with something sharp—a pickled chard stem,” offers Dillon. “I use tons of lemon and vinegars and chilies; I use them like salt. They pop open the palate.”
When I’m craving shrill acidic notes I think first of oyster bars, like Ethan Stowell’s Anchovies and Olives, or Erickson’s elegantly whitewashed new casual noshing post, the Walrus and the Carpenter. There, the tart lemons and vinegary mignonettes that complement shellfish not only pique optimal briny flavor out of the bivalves, they influence the drift of the entire menu. Creme fraiche and pickled red onion lend tangy high notes to the basso profundos of smoked trout and lentils. And earthbound wedges of barnyard cheeses take giddy wing under the elevating influence of—but of course—pickled plums.
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