In my July review of chef Lisa Nakamura’s Gnocchi Bar, I call fine-dining chefs who slum it in casual takeouts the culinary trend of the decade. Nakamura, after all, once labored at Napa’s French Laundry; she’s got legit classical cred on her resume. And what’s she doing now? Spooning intelligently conceived toppings over her pillowy housemade gnocchi—toppings like roasted Portobello mushrooms, artichoke hearts, Mama Lil’s peppers, and pesto. Nakamura knows how to pack complexities of flavor into a single spoonful; that’s the essential lesson of a classical cooking education. She is capable of much, but her simple Gnocchi Bar shows that she may have been born to spoon exquisite sauces over starch.
So, it appears, are a lot of chefs around here. I began to take notice of this a few years back when Mike Easton opened Il Corvo, a tiny storefront starring three or so sauces a day over a rotating stable of housemade pastas. From the start, Easton’s pasta made an impression. But it was the sauces that showcased his gifts—sauces like spicy tomato, anchovy, and caper, thoughtfully paired with squid ink fiore; or marinated white anchovies, olives, chiles, and spring onions, liberally oiled and tossed with conchiglie. Robust flavors leapt off canvasses bland and starchy; this is the point of the sumptuously topped starch. Just last year Easton achieved a similar feat at Pizzeria Gabbiano in Pioneer Square, where bready Roman style crusts are topped with daily-changing revelations like prosciutto, arugula, duck egg, and tomato; or taleggio and Hatch chiles with garlic and potatoes.
Once you start looking for the variously-topped starch, you see it everywhere. You see it in operations like chef Danielle Custer’s Biscuit Box truck, whose fluffy headliners come smothered with foraged mushroom and black pepper gravy, perhaps, or Chinese barbecue pork belly with pickled cucumbers. You see it at Kraken Congee, where chefs Garrett Doherty and Shane Robinson use congee, that bland rice porridge of Southeast Asian cuisines, as foundation for boundary-busting toppings like pork belly adobo and five-spice duck confit. Of course for some time now we've seen it from chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, with their topped rice and noodle bowls at Revel and now too in the noodle bar at Trove.
It’s no surprise that every one of these chefs is a seasoned pro; the sauced starch only really works where the sauces offer depth and innovation and stand-alone complexity, and I’m grateful so many skilled chefs have made it a business plan. Fine-dining chefs doing casual takeouts may indeed be the culinary trend of the decade—but this simple starch-with-sauces thing isn't far behind.