Make New American Great Again

Labels are annoying. Who can forget the head-scratching “It’s complicated” on Facebook? Not to mention the overplayed refrain that was seemingly everywhere in 2015: “I’m just not into labels.” Labeling restaurants, like relationships, can be tough too. A Yelp query reveals that 744 restaurants in the D.C. metro area are labeled as “American (New).” Yelp is pretty generous in defining the metro area—stretching it all the way to Baltimore—but the point stands: In the restaurant industry, the term New American gets sprinkled around as liberally as salt.

Because diners are so often making decisions on where to eat based on Yelp, OpenTable, and Google searches, the lingo matters. Especially terminology as prevalent as “New American.” Where did it come from? How is it defined? Is it meaningful commentary on cuisine or just a generic catchphrase?

Some restaurants create their own Yelp page and thus self-select up to three categories of cuisine type, but other restaurants’ pages are built using information crowd-sourced from diners’ reviews, according to Yelp DC community director Kimberly Van Santos. She feels more restaurants are choosing to describe themselves as “American (New)” than ever before.

“The D.C. dining scene has progressively moved so much in just the past decade, and chefs are celebrating new cooking techniques and ethnic flavors,” Van Santos says.

Many of the restaurants characterized as “American (New)” on Yelp are described using a synonym, “Contemporary American,” on OpenTable. Caroline Potter, OpenTable’s chief dining officer, says that “American” and “Contemporary American” combined make up roughly one-third of all U.S. restaurants on the reservation platform. Potter confirms that restaurants self-select their category.

Google is trickier. Every restaurant Google landing page contains its address, hours, and other need-to-know details, but also features a one-sentence description written by Google employees. 

“We’re having all sorts of trouble with Google, I don’t know where they get some of the language they put on those pages,” says Michael Schlow, the chef and restaurateur behind local restaurants like Tico and Alta Strada, as well as a string of Boston restaurants.

Marjorie Meek-Bradley, who helms Ripple in Cleveland Park, is among those a little bewildered by a description. Google describes her restaurant as a “[c]olorful haunt with an inventive, seasonal New American menu & artisan cocktails in a comfy setting.” She characterizes her food as Northern California inspired by Mediterranean flavors and seasonal ingredients. “To me that’s how I cook, but it’s a mouthful.”

In looking to define New American cuisine today, some chefs examine the roots of the term, including Eric Ziebold, who says he proudly serves a New American menu at Kinship. “Because we’re in an international world today, we’re redefining what it means to be an American restaurant,” he says. “Go back 15 or 20 years and you’d have ethnic restaurants because at the end of the day, we were settled by immigrants. What would have been considered an American restaurant served burgers, hot dogs, buffalo wings, and the full gamut of glorified bar food.”

A movement in the early ’90s brought American provincial cooking to the forefront, according to Ziebold. “That was an era of chefs who were classically French-trained who really engaged in American regional cooking and took the classics of a region and elevated them.” Locally, he credits Chefs Charlie Palmer, Jeff Buben, and Bob Kinkead for spearheading the movement.

Schlow and Chef Rob Rubba of Hazel list other “New American” pioneers. “For me it was really about the generation of Jeremiah Tower, Alice Waters, Jasper White, Lydia Shire, and Wolfgang Puck,” Schlow says, later including Larry Forgione and Jonathan Waxman. “There’s American and there’s New American, which is taking the ideas of our tried-and-true dishes and some of our regional specialties and then turning them upside down,” Schlow continues.

Rubba adds Chefs Norman Van Aken and Charlie Trotter. “Norman was using tropical island flavors with French techniques and the American mindset,” he says. “Same thing with Charlie Trotter—he did French food, but at the same time it was vibrant flavors, less butter, and he was sourcing ingredients from around the world.”

What Schlow and Rubba are getting at is that New American cuisine capitalizes on America’s status as a melting pot. For example, Ziebold’s menu boasts everything from a Japanese-inspired tuna tataki to Maine lobster French toast. And Schlow calls Ziebold’s torchon one of the best dishes of the year. “It’s influenced by a French dish, but he made it all his own and American,” Schlow says of Ziebold’s creamy cone that subs in white mushrooms for foie gras.

Slate Wine Bar, one of the few restaurants to include New American terminology on its own website, is headed up by sommelier and Chef Danny Lledó. In building the menu, Lledó pulled from his Maryland childhood as well as his Spanish and Portuguese heritage. And yet the duck breast egg rolls are the most popular. “People talk about them all the time,” Lledó says. “That’s the beautiful thing about New American cuisine, it depends on the ability of the chef to make interpretations.”

Meek-Bradley describes another duck preparation as epitomizing New American cuisine. Black garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, and chilies accompany the duck, but there’s also a swish of smoked yogurt. “It’s two different regions in the world, but the flavors work together,” she says. “That’s how our country is: You bring a lot of different things together and make it work.” She adds that America’s multicultural cuisine advantageously gives chefs the freedom to be creative and feel unconfined.

Ziebold agrees. “Contrary to what’s been going on in our country in the last 18 months with the police getting assaulted and the Black Lives Matter movement, the reality is that everybody in America is supposed to be created equal—that doesn’t exist everywhere in the world,” Ziebold says. “It’s that openness to culture, that openness to ideas that really makes a modern American restaurant today—the ability to embrace influence from other places.”

America doesn’t have thousands of years of food history and tradition like countries in Asia or Europe do, so there’s room to play. “In France, you could go eat ratatouille and know it’s French,” Rubba says. “There’s regional cuisine, but what ‘American’ is is always evolving. It’s a spirit and a mindset more than an actual cuisine.”

In addition to the American concept of a cultural melting pot, chefs, including Ziebold, Schlow and Rubba, often mention sourcing ingredients locally as a key part of a working definition of New American cuisine.

“For me, New American was the predecessor to farm-to-table,” Schlow says. “It meant that chefs were sourcing their food from specific farms and then giving that food an inventive twist that was not specifically Italian, Spanish, French, or German—it was their own creative blend deeply rooted in American ingredients.”

Blue Duck Tavern was one of the first restaurants in D.C. to take the farm-to-table approach. “The restaurant is based on that idea, we’re just trying to keep it alive,” says Chef de Cuisine Brad Deboy. “You can’t say farm-to-table anymore, it’s status quo, you just have to get on board.” Google describes Blue DucTavern as “New American preparations of locally sourced ingredients served amid handcrafted furnishings.”

Deboy prefers descriptors that tout the restaurant’s ingredient-driven cuisine. His menu includes dishes like organic chicken sourced from Allen Farms in Delaware served with fermented onion vinaigrette and fruit tree honey, and squid ink cavatelli showcasing Chesapeake Bay clams enlivened by summer chilies and bottarga.

The Pig’s Executive Chef Michael Bonk also serves as Eatwell DC’s Culinary Director. He says he can’t confidently define New American cuisine—nor does he believe in it, even though his restaurant is classified as such on Google and OpenTable. “What’s old American?” he asks. “Are we talking about the White House cookbook from 1896? I don’t think anything should be called New American. It should be called American.”

But Bonk agrees the terminology has to do with sourcing. “All the pigs I buy are from friends, and all the produce we get is from our farm or a local growers’ cooperative,” Bonk says. “We’re representing the local abundance in our area and what’s in season instead of getting fish flown in from Hawaii or buying canned products from Europe.”

Ziebold also feels ingredients are a big part of New American cuisine—hence the “ingredients” heading on his Kinship menu. He says the U.S. has bloomed in terms of quality products that are readily available. 

The answer then is that New American, while imperfect, is more than a catchall category. It’s reflective of a tradition in which chefs marry local ingredients with foreign techniques and flavor profiles to create something fresh and different. Just look at restaurants like Rose’s Luxury, Tail Up Goat, Kyirisan, and Convivial as archetypes.

Both proponents and detractors of New American hope it never becomes as reductive as a Southwest egg roll or a pad Thai burger. “If you look at the ’90s, Asian fusion was a thing, now it’s a dirty word,” says Meek-Bradley. “It started off in an interesting place and the next thing you know, wasabi mashed potatoes and tuna were on every menu.”

Ziebold cautions that when New American plates are created, they should be well intentioned and perhaps carry a story. “It’s not the confusion fusion of putting a bunch of flavors together and calling it Modern American,” he says. “We don’t try to be creative just for the sake of being creative.”    CP