Benchmark notes top dining, wine trends

Benchmark Hospitality International, The Woodlands, Texas, released its top dining and wine trends for 2012 list. The trends were observed by Benchmark’s executive chefs and culinary experts at the company’s 35 luxury hotels and resorts in the U.S.

Dining trends

1. Truth, transparency and clarity — There is a rising movement that wants to verify the truth behind oft-used descriptions of ingredients and dishes, such as artisan, natural, healthy, organic, farm-to-table, and hand-crafted. These adjectives were previously solely used in the realm of chefs and culinary experts. 

Today, however, we see a noticeable increase in the use of these descriptive words for products that lack credibility for the use of this language.

The debasement of certain significant descriptors is being exploited for sheer commercial use without much value added to the guest experience, and this robs the true artisan producers from being recognized for the difference that they make in the quality of food. When fast food restaurants start claiming their product to be artisan related, it is time to revolt.

2. Foraging — Though not everyone will forage for their dinner, foraging is significant for specific regions of the country. 

Some restaurants are allowing one cook to be a forager for the week; others are employing external foragers with much success in creating a sense of the true nature-kitchen partnership. 

3. Molecular gastronomy/cooking — Cooking isn’t just about the drama or the gorgeous plates, it’s about grasping the chemistry of the process and really dedicating oneself to understanding everything that occurs to create superb flavor, aroma, color and presentation. Though perhaps intimidating to some, this knowledge of the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients, which occur while cooking, enriches our culinary lives immensely without taking away from the simple pleasures of a grilled steak, or roasted prime rib with potatoes.

4. Being a part of the process — Guests want to be entertained and informed of the culinary process during dinner, in addition to enjoying a wonderful meal. Observant restaurateurs are responding with a dining environment that allows guests to participate in the process. This may take the form of tours of the chef’s herb garden prior to dinner, requesting the bartender create a specialty cocktail with guest-chosen elements, sampling the artisan cheese menu and taking note of the defining flavors, or sitting at the kitchen counter watching the chef prepare a multi-course meal.

5. Creative gluten-free? — The rich ethnic and culinary diversity of the U.S. provides excellent gluten free recipes that have been evolved naturally over time, originating from various parts of the globe. Pan-Asian and North African recipes are some of the many ethnic foods that chefs are serving in a gluten-free state, while preserving the richness and the flavors of the dishes. And most large and medium-sized cities and even a few small towns now produce gluten-free pastries without the preservatives, whole-wheat pizzas and other U.S. cuisine items without gluten.

Wine trends

1. Moscato — Moscato is an easy grape to like. Its wines are fruit-driven, refreshing and perfect for outdoor dining. They pair well with a wide variety of food, especially spicy Asian and Mexican. Moscato d’Asti from Italy has practically replaced Pinot Grigio in current popularity. 

2. Champagne and sparkling wine — Bars and restaurants throughout the country are pairing champagne and sparkling wines with their menus, and some feature specialty drinks made with sparkling wine. Cavas from Spain offer a great price/value, as does Gruet from New Mexico, Yalupa from California and Santa Julia from Argentina.

3. Sherry — Long thought of as a drink for grandparents, Sherry is gaining in popularity with a rediscovery of especially dry versions and small-batch sherries, including those produced by Valdespino.

Sherry can be served cold or over ice with a twist of lemon as an aperitif with antipasto or roasted nuts. Sweeter styles can be paired with chocolate and fruit desserts. Tio Pepe, La Gitano and La Ina are examples of a dry sherry, and Lustau makes sweet dessert sherries. 

4. Aperitif wines — Lillet and Dubonnet have always been favorites for aperitif wines, both red and white versions, and Lillet has just introduced a Rosé. Also, sweet and dry vermouth grape-based mixers, served on the rocks with a twist, are substitutes for the usual mixed drink before dinner. 

5. Chardonnay un-oaked — Winemakers are backing away from the huge oak-bomb Chardonnays of the past and producing wines that are crisp, clean and more fruit forward. These wines appeal to a much broader range of wine drinkers of all ages, and are much easier to pair with food. Since no expensive oak barrels are involved, un-oaked Chardonnays also tend to be less expensive.