June 21, 2005 11:49 AM EDT

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“Welcome to America!” What sounds like the official greeting at a U.S. international airport is in fact the standard hello to customers at one of New York City’s newest, largest and most successful café-restaurants, called America. In a larger sense, that greeting is equally appropriate for style-conscious eaters who formerly restricted their gastronomic forays to France, where they devoted vacation times to seeking out the specialties of superstar chefs like Paul Bocuse, Michel Guérard and the Troisgros brothers. Now with equal zeal, many such adventurers are beginning to tour the U.S., eager to sample the highly publicized culinary creations that make up the new American cuisine.

As the restaurant becomes the new American theater, and the young, the well-off and the restless may eat out five or six nights a week (see following story), their itinerary not only includes the fashionable eateries of their hometown but follows a trendy trail from coast to coast. “With affluence, your palate becomes very important to you,” observes Jonathan Waxman, the chef who brought California cooking to New York in his popular though wildly expensive restaurant, Jams. Chefs sought by such traveling gastronomes are likely to include Alice Waters (Chez Panisse, Berkeley), Paul Prudhomme (K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, New Orleans), Larry Forgione (An American Place and the new Morgans Bar, New York), Richard Irving (the Ivy, Los Angeles) and Jeremiah Tower (Stars, San Francisco, and Santa Fe Bar & Grill, Berkeley).

Anyone considering such a trip could find no better season than this, for with its dedication to lightness and freshness and its celebration of vegetables, herbs and fruits, the new American cooking shows to best advantage in late summer. From now through October, the colorful bounty of local farms will present a dazzling challenge to these inventive chefs.

“We’re sort of going crazy in the kitchen to keep up with greens that will be interesting and new and delightful to the eye,” says Anne Rosenzweig, the chef and partner at the small and sophisticated Arcadia, one of the best new wave restaurants in Manhattan. “I’m doing roast quail on beet greens,” she says proudly. Rosenzweig reports that out-of-town visitors compare dishes they have had in Par is to those she created, adding, “They do tours of New York restaurants or the California wine country.”

One wine-country stop that beguiles many people is the relaxed, pleasantly bucolic New Boonville Restaurant, about 2½ hours northwest of San Francisco. The restaurant appeals both to stylish celebrities like Angela Lansbury and casually dressed locals. Charlene and Vernon Rollins, the husband and wife who run this restaurant, grow most of their own produce in a sprawling garden on their grounds. It is now a shimmer of color with orange peppers, green to red tomatoes, emerald zucchini and rose-gold peaches. The Rollinses raise much of their own poultry and serve most meats and fish simply grilled. Their delectable goat cheese and bacon pizza (the best dish sampled at a recent Sunday lunch) looks like a mille-fleurs embroidery, decked out with tomatoes, Swiss chard, orange squash blossoms and flowering purple sage.

Even in New England, where lobster remains the runaway summer favorite, there is a new look, especially at the hands of Lydia Shire, the chef at Seasons, the restaurant in the Bostonian Hotel. Here traditional grilled lobster is garnished with untraditional chive butter and Chinese pot stickers–steamed dumplings filled with lobster, pork and ginger. “The average diner is very much aware of ‘new American cuisine,'” says Shire. “It’s out of the fad stage and is really the creative cooking of good simple food, using American products and infusing some kinds of classical preparations.”

Also designated as Californian because so many of its highly visible practitioners are on the West Coast, this new cooking is an intellectualized, even esoteric style, characterized by the use of fresh native products and seemingly disparate ethnic ingredients and influences in a single dish. In addition to local produce, some of the trademark foods are goat cheese, blue cornmeal, wild mushrooms and game. American wines from a number of states are featured. The preferred fuel for grilling is mesquite, a wood native to the Southwest. Indeed, that part of the country, along with Louisiana and the Carolinas, provides much of the inspiration for dishes that are usually modified with Oriental, French and Italian overtones, all in the best melting-pot tradition.

The results are often so tempting that even Julia Child, the reigning resident French chef, is being swept up in the tide of Americana. Says Child of a resent experiment with corn-bread sticks: “Well, they’re just delicious. I also did abalone burgers, and I use soy sauce now, which I never used to. Also Chinese black beans, Tabasco sauce and an occasional chili pepper. It has freed me.” As American chefs begin to surpass French counterparts as status symbols, many restaurateurs snap up baby-faced graduates such professional cooking schools as the Culinary Institute of America (C.I.A.) Hyde Park, N.Y., Johnson & Wales Providence and the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Several of the professional cooking schools have waiting lists for entry and report three to six available jobs for every graduate.

To most of these graduates, eclectic a key word. It certainly applies to the food served at Miss Ruby’s Café, which opened late last year in Manhattan. Says Ruth Bronz, the Texas-born owner-chef: “I plan menu changes on a regular basis, switching from Cajun-Creole to New Mexican to Shaker. I’m missionary about it.” Shaker food, along with the fare of the Pennsylvania Dutch and the American Indians, has already packed them in at special festivals in the formal American Harvest restaurant at Manhattan’s Vista International Hotel. And surely eclectic the word for the menu at Bootsie, Winky & Miss Maud in Washington, where Owner-Chef Bob Green beguiles illustrious visitors like Sandra Day O’Connor with fresh pickled trout Hemingway; New England baked stuffed clams; Philadelphia submarines; winter cabbage leaf stuffed with sausage, rice and cashew nuts; and mocha butter crunch pie. One favorite here is the $5 meal consisting of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, all the milk you can drink and half a dozen Toll House cookies. Notes Green: “To be really authentic we even have Marshmallow Fluff for those who want it.” Similarly, there is a Southwest-Mexican down-home culinary representation at the slick, glittering Fog City Diner in San Francisco. At America, the 200 choices on the menu represent just about every ethnic and regional style that is currently fashionable. In truth, most dishes at the theatrical America can best be regarded as stage props.

Just as home-grown chefs are gaining favor, so domestic place names provide the new exotica on menus. Banished are the evocative references to such shrines as Burgundy, Provence and Lyons. Instead, the places dropped are likely to be El Paso, Iowa, Michigan, Memphis, Albuquerque, the Arizona Badlands and even the Bronx, where small farms and greenhouses supply endive and herbs to tony Manhattan restaurants and markets.

Apparently no other word means as much as American, and restaurant own-trying to grab it. In New York City alone there are, in addition to America, the American Festival Cafe in Rockefeller Plaza, An American Place on the Upper East Side, Cafe Americano and the American Harvest, operated by Hilton International, which also manages American Harvest in Washington and new one in Kansas City. There, however, they have chosen the simple word Harvest in order to avoid confusion with the established American Restaurant in the local Crown Center development. The American Grill prospers in Scottsdale, Ariz., and there is another in the Chicago area. Philadelphia boasts the USA Cafe. In Washington, the American Cafe, originally a casual, simple eatery, now has seven branches and plans to open 96 units 22 cities around the country. Part of expansion plan includes packaging food under the American Cafe label.

Judging by the wide acceptance of American products in gourmet food shops, that label should prosper. According to Stephen Pass, vice president Macy’s Marketplace in New York City, Americans are eating a wider variety all kinds of foods, and native fare is benefiting from that trend. Says Pass: “American jam isn’t necessarily Welch’s anymore. We’re going back to small artisans. We get foie gras from the Catskills now. Years ago, I crried Stilton, Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Danish blue cheeses. Now I stock about 15 blues, and two are American. I have 20 chèvres, four from the Northeast and two from the West.”

Elsewhere around the country, boutique farms are producing game birds, ducks and free-range chickens (which are allowed to roam and forage for natural food to add flavor and improve texture). Fresh buffalo meat is now regularly supplied to chefs such as Jimmy Schmidt of the London Chop House in Detroit by American Spoon Foods in Petoskey, Mich. As Americans discover that wild mushrooms grow in their woods and ma-che, or lamb’s-lettuce, in their fields, they are paying premium prices for such produce at places like the Irvine Ranch Farmers Market in Los Angeles and Balducci’s in Manhattan. Says Specialty Food Buyer Louis Balducci: “U.S. products are selling because they are good and interesting. Even American caviar is better than it was. In the beginning you couldn’t give that stuff away. Now it’s edible because the curing process has been perfected.” To many connoisseurs, edible is still the most that can be said for domestic caviar, despite the praise it often receives from the food press and purveyors.

Although recognized across the country, this new wave cooking still sets off discussion when experts try to define it. Child says, “There have been entire symposiums trying to define American cuisine. As far as I’m concerned, it is American food, cooked in America by Americans with American ingredients.” The broadest view is expressed by Jan Weimer, food editor of Bon Appétit, a cooking magazine whose circulation has jumped from 300,000 in 1975 to its present 1.3 million. Says she: “The term means any food cooked in America today.” Weimer explains the nationwide surge in gastronomic interest this way: “The ’50s represented a low point in American cooking. Mothers were more interested in seeing that children got cotillion lessons than in busying themselves all day in front of the Amana range. This new generation went to Europe and Asia, where they tasted real food. When they came back to the U.S., they came back hungry.”

As might be expected, a specialized definition comes from the most highly specialized champion of American cooking, Paul Prudhomme, who adapts Cajun and Creole classics at K-Paul’s. His dishes of spice-blackened redfish, jalapeño cheese bread, flounder stuffed with seafood, and crawfish “popcorn” have inspired a virtual cult of imitators such as the Ritz Cafe in West Los Angeles, a branch of which will open on Park Avenue in New York this fall, the Atchafalaya River Cafe in Houston, Memphis in New York and Lafitte in Washington. “The food we call Creole and Cajun is the most American of American food because it was absolutely created here,” says Prudhomme. “You can’t find it anywhere else in the world.” To make sure the outside world gets a taste of it, Prudhomme has developed “road shows,” taking his restaurant staff to temporary quarters in San Francisco and New York, always playing to packed houses.

Barry Wine of New York City’s Quilted Giraffe suggests that any restaurant designated new American should be entirely staffed by Americans in the kitchen and dining room. But Wine admits this poses a problem in defining the California cuisine turned out by Wolfgang Puck of Spago in West Hollywood. Born in Austria and trained in France, Puck specializes in upscale pizza and pasta. To complicate matters further, Puck is a consultant to the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, a hotel restaurant where Israeli-born Chef Avner Samuel reinterpreted and enhanced some of Puck’s creations for fashionable Texans before moving to the soon-to-be-opened Hotel Crescent Court in the same city. Tom Trieschmann, the chef at Sinclair’s in Lake Forest, Ill., describes this cooking as having “elements of classical French, a little common sense and definitely American ingredients.”

The entire movement has its share of cynics who define it by disparaging it. Says Bill Neal, of Crook’s Corner, a Southern-style restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C.: “The new American cuisine is nothing more than a commercial flash in the pan made up by restaurateurs and trendsetters.” French Food Critic Christian Millau, writing in his monthly magazine Le Nouveau Guide, agrees: “The new religion, ‘American Food,’ is a boon for the industry.”

The origins of the new American cuisine go back further than most of its current critics and champions may suspect, and Californians will have to cede some of the credit to Easterners. Although there were always expensive, formal restaurants with names like the Little Old Mansion and the White Turkey serving American food in large cities, they began to disappear in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Intimations of the future style came in 1959, when the Four Seasons opened in the handsome new Seagram Building on Manhattan’s Park Avenue, designed by Miesvan der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Jerome Brody and Joseph Baum, then president and vice president of Restaurant Associates, which operated the restaurant, balked at the notion that only French or Continental cuisine could command serious respect and high prices. “We didn’t think of what we were doing as new American,” Baum recalls. “We just thought of it as the right contemporary expression for New York as the crossroads of the world.”

Many dishes on the earliest Four Seasons menus would seem up to date in Berkeley now: sweet potato vichyssoise, julep of crabmeat in sweet pepperoni, fried chicken Maryland with nasturtium fritters, and Amish ham steak with apricot knödel.

Undoubtedly one of the most decisive influences on America’s professional cooks was France’s nouvelle cuisine, word of which reached this country about 20 years ago. Two messages registered seismic waves. The first was that the chefs were no longer servants but stars, an idea that inspired new talent to take up the profession. Not only did young people gravitate to cooking, but many who had trained for other careers switched. Says Wine: “It used to be that parents proudly said, ‘my son the doctor’ or ‘my son the lawyer.’ Now my father says, ‘my son the chef,’ and I’m a lawyer!” Indeed, many of the most dedicated chefs seem to regard their occupation with almost a missionary zeal, feeling perhaps that by cooking “honestly” from scratch and only with natural ingredients they are doing something altruistic. And in an era of mass production, the notion of handmade food fulfills the desire for craftsmanship that weaving and pottery making used to.

The second message was that anything goes; the ironclad, oppressive dos and don’ts of classic cooking vanished. French chefs reached out to the Orient for ingredients and preparations and broke all the rules. Suddenly, creative minds went to work, often overzealously. “I don’t want to be like everyone else,” says Bradley Ogden, the 32-year-old chef who performs diligently if unevenly at San Francisco’s Campton Place Hotel, proving that individuality itself is not the prize.

Alice Waters, 41, is usually credited with popularizing new American cooking with the innovative cuisine she served at Chez Panisse, opened in 1971. But two years earlier, in High Falls, N.Y., John Novi, 43, began free-associating ethnic influences for dishes at his DePuy Canal House, a restored wood-and-stone tavern dating from 1797. Now Novi, just back from an eating tour of Italy, plans to add new creations to his old favorites, such as a soup of kale, brisket and hominy, and fried troutlings with a sweet pepper and horseradish dip. Len Allison and Karen Hubert, who run Huberts, a superior restaurant off Gramercy Park in Manhattan, admit their debt to Novi, whom they consider the father of new American cooking.

There are specific reasons why California has come to be identified with the trend. Notes Weimer: “In terms of the food world, California has a rich history of ethnic immigration. Another reason is equally compelling. It’s the incredible climate, which enables anything to flourish here.”

But even in the yuppie culture, the power of nostalgia is not to be denied. In contrast to the subtle refinements of new American cooking is the current fad for hefty, rough-around-the-edges, down-home or “Momma” cooking, encompassing a variety of regional and ethnic styles. What is regarded as Momma cooking in one part of the country is a bold new taste sensation a few hundred miles away.

Down-home fare is already the subject of several timely cookbooks, including Miss Mary’s Down-Home Cooking by Diana Dalsass (New American Library), Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (Morrow) and Joan Nathan’s An American Folklife Cookbook (Schocken). The most impassioned paean to Momma cooking is Jane and Michael Stern’s Square Meals (Knopf). In their march down memory lane, the authors celebrate dishes from what many people rightfully consider the Dark Ages of American eating: tuna casseroles sauced with canned mushroom soup, Back-to-Bataan Spam and patently disgusting creations like a cabbage-apple-and-pickle salad with evaporated-milk dressing. The Sterns, who write several columns and report their findings regularly on the CBS Morning News, also offer better choices, such as soups and pot roasts. The trademark specialty of the down-home movement is mashed potatoes with lumps. Never mind that the test of a cook’s skill has always been the absence of any such flaws. So important are lumps to the new authenticity, one suspects, that processors of dehydrated potatoes will include a few synthetic solids in each package, to be stirred into the reconstituted mass, just as manufacturers of artificial roses add thorns.

The long-term success of no-frills, down-home cooking will depend upon the public’s willingness to pay relatively sophisticated prices for apparently unsophisticated specialties and upon the financial aspirations of the restaurant owners. The lessons from such professionals as Baum, Prudhomme and Abe de la Houssaye, the Cajun proprietor of New York City’s excellent Texarkana, indicate that authenticity is not enough. They all quickly realized that native dishes had to be re-created in larger-than-life versions to command top dollar. Says Baum: “Above a certain price, the public wants to see evidence of skill, and dishes they do not think they can make at home.” Adds Barbara Clifford, the Texas-born chef partner in Manhattan’s Yellow Rose Cafe: “My mother made home-fried potatoes swimming in oil. That’s a little too down-home.”

Of this new-old cooking, the late James Beard, an early champion of American food, said, “It doesn’t matter if it’s regional, Momma or Aunt Hattie. If it’s good, it’s worth saving.” But he warned that the conserving must be done with expertise. Many hope that New York Times Food Editor Craig Claiborne is equally correct with his prediction: “I don’t think we’re going back to plain old pot roast. We’re not going back to Jell-O That’s ridiculous.”

The notion that such food represents going back will be news to Middle America, where it remains the standard fare. Says Jean Hewitt, food editor of Family Circle (circ. 7 million): “It takes quite a long time for a trend to filter into the heartland. The East and West coasts are one group. They have decided what American cooking means to them, but that’s not necessarily what the heart of America thinks it is.” Certainly down-home food is not new to regulars at such enduring American establishments as Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House in Savannah, where guests sit at community lunch tables and help themselves from ten to twelve bowls and platters of meats, salads and vegetables. Nor is it at the Virginia Rowell McDonald Tea Room in Gallatin, Mo., where fried gizzards, tomato rosettes and roast chicken with corn-bread dressing are being served as they have been for the past 54 years.

Developing as it is, American food, posh and plebeian, is showing many strengths and weaknesses. To the good are the new and interesting combinations of ingredients that add variety and innovation. There are also the healthful practices of decreasing the amounts of salt and fats and of increasing the appreciation of fresh vegetables and fish.

On the debit side is the persistence of the American sweet tooth, most out of place in main courses like meats cooked with bananas or berries and sugar on fried trout. There is also the idea, borrowed from the worst tearoom tradition, that the use of many different foods and seasonings makes a dish “gourmet.” And though it is certainly desirable to have talented young people committed to careers in cooking, there is the hazard that the often exaggerated and premature praise they are getting will make them think they have nothing more to learn. The danger in having such young chefs head their own kitchens is that they miss experienced direction to refine their palates and mature their tastes.

In addition, there are the stylistic lapses. Looking for a single dish that embodies most of the precepts and a few of the pretensions of this new cooking, one could find no better example than the following from the menu of John Sedlar, chef at Saint Estèphe, a highly touted, simple and beautiful restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Calif: “Raviolis au style du Nouveau-Mexique, sauce crème de chèvre,” explained as “New Mexico–style raviolis stuffed with carne adobada (red chile ragout) served with a cream garlic chevre sauce.” With an English translation that includes Spanish, Italian and French, this is a fairly complex idea in a movement supposedly dedicated to simplicity. That the combination is delectable is perhaps the critical saving grace.

If French is fairly rare on these menus, obfuscation is rampant. At the American Bounty, the student-operated restaurant of the Culinary Institute of America, the menu sometimes lists among the soups “Bowl of the Wife of Kit Carson.” Nothing hints that the customer will get a turkey broth with vegetables, chilies, oregano, beans, avocado, cheese and rice. At best, simplicity does prevail. Among dishes that make better reading and perhaps better eating: tenderloins of pork grilled with honey-mustard glaze and black peppercorn butter sauce, from Steven in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Russian ice house soup, a cold blend of sour cream, buttermilk, vodka and shrimp that is a summer selection at Huberts.

That citizens of any nation should be so suddenly excited about their own native chefs, products and dishes is understandably regarded as somewhat bizarre by Europeans and Asians. French Critic Millau in an early observation of the trend labeled it la grande folie (the great folly). With typical Gallic acerbity he concluded, “Americans not only search for their roots, they eat them.”

Maybe so, but this rediscovery is a consequence of having such tangled roots and of confronting the new ethnic and regional combinations that emerge with each generation. Waters regrets the use of the word cuisine because she feels it indicates that we think our cooking has arrived. She thinks the country is not ready for that term. Others long for a codification or standardization of our dishes so that gumbo in California will mean exactly the same thing as it does in Boston. But Evan Jones, author of American Food: The Gastronomic Story (E.P. Dutton), hopes that will never happen. Says he: “It is essential not to arrive, for that means we have stopped growing and developing. American food has been developing since the Indians and English Pilgrims first traded recipes. I’d hate to see it stop now.” It is to be hoped that he is right, for in confusion there is fun; in diversity, richness. –By Mimi Sheraton. Reported by William Blaylock/Los Angeles and Elizabeth Rudulph/NewYork

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