Culinary shifts play out at coastal restaurants as traditional seafood moves over to allow farm-to-table, vegetarian, ethnic and other influences to come to the center of the plate

By Pam George  |  Photograph by Scott Nathan
From the August 2014 issue

TastyTrends-byScottNathanVegetarian dishes, locally sourced products, gluten-free foods and non-traditional fish are just a few of the trends on the National Restaurant Association’s list of what’s hot for 2014. But judging by area menus, many coastal restaurants are already on the cutting edge — and have been there for some time.
What’s influencing the trends? Customers today are savvier, says Robin Rankin, executive chef at Patsy’s Restaurant in Bethany Beach. “They care if the salmon is wild-caught or farm-raised,” she says. “They come with a long list of questions, and servers have to be extremely educated. I think it’s a good thing.”

Cooking shows, seemingly ubiquitous these days, also have exposed consumers to unusual preparations, and many foodies are well-traveled.
Chefs, meanwhile, are hungry for new ingredients, flavor profiles and techniques. Rankin, for one, has visited Vietnam, South America, France, Spain, Egypt, Morocco and Bulgaria. Spices, herbs and grains from these nations’ cuisines often make their way into her dishes.

While many beach restaurants reflect what’s happening across the country, several trends are particularly strong along the Delaware coast.

Mind your peas and carrots

You might not know it by looking at the menu at a(MUSE.) — which features duck, foie gras, and rib-eye with duck fat potato — but Hari Cameron, owner-chef of the Rehoboth Beach restaurant, was a vegetarian into his teens. So was Rankin, whose parents were meat-free for 25 years.

As a result, these chefs are among the many in tune with vegetarian and vegan diners. (Vegetarians don’t consume meat or poultry and often eschew fish; vegans also avoid animal byproducts, such as eggs, dairy products and even honey.)

Along with offering at least one vegetarian selection, many chefs will re-craft meat entrees upon request. Consider the diner who told Rankin that the lamb dish sounded fabulous — except for the lamb. So Rankin used grilled, seasonal vegetables in the preparation instead of meat.

Gretchen Hanson — owner of Hobos Restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, which caters to vegans, vegetarians and diners with dietary restrictions — is seeing more “flexitarians,” people who dabble on both sides of the spectrum. “Now there’s a middle ground,” she says.

Hanson primarily follows a plant-based diet herself, but she’ll occasionally have sushi or sample a meat dish to ensure it’s suitable to serve. (“That doesn’t make me bad,” she says.) Some carnivores, conversely, are following the principles in Mark Bittman’s book “VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health ... for Good.”

Meat-eater or vegan, many diners now want to eat their spinach — and kale and Brussels sprouts, too. “People are taking a healthier approach,” says Timothy McNitt, executive chef at the Back Porch Cafe in Rehoboth Beach, who’s putting more vegetables on the plate. (Never mind that bacon has become a Brussels sprout’s best friend in many restaurants.)

Rankin’s beer-battered poblano — stuffed with grilled corn, sauteed onions, garlic, cilantro and sharp white cheddar cheese — is popular among many customers. Because it’s labor-intensive to make, it’s not always on the menu. Vegetarian and non-vegetarian customers call ahead to see if it’s a nightly special.The popularity of farmers markets is also encouraging diners to eat their veggies. “We’re at the beach with beautiful tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants that represent summer’s sunshine,” Cameron says. “It’s a great time for chefs who love cooking with vegetables.”

Farm-to-table-to-fork

A passion for produce is part of the farm-to-table trend. But this is one movement that has deep roots. From the moment the early cavemen tugged a plant from the ground and tossed it on a stone table, he was practicing farm-to-table dining, says Matt Haley, owner of eight coastal restaurants. “Or, more like farm-to-mouth,” he quipped.

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