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Photograph: Amber Sutherland-Namako/Time Out New York

Let me tell you—“foam” no longer cuts it as eye-rolling shorthand for restaurant snobbery

Molecular gastronomy’s linguistic legacy in NYC needs an update.

Amber Sutherland-Namako
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Amber Sutherland-Namako
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“Let Me Tell You” is a series of columns from our expert editors about NYC living, including the best things to do, where to eat and drink, and what to see at the theater. They publish each Wednesday so you’re hearing from us each week. Last month, Food & Drink Editor and Critic Amber Sutherland-Namako has dished on her wishes for the dining scene this fall.

The other day, I had to listen to someone list “foam” as the reason for why they hated a certain restaurant. This restaurant is powerfully not a “foamy” type of place, but whether the person was confused or lying, is irrelevant.

Molecular gastronomy is a ye olde food science; science that includes something as simple as what different temperatures will do to an egg. But “molecular gastronomy” is also a term that’s lent its phrasing to a hospitality genre; one whose moment in the spotlight was most bright some time after snooty French waiter tropes, before today’s apparent reservation stronghold, and more or less coinciding with the reign of those darn mustachioed bartenders you always used to hear so much grousing about. If something surprising was carbonated, flash-frozen, otherwise novelly irreverent with serious foundations like sky-high stilettos tapping the pavement, and, especially, foamed, there’s a good chance it would have been considered molecular gastronomy. 

NYC’s most famous restaurant of the category was probably wd~50, which plated egg takes that exceeded humble heat adjustments with deep-fried hollandaise cubes, English muffin crumbs and Canadian bacon chips and called it a Benedict, before closing in 2014 after 11 years and a Michelin star. It also served foam in all shapes and sizes, or at least, you know, the one. And the annoyance that this substance, this airy concoction, this foam inflicted on some people, dug its heels in back then and lingers still. “Tweezer food” didn’t have as tight a grip, and claims about whether one did or did not require a slice of pizza after a meal are too verbose. It’s foam, only foam, dastardly, mocking, frivolous foam that’s washed over NYC’s collective culinary criticizing consciousness. 

But “foam” no longer fits the bill as a synonym for “chichi”, and it’s time for a replacement. It presently pops up even on general-interest menus and its usefulness as a restaurant-related verbal trick has not been as effectively replicated. Its normalcy also saps its punch.

We’ll always have “pumpkin spice” to shout about, but seasoned gourd derision is too geographically broad to feel like we’re really ribbing something somewhat unique to N-Y-C. Decrying pumpkin spice’s earlier and earlier annual arrival (and myriad other shortcomings) creates a kind of fist-shaking camaraderie that isn’t really hurting anybody, a camaraderie that we need to need to recapture more locally to evoke the kind of spirit that can make the dining public seem more like a team than table-stealing booking platform rivals lurking around every availability tap or click. 

I’ve already hinted at my suggestion above for foam’s semantic replacement: “Reservation Place.” A Reservation Place is a place of rules, procedures and an absence of the spontaneity that’s been leading New Yorkers to fall in love, cut deals, or simply escape since time immemorial. I know that it seems like every new attention-saturated spot is a Reservation Place at the moment, but I believe that things will swing back toward the middle, with more (real) room for pop-ins soon, and the abstract Reservation Places will start to seem pretty dated and derided pretty quick. Then, “Reservation Place” will usurp “foam” as a shorthand for “annoying,” and collect its rightful eye-rolls.

This is obviously not to say that reservations will or should disappear; they’re great for occasions preceded by words like special; they just shouldn’t keep pacing to practically mandatory for every occasion. But take “Reservation Place” with a grain of elaborately reconsidered salt; gastronomic trends can shift as fast as an egg stops running or foam goes from clever menu item to cliché rhetorical device.

Time Out Tip: You know what, maybe just try the foam! You might just like it.

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