- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 21, 2007

Cherish those simple memories of rippled potato chips and onion dip, mixed nuts, pigs in blankets, and classic saltines with a giant cheese ball.

The amuse-bouche is about to take over the planet. Come to think of it, amuse-bouche may have become its own planet by now, floating somewhere in a cloud of pomegranate gas just beyond the Van Allen belt.

“Houston, Houston. We have sighted Amuse-Bouche, and it’s about to go nova ”

Yes, the amuse-bouche. Pronounced ah-moos-boosh, the term sounds like a cat sneeze or perhaps the noise made by a refrigerator with a freon leak. It also stands for all that is excruciatingly trendy in the food world. Amuse-bouche, for the blissfully ignorant, means “appetizer” in swanky French literally, an amusement or tease for the mouth.

Once upon a time, “hors d’oeuvres” was good enough for the party hordes. Now, it must be amuse-bouche. Oh waiter, oh waiter dear, what sort of amuse-bouches does the chef have tonight? We’re all feeling frisky.

These little appetizers come with big names that tumble forth in a kind of culinary iambic pentameter. Behold a list of the amuse-bouches du jour, these gleaned from the real menus of chichi eateries and catering groups in Manhattan and beyond:

Fingerling potatoes with American spoonbill caviar and fennel creme fraiche, warm sea urchin ravioli, goose slivers on rutabaga puree with roasted beets, Madeira duck on sweet-potato waffle with orange zest and fig chutney, beef carpaccio with saffron bread toasts and black truffle oil, tea-poached quail eggs with hollandaise and warm asparagus, goat cheese and pistachios in a phyllo purse with chives, petite beef rib with tomato confit and balsamic reduction, Maine diver scallops with pecan butter and bacon, mango and crab coils with wasabi oil, soft semolina round with corn in three textures, spring lamb with rosemary and pea tendrils.

Pea tendrils. The mind reels.

Imagine if the same complicated naming system were to be applied to, well, whatever Great-aunt Madge might serve for company. We could have wave-sliced sauteed potato shards with creme de l’onion and petite andouilles in brioche au moutarde. Why, Madge. A big fat platter of amuse-bouches, with all the trimmins’. From you. Who knew?

The amuse-bouche commands its own etiquette, however.

If one is even semicoherent when visiting the chichi eateries, one orders a little selection of either amuse-bouches or miniature bites of more formidable dishes, often called a “tasting.” It’ll cost, though. High and mighty restaurants can command $200 and up per person for tiny assemblages of ingredients speared with scallion greens, festooned with fish eggs or perhaps afloat in a puddle of something orange.

Still, even the semicoherent will cry out in wonder or relief when they realize their amuse-bouche is not really an unidentified life form from outer space but a tasty snack of steak and onions in a fancy roll. They are pleased they are consuming amuse-bouche rather than amuse botch.

Meanwhile, those who frequent traditional Chinese restaurants will recognize this ultraelite “tasting” idea as a variant of the old pupu platter. Ah, the pupu platter, full of barbecued riblets and vegetables and things itself a source of much merriment among chopstick-wielding 5-year-olds, who invariably asked, “What kind of platter, Mommy?”

Yes, well.

Our friends at the National Restaurant Association are all over the amuse-bouche/tasting trend like, well, wasabi oil on crab coils. Their recent survey of 1,146 American Culinary Federation chefs reveals that “the hottest menu trends” include Asian appetizers (the pupu effect once again), pomegranates, figs, bite-size desserts, flatbread, exotic mushrooms and Gorgonzola cheese. On the “passe” list: star fruit, blackened items, okra, meat salads, catfish, kiwi and foams an unfortunate trend that found some chefs floating their scallops on a plate of savory pond scum.

Chicago-based Technomic, a food industry research group, has honed in even further on the appetizer portion of things. A study released earlier this month found that the most successful appetizers had “craveability.” This is something that Great-aunt Madge, and most likely her entire bridge club, has known since, oh 1951.

In the meantime, nobody has really forgotten all those modest appetizers of yore, back when one served sardines with impunity. Tuesday, in fact, was National Cheeseball Day, honoring cheese balls and their makers everywhere and celebrated on the Food Network. Tuesday is National Pig-in-the-Blanket Day, while Thursday is National Pretzel Day and that’s just April, according to Holiday Insights, an online compendium of standard and unusual holidays.

May holds National Hoagie Day, but that’s a different story altogether.

So all hail the olden goodies. Oh, and Great-aunt Madge informs us that the fennel creme fraiche can sub for ranch dip in a pinch.

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and balsamic reductions for The Washington Times’ national section. Reach her at jharperwashingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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