Tastemaking: Blazing the Flavor Trail

The cool chefs’ hot new “It” ingredient.



Jamie Bissonnette blue Ribbon pizza at Coppa is a tour de force of rich, savory intensity: crisp, charred crust topped with creamy mozzarella, unctuous braised oxtail, and salty blobs of musky bone marrow. Just when the taste buds begin to panic that all that dark, earthy rumbling might be too much of a good thing — ding! — in swoop the clean, clarifying notes of fresh horseradish. Bright, assertive, and a far cry from the pungent “prepared” stuff, it’s a revelation.

At Pigalle, Marc Orfaly uses fresh horseradish to punch up the grapefruit dressing for a mango, avocado, and goat cheese salad. At Bistro du Midi, it shows up in the house-infused olive oil that Robert Sisca tosses with tuna tartare — and on top as a feathery garnish. It’s the magic behind the potato purée at Parsons Table, the cucumber relish on the Met Club’s halibut cheeks, and both the shrimp ceviche and chicken sliders at KO Prime.

Yes, fresh horseradish is hot. As with most “It” ingredients (in recent years: pomegranate, lychee, truffle oil), initial experimentation is driven by chefs’ endless quest for flavors that might wow complacent palates. “I want guests to have that feeling of, Oh my god, that’s horseradish? What have I been eating all my life?” says Jeremy Sewall, who shaves it onto beets, fruit, and house-made horseradish crackers at Lineage. While the search can lead a chef anywhere, the muse is often a peer’s work. “Sometimes a new cookbook comes out and you think, Look at that sauce with the chicken,” explains Bissonnette. “I’ll bet it would be a great sauce with snails, if I just took out this, and added that….”

But it takes more than one person’s infatuation to launch a full-on trend. After inspiration comes sourcing from one’s network of specialty distributors, who quickly spread the word. “As soon as they get the connection to the farm or purveyor, distributors start approaching their other restaurants, too,” says Bissonnette. “They can say, ‘Hey, we’ve got yuzu — or Urfa peppers — now!’” Though Lineage’s Sewall says he’s dabbled in fresh horseradish for years, he blames a newfound local source, Maine’s Sparrow Arc Farm, for his recent obsession with the gnarly root.

Like hit songs or hemlines, though, power ingredients do have a shelf life. Market saturation is the number one killer, as ubiquitous piles of “truffled” fries dilute whatever subtle charms pure truffle oil once possessed. Chipotle peppers and sundried tomatoes — the toast of the 1990s — still haven’t recovered from their wholesale appropriation by the national chains. And the current glut of pomegranate juice cocktails at mid-tier family-dining restaurants doesn’t bode well for an ingredient that was starring in delicate preparations (for instance, a tangy Butcher Shop gastrique) as recently as 2006.

For the time being, at least, fresh horseradish is riding high. But for how long? Bergamot’s Keith Pooler, who grates a generous amount of it into the chewy-crispy spaetzle he serves with slow-roasted veal loin, says he’s optimistic, given the sheer versatility of its bright flavor. “I’ll always use it,” he says. “It goes with everything.”