Certainly mashed potatoes are not new. But in the ever-changing, can't-leave-well-enough-alone scene of American foods and fads, the hottest stars on today's restaurant menus are mashed potatoes flavored with olive oil, roasted garlic, mushrooms, eggplant, black olives, roasted peanuts, asparagus, VTC sun-dried tomatoes, Parmesan, Gorgonzola or even wine.
Restaurant diners often decide their entree choices not by the meats listed on the menu, but by whether the dish comes with mashed potatoes.
"Mashed potatoes are selling the dish," said restaurant consultant Rozanne Gold. "Customers don't want the roast chicken, they want the mashed potatoes that go with it."
"Cooking with mashed potatoes is like cooking with veal," said Michael Romano, chef at Manhattan's Union Square Cafe. Unlike Jerusalem artichokes, which have their own identity and do not take on other flavors well, potatoes will soak up whatever flavor you put with them and enhance it, Mr. Romano said.
In a recipe from the Union Square Cafe cookbook, scheduled to be published next year, Mr. Romano combines mashed potatoes with pureed eggplant spiked with garlic, ginger, tahini and tamari.
Other mashed potato choices served at the cafe are "dirty mashed potatoes," which Mr. Romano makes from roasted garlic and Yukon potatoes cooked with their skins on; slightly rosy mashed potatoes made with marinated sun-dried tomatoes; mashed potatoes with Parmesan cheese; and green mashed potatoes made with pureed basil.
To Scott Bryan, chef at Soleil in Manhattan, the secret to good mashed potatoes is pressing cooked Idaho potatoes through a drum sieve and adding almost equal amounts of unsalted butter and Montrachet goat cheese. "A spritz of lemon juice brings up the flavor," he said. Paired with grilled saddle of lamb napped with olive-infused gravy and sauteed spinach, the potatoes are garnished with fried leeks for texture.
Another reason for the popularity of flavored potatoes is that plain mashed potatoes usually suffer from butter overload.
That's why Chef Pablo Trobo of Provence restaurant in Manhattan uses a juicer to juice fresh asparagus, which he whips into mashed potatoes instead of adding butter and cream. He plates the lime-green potatoes with black bass and asparagus tips sauteed with tomato. "You don't have to feel guilty about eating these mashed potatoes," he said.
And, since the name of the restaurant reflects the cooking of the south of France, Mr. Trobo folds pitted, black herb-marinated olives into the mashed potatoes served with lamb, tuna or salmon.
Other mashed potato combinations focus on the unexpected. "I thought flavoring mashed potatoes with roasted peanuts and a spicy Thai peanut sauce was a little wacky the first time I tried it," said Don Pintabona, chef at TriBeCa Grill in Manhattan, "but the creaminess of the potato cuts the sauce and mellows it out." At TriBeCa Grill, the peanuty potatoes are balanced by lobster with a coconut-curry sauce.
And then there's the lump question. Not all diners prefer smooth, creamy mashed potatoes. The ones at Trattoria Dell'Arte in Manhattan are left lumpy on purpose, said chef Claudio Scaduto, who sautes red bliss potatoes with chopped mushrooms and garlic, then mashes them with parsley and milk. "It's a homey dish, and people can order it alone as an appetizer or eat it with broccoli rabe or with lamb chops," he said.
The rough-textured mashed potatoes at Manhattan's Jo-Jo's, Jean-George Vongerichten's French bistro, can truly be called "home style." Manager Lois Freedman brought in her mother's stainless-steel potato masher, the old-fashioned kind with holes in the bottom, and it's used in the kitchen to mash potatoes by hand. Oils infused with soft herbs such as parsley, mint, coriander, basil, chives and tarragon flavor the potatoes and turn them bright green.