LAS VEGAS (MainStreet) -- Last year was the year of comfort food, farm-to-table and tapas. TravelsinTaste spoke to several top chefs around the country to hear their insights regarding what's coming now, and many cited atmosphere, healthy eating and beef.

"In the past few years, we have seen an increasing passion for classic American staples. Think the burger trends of the mid-2000s, followed by a pizza renaissance and most recently meatballs. Ice cream sandwiches and cupcakes are also popping up all over the place on casual and gourmet menus alike," say Bruce and Eric Bromberg of Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar and Grill at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. "There is no doubt that 2012 will continue to bring some new and improved versions of some good old American dishes."

Chef Anthony Meidenbauer of Holsteins, also at The Cosmopolitan, agrees. "I think it will be the year of comfort foods," he says. "I believe we will see a lot of eateries moving to a casual ambience and simple rustic foods that people recognize, but of course with some cheffy spins! I think fried chicken will be the hot food."

The trends of last year haven't gone away, though.
An Angus 300 Australian Tomahawk Chop is cooked at Jean Georges Steakhouse in Las Vegas. Beef may be big in 2012 -- although there are some votes for fried chicken as well.

Chef Joe Elevado, of Livello at L'Ermitage Beverly Hills, adds that while 2011 "brought us the comfort/bar food done well with superior products, as well as the return of the pig, I think that next year we'll see the return of offals to diners' plates from artisanal farmers, as well as the consumers' ability to frequent popular farmers markets. We've seen evidence of this throughout the year and it seems to be steadily climbing."

Artisinal farmers have certainly strengthened the farm-to-table concept. Gregory Pugin, executive chef of the Vegas location of the famous Le Cirque in the Bellagio, says he believes the movement is going to be trending even stronger into 2012, "with more chefs focusing on seasonality and flavor."

"Chefs will be backing off of the 'chemical elements' in their cooking and focus more on the natural product," Pugin says.

Meanwhile, at sister restaurant Sirio Ristorante at Aria in Las Vegas, Executive Chef Vincenzo Scarmiglia explains the local angle: "We will use more local Nevada farm-branded items. I predict an increase of usage of legumes -- high-protein food contents, ideal for vegan diets -- and the usage of artisanal foods instead of mass-produced items."

Then there's small-plate items or tapas, "a trend that was hot ... and one I see continuing into 2012," says Tom Gorball, executive chef at Luxor and Excalibur. "It's going to be very trendy to serve parties and groups with a reception-style menu."

Chef Michael Ferraro of Delicatessen and MacBar In New York concurs. "I think that we will see more menus either change over or offer a large part of the menu as a 'tapas' style, as it can be a more affordable way to dine while being able to sample and share more of the menu," he says.

And the key ingredients for the year? They're likely atmosphere, healthy eating and Australian beef.

Chef Stephen Hopcraft of STK at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas explains it all. "With entertainment dollars shrinking due to uncertain times, restaurants are now expected to provide more than excellent service, excellent food and excellent beverages," he says. "The new fourth element is atmosphere, which is the new standard in creating a unique and memorable culinary experience."

>>Beef Faced Double Whammy

Krairit Krairavee, executive chef at Lemongrass at Aria, highlights healthy eating. "Next year's trend will offer more variety of taste and healthier options as customers rely on fresh ingredients," Krairavee says, while Sean Griffin, executive chef at Prime Steakhouse at Bellagio, says: "We played around a bit with young coconut last year and I am planning on featuring it in a few dishes for 2012. It has amazing health benefits in addition to its refreshing, sweet taste."

"It is one of the purest, most nutritious wholesome waters with which nature has provided us. We utilized the 'water' in vinaigrettes and a carrot-lime broth and the flesh in a parsnip puree," Krairavee says. "I have seen coconut water popping up in the grocery stores, so I know the trend is catching on."

And where's the beef? At Jean Georges Steakhouse in Aria. Robert Moore, executive chef, sees the coming trend. "I think we will see an increase in Australian beef awareness and the amazing product they are providing," he says.

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