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Banking on the Bar Menu – US Food Trends

21 November 2008
Banking on the Bar Menu – US Food Trends

Exciting, innovative appetizers that take pub food to a higher level. Smaller, shareable plates are an enticing alternative to formal entreés for cost-conscious diners - and a boon for operators.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Recipe: Crispy Fried Hominy

Bar menus-especially those that focus on shareable, snackable items instead of on main courses-draw in guests for drinks and noshes with friends, offering them the social and entertainment aspects they enjoy about dining away from home minus the commitment to more-formal and potentially more costly sit-down meals. Such menus also build business beyond typical mealtimes for afternoon snacks, after-work gatherings and late-night bites. Enticing bar menus can encourage guests to linger longer and indulge in multiple drinks-the big moneymaker for operators.

"Customers are watching what they're drinking," says Russell Skall, corporate chef for Tampa, Fla.-based Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. "Their pocketbooks aren't as big as they were before." To draw in the drinks-and-a-bite crowd, the upscale chain is testing a new bar menu in its Chicago-area location with smaller, easy-to-share items such as prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and tempura bacon and shrimp.

"Bar appetizers should be a quick, easy eat," Skall says. "Customers are looking for fun, accessible foods-they don't want to dig into a whole big plate they have to spend a lot of time on."

Fun, accessible and easy are common themes when it comes to bar snacks, whether they're unique dishes on dedicated menus or regular appetizers that guests can order in the dining room or the bar.

Also important is quick pickup times for kitchens-less than 10 minutes is ideal-and enough choices to allow guests to find a good match for a variety of drinks. For many restaurants, that means balancing fresh spins on popular fare such as sliders, poppers and guacamole (see sidebars below for creative ideas) with a few unique signature items.

Great Tastes, Small Packages

At contemporary American restaurants Rae and Gayle in Philadelphia, Chef-owner Daniel Stern's signature happy-hour snack is risotto fingers, a play on the fried Italian rice balls called arancini that are quickly becoming a fixture on bar and appetizer menus.

Not only does the dish fit both restaurants' upscale-but-approachable image, but it also makes a great production item because it works well when made ahead and frozen, Stern says. The risotto, finished with Parmesan cheese, butter, truffle butter and truffle oil, is cooled and shaped into short, rounded cylinders. Each piece is rolled in panko crumbs-finely ground for a more-delicate texture-and frozen. Fried golden-brown to order, the risotto fingers are matched with truffle-soy dipping sauce.

"At the bar, you want food you can eat while you still have a drink in your hand, something that's not going to make a mess, anything in bite-sized pieces that's a little salty to complement whatever you're drinking," Stern says.

Menuing choices at a range of price points is another good strategy; it appeases guests looking for a deal as well as those interested in higher-end dishes. At Fleming's, appetizers available at the bar include a recently introduced stuffed, roasted red-pepper for $9.99 and lobster tempura with jalapeÁ±o jelly and soy-ginger sauce for $24.

For the lobster, 4-ounce coldwater tails are split in half, tempura-battered and fried. Tempura vegetables-such as thinly sliced red bell peppers, portobello mushrooms and asparagus-add color to the mix and help bulk up the plate, Skall says.

- "A lot of people like seafood [in appetizers], and those are higher-cost items, so you have to be creative when you do it," he says.

Keep 'Em Coming

Soul, a Southern-accented upscale restaurant in the Chicago suburb of Clarendon Hills, Ill., runs a weekly promotion called Craft Beer Mondays to draw out diners on the typically slow night. While Executive Chef Karen Nicolas regularly changes the bar menu that accompanies the $4 beer specials, a recent offering of beer-braised pretzels with beer cheese captures the basics of her strategy.

"It's familiar, it's approachable and it tastes good," she says. "I try to cook with the beer we have in house, so I look at those flavors and try to think of something that goes well."

The pretzel twists are poached briefly in water and beer (a white ale) to give them a soft, chewy texture and to let them pick up some of the beer's flavor before being finished in the oven. For the warm cheese sauce that comes on the side, Nicolas melts Gruyère and smoked Cheddar with a little goat's milk and a rich, dark beer that stands up to the recipe's strong flavors.

Snacks also tend toward the playful side at Chef-owner Govind Armstrong's recently opened Los Angeles burger bar, 8 oz., where a big part of business comes from the beverage side. Kitschy plates such as sausage-stuffed fried olives and breaded cheese curds reflect the everyday foods that he-and plenty other Americans-like to eat, Armstrong says.

Fried Cheddar cheese curds are a Midwestern incarnation of ever-popular fried cheese sticks. The bright-orange curds, shipped in twice a week from Wisconsin, are coated in panko crumbs mixed with cayenne pepper, paprika and fresh thyme. Freezing the curds prior to frying helps them come out crisp on the outside and gooey on the inside.

For the stuffed olives, house-made sausage-chorizo, wild boar or lamb-is stuffed into split colossal green cocktail olives with the pimientos removed. The olives get the same panko breading as the fried cheese curds.

"You have the salty brine from the olive, a nice burst of meaty flavor from the sausage, and at the end of the day, it's fried, and just about anything fried is going to satisfy anybody sitting at the bar," Armstrong says.

Around-the-World Inspiration

Global influences make ideal jumping-off points for kitchens trying to develop original bar snacks. At Bong Su in San Francisco, Chef Tammy Huynh's Shrimp Cupcakes offer a bite-size riff on the lacy Vietnamese crÁªpes called bÁ¡hn xèo.

For the bÁ¡hn xèo batter, rice flour and coconut milk are mixed with cooked rice that is soaked in water and then puréed (the rice purée helps yield a crunchier exterior, Huynh says). The batter is made ahead for fast pickup; to order, it is poured into the "cupcake" mold, a small cast-iron plate (similar to those used to cook escargot) with seven round indentations. A small, whole shrimp is placed in each cupcake.

After cooking on the stovetop, the delicate, savory cakes are carefully removed from the mold and garnished with sautéed green onions and dried shrimp flakes. Huynh's dipping sauce combines fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, water and chile sauce to balance the sweet, salty and sour flavors that are a staple of Vietnamese cuisine.

For Orlando-based Bahama Breeze, incorporating the casual-dining chain's Caribbean theme lends unique accents to a broad selection of cocktail-friendly appetizers. One signature recipe uses tostones-the popular island staple of sliced green plantains that are fried, smashed and fried again-as a base for a nachos-style dish piled high with sweet peppers, mushrooms, onions, cheese and salsa. Guests familiar with traditional tostones also often request them as a snack on their own, seasoned simply with garlic salt and a squeeze of lime, says Rick Crossland, senior vice president of culinary and beverage.

"The first thing is to have dishes that create a craving, but also to do items that are shareable and are generously portioned so they'll last through a cocktail or two," Crossland says. "We have some appetizers that skew sweet, some salty and some savory, so there is a good assortment of flavors to go with different kinds of drinks."

A Little of This, A Little of That

Chicago's Hub 51 boasts a 20-foot-long bar and dedicates about 20% of its 10,000 square-foot-space to hightop bar seating. Needless to say, many of the upscale-casual restaurant's appetizers-served until midnight nightly-were designed to match well with cocktails, wine and beer.

The most distinctive offering is Three Green Bites, a divided tray of steamed, salted edamame; blistered PadrÁ³n peppers (sweet Spanish green chiles); and tempura green beans with spicy mayonnaise and soy sauce for dipping. Co-owner R.J. Melman says the produce-driven choice makes sense at the bar. "A lot of times bar snacks are really heavy, but if you're trying to promote drinking, you want a lighter snack," he says.

At Rocca Kitchen and Bar in Boston, a late-night menu is available until 1 a.m. five nights a week. Chef Tom Fosnot says that after 10 p.m., most guests want quick snacks with assertive, familiar flavors. Because customers in the lounge tend to be in larger groups, it's also important for the bar menu to provide crowd-pleasing portions and satisfy all kinds of tastes, he says.

Many of Rocca's offerings, such as fried cauliflower with garlic aÁ¯oli, honey-glazed duck wings and marinated olives, fall into the small-bites category. Guests craving a sandwich can get meatball sliders topped with provolone, tomatoes and arugula or a prosciutto panino with salami, provolone, arugula, tomatoes and olive tapenade. Fosnot rounds out the special menu with one salad (escarole, radicchio and romaine greens with red-wine vinaigrette and shaved Parmigiano) and one more-substantial plate, baked rigatoni.

"I wouldn't say they're our biggest sellers, but in terms of production it's not any more difficult, and you want to do the best you can to satisfy a whole group of people," he says.

Dessert is available, too, and Fosnot's Smashed Almond Bark is particularly well-suited to the bar setting. Ground, toasted almonds mixed with sugar are folded into a stiff meringue with caramelized almonds. The mixture is spread thin in a sheet pan, baked and broken into crisp shards, and then served with a dark-chocolate dipping sauce that is punched up with rum and espresso.

"Fun is always really important in a bar menu," Fosnot says. "People want to be a little bit surprised. They're not looking for something serious."

Slider Show
Diners adore mini burgers, but tempt them to try something different with downsized versions of all sorts of sandwiches.

  • Breadbar, Los Angeles: Beer-battered-Brie sliders with mizuna, pickles, wasabi tartar sauce and spicy red chimichurri
  • McCormick & Schmick's, multiple locations: Pot-roast sliders
  • Rocca Kitchen and Bar, Boston: Meatball sliders with provolone, tomatoes and arugula (shown)
  • BRAND Steakhouse, Monte Carlo Resort & Casino, Las Vegas: Lobster sliders
  • Zolo Grill, Boulder, Colo.: Fried-oyster sliders wrapped with wild-boar bacon and topped with lettuce, pickled vegetable relish and spicy Southwestern mayonnaise
  • Cafe ZuZu, Hotel Valley Ho, Scottsdale, Ariz.: Pan-seared ahi tuna sliders with curry mayonnaise
  • 39 Degrees, Sky Hotel, Aspen, Colo.: Griddled Corn Cake Sliders with braised pulled beef and summer slaw
  • Common Man Restaurants, multiple locations: Grilled-cheese sliders with Swiss, Cheddar and pepper Jack cheeses and tomato-Parmesan dipping sauce

Salty Snacks Restaurants keep customers thirsty with something salty and crunchy that goes beyond the proverbial bowl of mixed nuts.

  • Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery, San Francisco: Berkshire pork cracklings with chile powder
  • Back Bay Grill, Portland, Maine: Truffle-oil popcorn and curry popcorn
  • Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, Miami: Fried spiced hominy
  • Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, multiple locations: House-made chips seasoned with garlic and thyme
  • Woodfire Grill, Atlanta: Boiled Georgia peanuts
  • A Mano, Chicago: Tuscan Fried Ceci Beans

Pick A Popper Why limit poppers' potential to jalapeÁ±os and cream cheese? The spicy snacks are easily jazzed up with zesty stuffings and sauces.

  • Hi-Life Café, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Cajun Kisses (grilled, bacon-wrapped jalapeÁ±os stuffed with shrimp and cheese)
    8 oz., Los Angeles: Chorizo-stuffed fried olives
  • BLT Burger, Las Vegas: JalapeÁ±o poppers stuffed with cream cheese, bacon, Cheddar cheese and chives in paprika batter
  • The Patio at 54 Main, Westhampton Beach, N.Y.: Fried Olive Poppers (colossal green olives stuffed with blue cheese)
  • Citizen, Chicago: Fried polenta poppers with mascarpone marinara
  • Il Villagio Osteria, Jackson Hole, Wy.: Fried olives stuffed with sausage and served with spicy-tomato dipping sauce

Classic Remakes From guacamole to potato skins, guests' favorite starters are getting all dolled up.

  • Champps Americana, multiple locations: Smokehouse Stuffed Rings (fried onion rings topped with barbecued beef, cheese, green onions, lime sour cream and barbecue sauce)
  • FARM bloomington, Bloomington, Ind.: Minty Green Pea Guacamole and chips
  • Stack, Mirage Resort & Casino, Las Vegas: Adult potato "tots" with bacon and Brie
  • Stanton Social, New York City: French Onion Soup Dumplings
  • The Bristol, Chicago: Stuffed chicken wings with chorizo and blue-cheese cream
  • T.G.I. Friday's, multiple locations: Fried barbecued-pork ravioli

Funky Fries
French fries are always hard to pass up, whether or not potatoes are involved.

  • Sea Grill, New York City: Portobello fries with ponzu dipping sauce
  • Salt House, San Francisco: Poutine (crispy potatoes with short-rib gravy and Cheddar cheese)
  • Abode, Santa Monica, Calif.: Moroccan-spiced french fries and onion rings
  • Zinburger, Tucson, Ariz.: Zucchini fries
  • Little Dom's, Los Angeles: Chickpea fries
  • Blueberry Hill, St. Louis: Buffalo fries
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