The big idea on menus in 2007: balanced change for the better.
This article first appeared in the January 2007 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. To find out more about R&I,visit its website here >>
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Consumers do more than patronize restaurants. Increasingly educated about exactly what and how they want to eat, they influence menu design and evolution, driving operators to create recipes reflecting both the shared tastes and grand diversity of today's diners. Balance, simplicity and reinvention will be key trends as chefs make room amid the foods customers know and love for the wealth of ingredients, preparations and flavor combinations they have yet to discover.
For many operators, responding to customers' broad-ranging tastes in the months ahead will begin with a shift back toward simplicity and kitchens' roots-think house-made and artisan products, fewer plate components and an emphasis on classic techniques such as braising and roasting-even as other chefs continue to stretch familiar boundaries of taste, texture and presentation with the kitchen-science approach alternately described as avant-garde cuisine or molecular gastronomy.
Quality and cachet still rule kitchens, keeping branded proteins such as Blue Foot chicken, Kurobuta pork and Kobe beef in high favor. Seafood finds a renewed spotlight on menus of all kinds, thanks to its healthful perceptions and the growing availability of sustainable products.
As diners seek to learn more about the food they eat and its journey to the plate, the terms "quality" and "healthful" take on added meaning, with interest weighing heavily on organic, local and sustainable ingredients. Trans fats remain on notice, but in general, Americans are expected to focus more on balance and moderation than avoiding specific food components such as fat or carbohydrates.
"We're starting to understand that we can have things with flavor that are still good for us," says Chef Joseph Humphrey of The Restaurant at Meadowood, a regionally focused, white-tablecloth spot in St. Helena, Calif. "People also have become more aware of what they're putting in their bodies; they want to know it's being grown, raised or produced in a way they feel comfortable with."
Globally influenced recipes, in demand for their novelty, intrigue and high-impact flavors, focus on popular regions such as Spain, Thailand, India and South America but reach further into Japan, Korea and the Eastern Mediterranean for inspiration. Such ethnic currents are streaming from higher-end kitchens into chain and noncommercial operations, along with interest in small plates, "mini" foods and local and seasonal products.
In sum, the year ahead will find chefs exploring many avenues to better feed consumers' rising passion for food, centered first and foremost around the idea of balanced change for the better.
Meat the Future
The quality, custom-made appeal of artisan products will pique customers' interest in the year ahead as chefs delve more deeply into charcuterie, bread, pasta and other items made in house.
"A lot of chefs have become intrigued with the old art of cooking such as curing their own meats and building aging rooms to hang products," says Chef-owner Donald Link of Herbsaint Bar and Restaurant in New Orleans, where the house-made lineup will expand in the year ahead.
Another back-to-basics trend, driven by the popularity of once-overlooked proteins such as pork belly and hanger steak, is the quest for uncommon protein cuts that deliver taste and profit.
On Link's radar right now is the economical lamb breast, which he braises, coats with toasted, ground fennel seeds and sears for a crisp outside and tender inside. Rachel Klein, executive chef at Om Restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., is experimenting with beef cheeks and fish collars (sometimes referred to as napes).
"Beef cheeks are really tender and have a lot of fat, so you can do anything to them," she says. "The only challenge is getting people to order them."
Flavor to Savor
In the chain arena, efforts to appeal to wide audiences often dilute the excitement of new menu items, says Paul Seidman, vice president of food and beverage at Deerfield, Ill.-based Cosi. That's why the chain's lineup will introduce what he calls "polarizing flavors."
"If you like the taste, you'll really like it because it rings clear. If you don't like it, you can find something else on the menu," he says of upcoming additions such as Pot Roast Nuevo, a sandwich dressed with a relish of apple, jicama, guajillo chile and honey.
Christian Fischer, corporate executive chef for Woodbury, N.Y.-based Lackmann Culinary Services, predicts the contractor's business-and-industry and college customers will turn toward "pungent" flavors conveyed by ingredients such as cardamom, anise and Malaysian Sarawak pepper.
Also on the flavor front, Klein at Om Restaurant will explore essential oils such as spearmint, chamomile and bergamot to bring an herbal quality to drinks, desserts and poaching and steaming liquids. In a similar vein, Butter's Guarnaschelli is experimenting with the importance of aroma.
"We want to push the envelope as to how a diner experiences a dish, so the seduction process begins before anyone even takes a bite," she says. "For example, we might smoke an item heavily Á la minute to create a dramatic smell as it's placed in front of the diner, such as wild salmon seared quickly in duck fat and smoked over applewood chips for two minutes before the dish goes out."
Celebrating food's ability to bring diners together at the communal table will move beyond small-plates menus in 2007.
Before ordering first courses at Tuscan-American restaurant Proof on Main in Louisville, Ky., diners can share cured meats (country pÁ¢té and mortadella are house-made), wood-oven-baked dishes such as salsify or warm ricotta cheese, and "relishes" including baked rutabaga and braised fennel. The bar menu features snacks such as country ham fritters and curried cauliflower.
"We want to do social food. If you're sharing things, you're going to spend more time talking about them, and that's good," says Executive Chef Michael Paley.
Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, brings diners together not just for eating but also for cooking. When produce from the campus' organic garden is available, supervised "make-your-own" stations allow students to assemble and cook meals with rice, noodles, sauces and seasonings. To help create ethnic stations such as a Korean-barbecue-style offering, students are invited into the kitchen to share authentic recipes from home.
Chef-owner Scott Emerick of Seattle's Crémant is among operators bringing back the tradition of entrées for two, among them roasted, free-range chicken and a 32-ounce rib steak. Emerick, who also makes much of the charcuterie he serves, says guests expect these elements as part of the French dining experience, but the idea translates across concepts. Mario Batali's Del Posto in New York City offers rack of lamb, veal chops, turbot and Misto di Mare for two, while Aqua in San Francisco serves twosomes roasted whole sole.
Seafood favorites from salmon to halibut remain in high demand, while escolar, petrale sole and Hawaiian varieties such as walu and monchong are making inroads on high-end menus. Across the board, seasonality and sustainability largely will influence purchasing.
That's why diners won't find orange roughy or Chilean sea bass on the recently expanded fresh fish menu at Orlando-based Red Lobster, says Director of Product Development Michael Duke. The chain's new selections-offered grilled, broiled or blackened but notably, not fried-are printed daily and vary regionally, from walleyed pike in the Midwest to Pacific red rockfish on the West Coast. The menu targets diners seeking lighter choices as well as older consumers who tend to order more fish, Duke says.
Even at The Palm, the addition of more fresh fish will dominate menu news in upcoming months. Seafood sales for the Washington, D.C.-based concept have risen from 6% of sales to 14%.
"Seafood has become such a big item on consumers' minds as far as healthy eating," says Director of Culinary Operations Brian McCardle.
Change also will be consumer driven at Columbus, Ohio-based Damon's Grill. Most notably, the chain is altering its approach to younger diners, updating kids' choices with such items as mini hot dogs and adding a separate section for "tweens" (aged 8 to 12). These choices include a 6-ounce flat-iron steak for $7.99 and Surf & Turf with chicken tenders and popcorn shrimp for $4.99.
"Older kids have been exposed to a lot more than what's on children's menus, and they want mini-adult meals," says Brett Freifeld, director of food and beverage. "At the same time, their parents don't want to spend $16 on those meals."
In casual dining and beyond, much of what's new on menus in 2007 will start with familiar tastes presented in unusual fashion, says Executive Chef Anthony Bombaci of high-end restaurant Nana in Dallas. He plans to explore this approach in part using food-grade chemicals such as methylcellulose and xanthan gum.
Bombaci, turning toward the avant-garde even as so many other operators tout simplicity, says consumers will appreciate both styles in the year ahead.
"After all, that's the good thing about restaurants-we aren't all alike," he says.
Cocktail trends mirror many coming from kitchens, highlighting house-made components, new takes on favorites and fresh ingredients. Ready to pour in the coming months:
- Tea-based cocktails. Spiced Apple Martea-nis are poured at The Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers, and Green Tea Cosmos at Vong's Thai Kitchen in Chicago.
- Sparkling wines as a base for mixed drinks. "The carbonation and acidity provide a perfect base to support fresh flavors and aromas," says mixologist Drew Levinson of the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
- Asian- and Latin-inspired flavors. Mojitos were hot in '06; now, look for flavors such as litchi and lemongrass, Levinson says.
- Fresh fruit juices squeezed in house. The Sunburn at New York City's Bondi Road mixes passion-fruit tequila, fresh strawberries and orange juice.
- Nonalcoholic refreshments. Enhanced water, fresh juices and fortified energy drinks will continue to proliferate as will super-caffeinated sodas, taken alone as as mixers.