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The Caterer

Bar Bites

05 January 2006
Bar Bites

Pint-size fare wins big in the bar as chefs take culinary ambitions beyond the dining room.

This article first appeared in the 1 October 2005 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 www.foodservice411.com.

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

The bulk of bar business pours from bottles and glasses, but sharp operators are finding palatable sales prospects on the plate as well, crafting dedicated menus of sip-friendly finger foods that can help drive traffic and boost check averages.

'Two Restaurants in One'

Chef-partner Morou Ouattara describes upscale American concept Signatures in Washington, D.C., as "two restaurants in one": an intimate, 60-seat dining room and a 50-seat bar where standing room extends capacity by another 150 guests.

To capitalize on the bar's valuable real estate, the chef launched a daily "nosh menu" from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. Initial offerings of tapas-style plates drawn from the regular menu didn't stir interest, so Ouattara took another approach.

"Bar food has to be shareable, and you have to be able to pick it up with your hands," says the Ivory Coast native. "I like to cook what I used to eat when I was a child, so I [reasoned that] Americans would love to see things they grew up eating on the menu."

Revamped selections include Mini Cheese Burgers made with ground Kobe beef and topped with cheese, tomatoes and bacon crumbles; deep-fried Maryland Blue Crab Poppers include jumbo lump crabmeat formed into half-ounce pieces with mayonnaise, seafood seasoning, paprika, basil and a light coating of breadcrumbs.

Ouattara shares other influences from the street food of his own childhood. Goat Cheese Beignets arise from a sourdough-like mixture of water, flour, yeast, goat cheese and a touch of salt. Once the dough rises, bite-size spheres are fried to a light, puffy consistency for a snack the chef says would be served in banana leaves or folded into newspaper in his home country.

Check-Building Burgers

While mini burgers have become popular at concepts of all kinds, the red-hot sandwiches are served with especially grand trappings in the bar at Cascadia Restaurant in Seattle's hip Belltown neighborhood.

"When I first started the bar menu it was about canapés and things that were a little more fancy. It was geared to the chef in me rather than saying, 'This will go with everything from a beer to a martini,'" says Chef-owner Kerry Sear. "We found that people want to share, and they want things they can relate to and that go well with cocktails."

Repeated requests from adults to order child-size burgers from the kids menu prompted him to offer the petite sandwiches in the bar for $1 between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to resounding success. After two new restaurants opened nearby, Sear decided to take his offering up a notch to keep restaurant regulars happy, attract new faces and generate more revenue per seat.

Mini burgers now sell for $3 each (discounted at happy hour) in three varieties: hanger steak, wild king salmon and house-made veggie patties. For sake of variety and higher average checks, diners can pile on any of nine toppings (sautéed green chile salsa is $1, black-truffle butter goes for $2 and barbecued lobster tops out the list at $4) and five sauces (from house-made mayonnaise to hot and sour).

Compliments of the Chef

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but complimentary hors d'oeuvres are passed from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays in the bar at Houston's Strip House, an outpost of The Glazier Group's chic, New York City-based steakhouse.

Daytime staff handle most of the prep work and keep costs down by shaping many selections around overstocked or leftover ingredients. Preparations are easy to eat, and portions offer just about a mouthful.

"There are a lot of happy-hour deals in downtown Houston. We really wanted to separate ourselves from the rest of the landscape and bring a sense of style to the time period rather than just making it a bargain," says Executive Chef John Schenk.

Often, shellfish unused at lunch is finely chopped and tucked into mini tart shells with house-made cocktail sauce. For another simple dish, cooked fingerling potatoes are cut into bite-size pieces, hollowed out and filled with herbed goat cheese. A topping of finely diced prosciutto, truffle oil and a sprinkling of thyme complete the presentation.

Cocktail Culture

Last year, executives at Morton's, The Steakhouse, looked at the typically slow times of early evening and late night and saw opportunity. The New Hyde Park, N.Y.-based chain leveraged its first-rate reputation to help create an updated, in-restaurant lounge concept designed to be as much a destination as its dining rooms.

Launched in December 2004 in Chicago, Bar 12*21 has grown to seven locations and is a fixture in all new units. On its moderately priced Bar Bites menu, discounted from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., bar-food favorites are dressed up in Morton's top-shelf style. Mini filet mignon sandwiches, served four to an order and complimentary during happy hour, arrive on sesame-seed finger rolls crowned with a proprietary mustard-mayonnaise sauce. Chicken strips, here called goujonettes, are made from chicken breasts that are cut into 3- to 5-inch pieces, breaded and fried.

"The program is built to increase traffic and also to give guests what they want," says Roger Drake, Morton's vice president of communications. "We have to keep up with the cocktail culture. People are back in love with the martini and the cosmopolitan. Since they're in the bar, we'd love to feed them as well."

Split Identity

The many personalities of Zanzibar, a clubby, multiroom restaurant/lounge hybrid in New York City, are matched on a menu tailored to the variety of dining styles guests can experience. Consulting Chef Roberto Lamorte offers Mediterranean fare menued as tiny plates, small plates, sharing plates and Middle Eastern pies, conceiving the former two categories with bar patrons in mind.

While a few options require knife and fork, most are small-portioned finger foods such as almond-crusted chicken drumettes with sweet tomato jam, crispy shrimp crusted lightly in phyllo dough, and kebabs of chicken, lamb or beef.

Specially designed square and triangular plates jazz up presentation of Lamorte's simple recipes, among them the aptly named Mediterranean Cigars. The long, flaky phyllo rolls are stuffed with chicken or cheese and a blend of julienned bell peppers, tomatoes and onions seasoned with cumin and oregano.

"There are so many lounges, so many places to go … and you go everywhere and see the same food," Lamorte says. "Here the decoration can be fancy but in the end the food is simple. We just want to do something original."

Campus Nibbles

Contemporary college and university foodservice operations handle everything from cafeterias to catering. For the latter, small plates are inspired by the same trends that drive commercial starters.

  • Mini crab cakes with roasted red-pepper sauce, chicken satay, mini egg rolls
    Delta College, University Center, Mich.

  • Prosciutto-wrapped figs, coconut shrimp with mango chutney, vegetarian spring rolls
    Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio

  • Ham-and-Dijon mini croissants, bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, baby lamb chops
    University of Missouri, Columbia

  • Mini spanakopita, fried polenta with marinara dip, pork pot stickers
    University of Oregon, Eugene

  • Antipasto kebabs, andouille-sausage puffs, duck-confit tartlets
    University of Richmond, Richmond, Va.

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