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Best of the Bunch

04 July 2006

Bring on the bananas! The sunny yellow fruit has plenty of appeal, especially when it shines on dessert menus.

This article first appeared in the 1 June 2006 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 Margaret Casey, Special to R&I

Bananas succeed, seemingly in spite of themselves. They're never lauded for being "in season," they aren't exotic and don't have artisanal roots or the cachet of being rare and hard to source. If you happen to be in Hawaii, there's a slight chance they're locally grown; otherwise they're picked green and shipped in from far-distant ports.

None of that stands in the way of their popularity. Bananas are perfectly at ease dressed up or down and never come across as plain or uninspired. They enchant diners as effortlessly as they captivate pastry chefs.

For tableside preparation, a caramelized banana, split down the middle, is the foundation for scoops of chocolate, strawberry or toasted almond ice cream. Guests then can choose add-ons-brandied cherries, candied-orange confit and meringue drops among them. Sauces and whipped cream, added lavishly, are finishing touches.

As Chavenson was drawn to reinvent the banana split, many are similarly compelled to put new spins on the venerable banana cream pie. Minneapolis-based Dairy Queen took on the challenge this spring, whipping the flavors into a Blizzard. Pudding, bits of banana and graham-cracker crust, mixed up into frosty bliss, appeared for a limited-time offering. It joined two longtime favorites: the Chocolate-Chip Banana Blizzard and the Banana Split Blizzard.

Strong Partnerships

Daniel Sikorski, executive chef of Birch River Grill in Arlington Heights, Ill., deftly manages to keep intact the old-fashioned appeal of a banana cream pie while at the same time bring 21st-century panache to the presentation. He neatly presses the crust into individual molds, fills them with vanilla-scented pudding and banana slices and adds a crown of mascarpone whipped cream. The pie mirrors Sikorski's aim for the menu: classic American recipes that are revamped and brought back to life.

The pie vies for orders with such temptations as crème brÁ»lée shortcake and apple-brandy spice cake, but it easily stands up to the competition. Says Jeremy Rich, general manager of the restaurant, "Bananas have comfort in their flavor. Guests respond favorably
to that."

Nostalgia is not the muse Monica Bellissimo answers to as she pursues banana desserts. The pastry chef at Jovia in New York City approaches her desserts with a more-sophisticated hand, one that gives appreciative nods to the largely American menu's Italian overtures and to her past tenures at Café Boulud, Le Cirque and Union Square Cafe.

On her spring menu, that means a perfect little round of banana cake, topped with a pyramid of sliced bananas that are brushed with butter and sugar and brÁ»léed. Espresso mousse enrobed in gingersnap crumbs, mascarpone ice cream and two sauces-butterscotch and apricot-complete Bellissimo's vision.

"Bananas are so widely appealing. They're ageless, pair well with many ingredients and in a dessert, always sell well," she says, a truth that means they're always a presence in Jovia's dessert lineups.

The taste of bananas-sweet, mellow, soothing and tropical-is quick to embrace other flavors. Bellissimo is partial to what she describes as strong partners: espresso, star anise, ginger-even the deep edginess of chicory. She is well aware of a universal truth though.

"Chocolate, peanut butter and banana is the combination that grabs people instantly. You never miss with it."

Yes, We Have No Varieties

Unlike many fruits, for which growers can supply multiple varieties and perhaps even an heirloom variety or two, virtually all bananas tend to be of one large subgroup-the giant Cavendish. This single cultivar accounts for nearly all of the $4 billion annual worldwide banana export trade and for good reason. It is sturdy, thick of skin and resists bruising, making it well suited to the rigors of long-haul travel. When ripe, this sunny yellow "smile of nature" is open to a variety of uses, contributing to the 26 pounds per person the average American consumes.

Margaret Casey is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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