Homey meets haute when global twists infuse new life into menu favorites.
This article first appeared in the 15 April 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
Sometimes, not even the most tender bite of grilled Kobe beef can compete with macaroni and cheese. Even as American palates grow more sophisticated, diners crave nostalgia, making pot roast and other comfort foods rich menu fodder for operators. To keep recipes fresh and trend-forward, chefs are re-imagining homespun fare with global influences and ingredients.
Three big pluses for ethnic-infused comfort foods are the variety, innovation and easy execution they offer. Such recipes also help operators attract two key customer demographics: Older diners, enticed by memories of dishes they grew up eating, and younger generations, raised on fast food, drawn by exotic accents to discover the delights of homey fare.
"Customers are looking for comfort food, but they also want uniqueness," says Gary Suit, president of Denver-based casual-dining chain Black-eyed Pea, which recently introduced jalapeño meatloaf and a chipotle pot roast wrap.
For Chris Santos, chef-owner of restaurant-lounge The Stanton Social, multi-ethnic comfort foods distinguish his shared-plates menu in New York City. Braised Short Rib Soft Tacos gain Latin flair from a marinade of chiles, cumin, coriander, cilantro, sugar and honey, while accompaniments reflect the recipe's Mediterranean roots.
That drive for distinction is yielding a colorful collection of globally influenced foods across foodservice segments. Whether a recipe's starting point is fried chicken or pot pie, consumers' devotion to familiar fare means the groundwork for success is in place, as illustrated in the ideas that follow.
Short ribs boast all the best comfort-food characteristics: They're slow-cooked, fork-tender and richly delicious. "It's something you can really savor," says Chef-partner Patrick Feury, whose recipe at Nectar in Berwyn, Pa., incorporates the restaurant's French-Asian theme by matching braised beef with baby bok choy, gai lan (Chinese broccoli), Chinese black beans, sunchokes, chiles and ginger stir-fried with sesame oil. Kevin Gibson, chef-owner at upscale restaurant Castagna in Portland, Ore., calls on a Latin twist to brighten a take on summery grilled short ribs. The beef, boned and trimmed of hard fat before cooking, is matched with a chimichurri-style blend of garlic, shallots, lemon, olive oil and citrusy chiles called aji dolce. "We grill the meat to medium, because there's so much fat you need to get it hot inside to make it creamy," he says. "Then we slice it against the grain. You have to cut it for the customer because if they do it the wrong way, it will be tough."
"Comfort foods always are safe on the menu, but you have to combine those dishes with current trends, or customers will get tired of them," says Pat McDonnell, CEO of Pittsburgh-based chain Atria's Restaurant & Tavern and a partner in Mike Ditka's Restaurant in Chicago. Taking a cue from the slow-cooked, maple-glazed pot roast already popular at both concepts, McDonnell created Pot Roast Nachos, taking the affordable appetizer staple a step beyond the mainstream. The tortilla chips layered with pulled pot roast, jalapeños, green onions, sour cream, and Cheddar and Jack cheeses have become the top-selling starter at both concepts. For casual-dining chain Black-eyed Pea, placing slow-cooked pot roast in a wrap with roasted corn, black beans, tomatoes, Jack cheese and chipotle sauce proved a smooth transition as well. "A 12- or 20-year-old might never order pot roast as an entrée, but if you put it in wrap form, they may give it a try," says Chief Operating Officer Darryl Shoemake.
Pork & Beans Plain old pork and beans might be the last thing diners expect to see on upscale menus, but given chefs' current fascination with all things porcine, it makes sense to consider an upgraded reprise of the childhood mainstay. Tim Elliott, executive chef at Asian-accented contemporary American restaurant Mie N Yu in Washington, D.C., elevates his small-plate variation with Kurobuta pork belly. The rich protein is braised in sake, demi-glace and soy sauce flavored with Thai chiles, galangal and star anise, then mixed with creamy cannellini beans simmered in vegetable stock with star anise, cloves, bay leaves and other spices. "I always try to put a little bit of comfort food on my menus for guests who are looking for that, and it's fun for us in the kitchen to come up with twists on classic recipes like pork and beans," says Elliott. "People laugh when they see it, but when they taste the dish, they love it."
Soup & Sandwich
It's a dynamic duo: Nearly every culture offers its own take on these lunchtime best sellers so it's no surprise that soups and sandwiches are great vehicles for ethnic flavors. At Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp., variations such as Cuban Beef Stew and Mexican tortas help fight menu fatigue among customers who dine at the contractor's business, healthcare and university dining facilities multiple times per week. A promotion featuring global spins on soups and stews, including Mediterranean Chicken Stew and Mexican Pork Chili Verde served in fresh-baked bread bowls was inspired by the idea of one-pot dishes with a twist, says Director of Culinary Development Francesco Esposito. For the tortas, Latin ingredients such as ancho chiles, garlic, lime juice and orange juice spice up marinades for thinly sliced skirt steak and pork. The sandwiches' round, sweet buns are made from 12-inch, proof-and-bake sub rolls that are halved, reshaped, brushed with egg wash and sprinkled with sugar.
Mac & Cheese
Dressed-up macaroni and cheese finds its way onto even the most upscale menus, so taking the all-American standard on a global tour seems a natural progression. In New York City, two recently opened eateries with menus dedicated to all manner of mac and cheese show how it's done, from Supermac's Greek-tinged version with spinach, kalamata olives, red onions and goat cheese, to S'MAC's Indian adaptation flavored with cumin, coriander, turmeric, ginger and cilantro. "When we opened this restaurant, we were targeting a very broad market, so we've got everything from the basics to global variations," says Sarita Ekya, co-owner of S'MAC, where all cheese sauces, roasted vegetables and other ingredients are prepared daily. To order, cooked elbow macaroni is heated in sauté pans with vegetables and spices. The savory blends are transferred to cast-iron skillets, topped with breadcrumbs and shredded cheese, and finished under a broiler.
View the full receipe for Masala Mac here >>
Bread pudding makes such a sweet, simple finish for meals, it's no wonder the old-school dessert is making a comeback on menus across dining segments. "People like to eat foods that make them feel good," says Jody Adams, chef-owner of high-end restaurant Rialto in Boston. "Bread pudding takes people back to a time when they were safe and comfortable." Her Italian approach enlivens the old-school recipe by using panettone, a sweet Italian holiday bread studded with candied fruits, raisins and nuts. The house-made loaves (which can be baked ahead and frozen) are sliced, soaked in a custard of heavy cream, sugar, egg yolks and Marsala wine, and baked in hot-water baths. Bittersweet chocolate-and-cardamom sauce, Marsala whipped cream and house-made orange jam accompany the rich dessert.
Most diners are attracted to familiar, easy-to-eat menu choices, and they love fried foods, but they don't want the same meat-and-potatoes fare they can have at home, says Debra Sharpe, owner of Cru Cafe and Wine Bar in Chicago. Enter chicken croquettes, a Latin-inflected version of fried chicken without the bones many diners prefer to avoid. Chopped white meat is spiked with jalapeÁ±os, garlic, cilantro and cayenne, then coated in egg, flour and seasoned breadcrumbs before deep-frying. "People like simple food, but they think they want something more imaginative, so they like a little twist. It gives them a sense of being adventurous," says Sharpe, who adds extra spice to the starter with sweet-chile dipping sauce.
The dual delight of hot, bubbly ingredients and crisp, flaky crust is the secret to pot pie's longtime status as a comfort-food staple. At Atwood Cafe in Chicago, Executive Chef Heather Terhune features exotic versions such as curried lamb tagine and Thai chicken curry pot pie. For Gypsy Gifford, executive chef at Rain Restaurant in New York City, Thanksgiving leftovers inspired the Southeast Asian adaptation that's now a regular winter special. Chopped green onions, Thai basil and ginger join turkey, carrots, celery and onion in a light, chicken stock-based sauce emboldened with soy sauce. Poured into a shallow casserole, the chunky mixture is topped with puff pastry, brushed with egg and baked golden brown.
Consumers Speak Out
Which favorite comfort foods would consumers like to see more on restaurant menus?
Eva Sagan, 35, Fort Wayne, Ind.: "Bagels. You can get them at a place like [Richmond Heights, Mo.-based] Panera, but there are lots of restaurants where we'll go out for breakfast on Sunday mornings, and when they have sides you see toast and English muffins but you never seem to see bagels."
Gina Kaiser, 55, Kansas City, Mo.: "Comfort food for me is associated with foods I ate in childhood, so I'd like to see more soups, but not exotic soups-just basic things like tomato or chicken noodle."
John Kusch, 36, Madison, Wis.: "Madison is a great mecca for very authentic, high-quality ethnic food, but what's really hard to get is traditional greasy-spoon food, like two eggs over easy with hash browns. I'd like to see more simple breakfast foods."
Matt Wallerstein, 26, Washington, D.C.: "You can get a hamburger at a lot of places, but I really like it when nice restaurants have burgers on the menu. They're not a gourmet item, but when good restaurants do them, they're always good."
Jackie Roliardi, 59, Scottsdale, Ariz.: "When I need comfort food, I always go to carbs, so how about more pastas combined with vegetables as opposed to your spaghetti-and-meatballs-type dishes? I'd like to see pasta done in really innovative ways so I could satisfy that craving for carbs in a healthier way."
Ali Gilbert, 27, New York City: "They're already in restaurants a little more, but what about finger foods like mini hot dogs and mini cheeseburgers? They're fun, they're easy, they're not too filling, and you can go with other people and share them. You can also make them more high-end."