Driven by a taste for comfort, consumers are indulging their sense of fun.
This article first appeared in the January 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
One of the most talked-about recipes at DeLaCosta, Chef-owner Douglas Rodriguez's new spot in Chicago, isn't the seafood to which the restaurant's name alludes but a dish dubbed Chorizo in a Blanket, featuring little links of salty sausage nestled in sweet corn dough.
Rodriguez's successful reinvention of cocktail-party kitsch epitomizes a growing menu movement that transforms once-guilty pleasures into irresistible crowd pleasers. Dolled up with quality ingredients and quirky presentations, fun foods from haute corn dogs to cheesecake lollipops are spurring brisk sales among consumers whose appetites for creatively repackaged favorites never wane.
"People flock to food like this," says Executive Chef Casey Thompson, whose battered and fried jalapeños filled with coconut chicken have become a menu signature at upscale Asian restaurant Shinsei in Dallas. "Gourmet comfort food is so much fun."
The strong demand for such whimsical items speaks to consumers' rising interest in casual, fun dining experiences regardless of the foodservice setting. It also lends further credence to the idea that for many diners, eating out is as much about sociability as it is sustenance.
"Our customers love the idea of creating a little party at the table," Phil Costner, vice president of research and development for Carrollton, Texas-based T.G.I. Friday's, says of menu innovations such as Crispy Green Bean Fries With Cucumber-Wasabi Ranch Dip, a shareable starter similar in presentation and eating style to french fries. "People wouldn't normally power down a pile of beans, but in this case you can't keep them on the table."
Friday's introduced the item last August as part of an appetizer lineup shaped around unique spins on familiar foods. The company partnered with a vendor to create the product, delivered to stores battered and frozen for no-fuss deep-frying and quick delivery to guests.
"These types of products are familiar enough that you don't have to educate consumers, but they're quirky enough that customers say, ‘That sounds pretty neat,'" Costner explains.
The same could be said for Executive Chef Andy Brown's dressed-up potato tots at District Restaurant & Lounge in Boston. Punched up with garlic and fontina cheese, the recipe delivers a combination of nostalgia and sophistication.
The bite-sized snacks easily can be prepared ahead. Boiled gold potatoes are pushed through a ricer and then a sieve for smooth texture, mixed with the garlic and cheese and chilled overnight. The next day, the mixture is breaded in panko crumbs, fried and paired with chive-studded ketchup.
"People want quick, one- or two-bite snacks that won't get messy, but they need a little twist. If these were just regular potatoes, they wouldn't have had the reception they've gotten so far," says Brown, who's also working on an idea for Philly Cheese Steak-inspired spring rolls stuffed with braised chicken, caramelized onions, garlic and fontina cheese.
A Little Goes a Long Way
Fanciful foods such as mini burgers and chicken lollipops work well as attention grabbers and conversation starters, but in most concepts, sticking to one or two such choices keeps impact strong and interest high without appearing gimmicky.
Thompson's finger-food-style filled jalapeños at Shinsei stand out amid more-refined choices such as Kobe Beef and Lemongrass Chicken Yakitori With Soy Red Chili Glaze or Toasted Rice and Panko-Crusted Pork Cutlets on Chinese Long Bean Yellow Curry with Banana Chutney.
The savory starter earned its spot on the menu as a nod to the restaurant's Texas location. Thompson replaces traditional cream-cheese filling with diced chicken, coconut flakes, mint, basil and cilantro bound with reduced coconut milk and lime juice.
To prepare the dish, ground pork seasoned with fennel and paprika is stuffed into pitted green and black olives, which then are floured, dipped in egg wash, coated in cracker crumbs and fried.
"It's not uncommon for a table to order one and then get more with the next round of drinks," Pelikan says.
In similar fashion, interest in Buffalo Corn Dogs at The Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in New York City starts with curiosity, says Chef-owner Tim Love. Once customers sample the cornmeal-battered cubes of buffalo tenderloin, though, they almost always request a second plate.
Such repeat orders suggest that fun, creative fare resonates with guests on a deeper level than just novelty.
"These items perform tremendously, which tells me that as chefs, we can still offer fun, exciting, very intense things on our menus, but if they have a familiar appearance, people will try it and most likely, they'll like it."
Dessert menus offer ample opportunities to revisit sweet tastes of youth.
- Seasons 52, multiple locations: Mini-portions of red velvet cake and other nostalgic desserts are served in shot glasses.
- Django, New York City: White-chocolate pretzels, toffee popcorn and peanut brittle are among dessert tapas.
- Laurel, San Diego: The open-faced "ice cream sarnich" features caramel ice cream and toasted macadamia nuts atop a chocolate waffle with crème chantilly.
- Charlie Palmer Steak, Washington, DC: Fennel and lemon verbena snow cones are offered as an intermezzo.
Rathbun's, Atlanta: The Spanish Chocolate Ice Cream Float comes with vanilla cream soda and a malt-flavoured cookie.