From bar menus to catered events, chefs bring robust flavor, global choices and engaging presentation to utensil-free grazing.
This article first appeared in the 1 March 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Kate Leahy, Associate Editor
Although such foods are not new to menus, they're being remade with innovative presentations and lively flavors, helping this category evolve to meet guest expectations for the new and novel. There's also the trickle-down effect in action. As upscale and casual restaurants ratchet up culinary innovations-as seen with Atlanta-based FadÁ³ Irish Pub's new small-plate menu-quick-service operators such as San Diego-based Jack in the Box increase their pick-up-and-eat options with herb- and breadcrumb-coated mozzarella sticks and stuffed jalapeÁ±os. Noncommercial sectors also market to handheld's appeal. Grab-and-go items are tailor-made for settings that serve busy populations such as colleges. And they don't limit themselves to the obvious; Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, (AVI Foodsystems) added a snack bar that sells wrap sandwiches and sushi made on premise.
But where these fork-free menu items fit most naturally may be at the bar. At Spanish tapas bar César, with locations in Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., Chef Maggie Pond estimates that 25% of menu items are designed to be eaten without utensils. Pond even composes pick-up-and-eat salads using hearts of romaine lettuce. It's a hands-on style that emulates bars in Spain, where dishes are made to be eaten casually.
Crossing the Bar
Leaving silverware behind can be a smart, space-saving move on busy nights. It was the challenge of serving food in packed bar spaces that led Isaac Stewart, director of food development for FadÁ³, to add stylish small plates featuring finger-friendly foods, such as lamb lollipops and fried portobello mushrooms, to the menu. It's not only easy for patrons to share these dishes, the omission of silverware creates more elbow room. Rectangular rather than round plates minimize space requirements in crowded areas, encouraging hungry revelers to order a couple of bites without having to find more room in the pub.
"It's a new turn for us," acknowledges Stewart, who is looking to increase opportunities for food sales. "We are pigeon-holed as a drinking establishment. We're trying to open opportunities to sell food at different times."
FadÁ³'s lamb lollipops-grilled-to-order lamb chops marinated in olive oil, thyme and garlic-are served glazed with a pomegranate reduction that sticks to the lamb, keeping the dish easy to eat while giving it eye-catching panache. Likewise, portobello mushrooms coated with garlic breadcrumbs, fried and tossed with Parmesan cheese, are served with spicy marinara dipping sauce on the side for easy sharing, all with the absence of small plates and silverware.
At Vertical Wine Bistro in Pasadena, Calif., Chef Sara Levine finds success with fig poppers, fresh figs stuffed with blue cheese and house-pickled jalapeÁ±o, wrapped in prosciutto and baked until the cheese is melted and the prosciutto crunchy. The poppers have proven to be popular accompaniments to wine by the glass. "People respond to the difference in textures," says Levine.
Finger foods also can be designed with health-conscious care. For catered events, Susan Anderson, foodservice and catering manager at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County in Baraboo, prefers to serve appetizers that depart from standard regional offerings of cheese and sausage. Anderson serves ground bison mixed with wild rice, dried cranberries and sage on baked phyllo triangles.
Finger-friendly plating is critical when offering good grazing material. "You have to make sure that the sauce is suitable for dipping and that you don't need a fork," reminds Roberto SantibaÁ±ez, culinary director for New York City-based Rosa Mexicano Restaurants. While it might seem obvious, it's a good idea to consider a dish carefully before it is sent out into a dining room without utensils. For example, "don't cover all the edges of a tostada with beans," SantibaÁ±ez explains, referring to corn tortillas he tops with red-bean-and-chorizo chili, pickled jalapeÁ±os and Oaxacan string cheese. "Leave some of the edges or people don't have anything to grab onto."
Spain has provided Pond with plenty of inspiration for clean, finger-friendly presentations. She serves pinchos, small bites composed of two or three items skewered together on wooden picks with ingredients ranging from capers to cubed manchego cheese marinated in herbs and olive oil.
She also has devised convenient ways to serve fried items at catered events. Having seen fried fish served in a paper cone in southern Spain, Pond went to a local plastics shop and commissioned a tray designed with holes that would support the cones. Servers fill a tray with cones, offering guests items ranging from fried potatoes with herbs, sea salt and house-made aioli to churros. Meanwhile, guests take the cone and dispose of the paper wrapper once they've finished eating. "It's easier, it's also fun. It's kind of like street food at a cocktail party," Pond explains.
Fried items also offer utensil-free options on Levine's menu. She notes that patrons enjoy nibbling on Vertical's trio of fritters, including a wild-mushroom risotto ball with cheese in its center, sweet potatoes tossed with mint, and chickpeas dusted with Parmesan. Yet Levine doesn't limit her selection of finger foods to hot fried or baked items, noting that her charcuterie plate-which includes a selection of lettuce, mustard, cheese, charcuterie, toasted bread, pickled jalapeÁ±os, cornichons and olives-is probably the simplest form of finger food. Popular with customers who prefer to graze casually or make their own sandwiches, the plate offers plenty of traditional, wine-friendly tastes that are notably finger-friendly.
Foods ready to be picked up and eaten can boost sales, but they also can get lost in the menu shuffle. In the case of Rosa Mexicano, guacamole made tableside often overrides guest interest in finger-food options. "Appetizers and desserts are the least-selling items in Mexican restaurants," SantibaÁ±ez explains.
He's slowly getting the word out about his spicy chicken wings with pequin chile and achiote-marinated pork ribs by showcasing these dishes in cooking classes he teaches. In February he demonstrated jalapeÁ±os rellenos, chiles filled with chorizo and cheese, as Super Bowl treats.
Like SantibaÁ±ez, Stewart noticed that his menu's small-plate offerings were misunderstood, being ordered as appetizers rather than as snacks and small meals as he had intended. A new marketing campaign directed at late-night diners is meant to push small-plate menu sales and price points are kept at a minimum, between $5 and $6, to encourage experimentation. Stewart anticipates logistical challenges as sales increase, noting that when customers stop ordering small plates as appetizers but instead as snacks and full meals, the kitchen might have complications with getting food out at the same time.
Stewart also has taken a close look at his menu for relevance after realizing that some of the offerings, such as edamame, weren't in line with FadÁ³'s Irish-pub theme. He's since removed them from the menu, deciding to stick with modern Irish flavor profiles. Instead, he plays with presentation and flavor, serving corned beef in a crÁªpe rolled with potatoes and cabbage and sliced like sushi, as well as mixing Irish ale into ground beef for mini-burgers.
Although the bite-sized options are being promoted, FadÁ³'s best-selling item remains fish and chips. "We want to stay close to the concept," Stewart says. "We can't get too far out of the box."
Street food inspired the menu at Edison, N.J.,-based Mehtani Restaurant Group's newest concept. The company, which operates several fine-dining Indian restaurants in New Jersey, opened Mithaas, an upscale fast-casual Indian concept, in November. Its menu features classic Indian street food as well as mithai, Indian sweets.
"Most of the dishes are designed to be eaten with your hands," says Partner Kamal Arora.
In addition to Indian fare such as Bombay wada bao - a vegetarian, potato-based patty served in a bun with mint, garlic and tamarind sauce - Mithaas has introduced specialty sandwiches, such as a vegetarian panini sandwich with chutney, to broaden its appeal beyond the Indian community.
"It's something that fills you up and gets you going," Arora says of the panini.
Presentation can make some items more accessible to a larger audience. Tarpon Bend locations in Coral Gables and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., serves oysters - shucked to order - in shot glasses with Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, chili sauce, cocktail sauce and a dab of horseradish.
The oyster shooters also provide an opportunity for an easy upsell: Groups can ask to have the shot glasses topped off with vodka for added kick.
Toasts of the Town
There's no denying that the simple crouton or crostini is one of the handiest vehicles for serving utensil-free bites. Small toasts, toped with something delectable, might also have been the origin for today's ongoing tapas trend. According to one theory, tapas originated with the pieces of bread used to cover glasses of sherry in Spanish bars. At César, a tapas bar with locations in Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., this theory is put forth in the form of montaditos, or little toasts, topped with a variety of items. "We've done everything from beef tongue to smoked trout," says Chef Maggie Pond. But one of the most popular might also be the simplest: A dot of aioli with a single white anchovy.