Soft-Sell Shellfish – US Food Trends

25 April 2008
Soft-Sell Shellfish – US Food Trends

Diners don't need to be enticed to order shrimp. Chefs find that simple preparations often are most well-received.

This article first appeared in the 1 April 2008 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 Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor

The executive chef of Stix in Boston originally served a shrimp dish consisting of large ("like bananas, basically"), head-on shrimp skewered so that they stood up on the plate. The shock-and-awe presentation proved to be a little too much for his audience.

"Some people loved it," Eco recalls. "They were usually from foreign countries or the South and understood that there is a ton of flavor in a shrimp head." But the majority of customers found the dish off-putting. Now Eco offers smaller, headless shrimp, skewered and presented horizontally on the plate with a side of puréed pineapple "aïoli" punched up with chile sauce, ginger, garlic and shallot.

Shrimp is the most-popular seafood variety in the country, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. It also is a menu favorite. R&I's 2007 Tastes of America Study finds that 39.6% of consumers ordered shrimp at a restaurant in the last year. Some chefs attribute shrimp's popularity to accessibility.

"It's a safe harbor; consumers] say, ‘I know what a shrimp is,'" explains Robert Packer, executive chef at Mundelein, Ill.'s Karma, where the Pan-Asian menu includes a citrus-and-lemongrass-marinated grilled shrimp appetizer.

But shrimp's star status also can make it more difficult to create dishes that stand apart. To strike a balance between familiarity and creativity, chefs are focusing on shrimp's natural flavors.

"Shrimp has a flavor of its own," Eco says. "You don't want to bury it. Everybody loves scampi, but you've probably had it with so much garlic that you can't taste anything else."

Differentiation Factors

That's not to say that scampi should be banished. At Spago Las Vegas at Caesars Palace, Executive Chef Eric Klein makes a refined rendition as part of his surf-and-turf entrée. He browns large, butterflied Gulf shrimp in a sauté pan with olive oil and adds shallots and garlic before deglazing the pan with white wine. Next, he adds lemon juice, preserved lemon, butter, herbs, parsley and thyme. The shrimp and their sauce are plated with a 5-ounce beef filet. Meanwhile, shrimp shells are dried in the oven and added to a shellfish fumet, the base of a bisque-like sauce that finishes the dish.

"The thing is, you have to [offer] something that they want and are craving, but you can have a play on it," Klein says.

Classic shrimp cocktail is another favorite at Spago Las Vegas, where large Gulf shrimp (about 10 per pound) are poached in a court bouillon, peeled and then served with a fresh horseradish cocktail sauce. Klein culls small shrimp and any shrimp that break, reserving them for soup, so that every shrimp in the cocktail is close to perfect.

"Shrimp cocktail is very simple, but the shrimp cannot be overcooked," he says. "They have to be deveined properly. I will give them a simple dish, but it will be a quality dish."

For Amy Eubanks, chef de cuisine at BLT Fish in New York, the success of a great shrimp cocktail makes it hard to sell other shrimp appetizers. "It is so hard to create a dish that people want more than the shrimp cocktail," she says.

At the restaurant's more-casual downstairs Fish Shack, the novel "Buffalo-style" rock shrimp also are popular. Tempura-battered-and-fried rock shrimp are tossed in hot sauce and butter and served with blue-cheese dressing and celery sticks. "There are many ways to make shrimp [elaborate]," Eubanks says. "But we happen to offer it in this casual way, and people just love it."

Chef Norman Van Aken found shrimp inspiration from the traditional Cuban dish yuca con mojo. He stuffs shrimp with a mixture of mashed yuca, Scotch bonnet chiles and garlic, coats the shrimp in panko, fries them and then presents them with spicy mojo sauce made with garlic, cumin, orange juice and sherry vinegar.

"It was a time-tested idea to put yuca and mojo together, so putting them in a form that was more elegant and white-tablecloth had immediate appeal," says Van Aken. Now he uses the yuca-stuffed shrimp as a passed appetizer for large parties at Tavern N Town, his new concept in Key West, Fla. "When we do these shrimp for big functions, the poor waiters can't get past the door," he says.

RECIPES [Skewered Shrimp with Pineapple "Aïoli">>]( ["Buffalo-Style" Rock Shrimp >>


At San Antonio-based Sea Island Shrimp House's six locations, local Texas Gulf shrimp grace nearly every plate, from breaded-and-fried shrimp and skewered-and-grilled shrimp to Sea Island's signature breaded and grilled shrimp. Although the family-owned company, which runs a check average of about $9, has always used exclusively small, wild-caught shrimp, it wasn't until last year that it started to make its sourcing practices known. Now, the company lists the sources for all of its seafood items in units and online.

"We get a lot of feedback," says Clint Allen, marketing director for Sea Island. "People are absorbing it. They're asking a lot more questions about the origins and the nutritional values."

Some chefs are rethinking their ordering practices, in the interest not only of supporting local industries but also of getting the most-flavorful shrimp.

Yet chefs aren't short on options when buying shrimp. "You have every option available for you," Eco says. "You can get them peeled and deveined; you can get them any size you want, from any country. But quality is still first and foremost."

At Spago Las Vegas, this commitment recently was taken to an extreme when Chef Klein bought an aquarium in which to keep California spot prawns before he cooks them. Without the aquarium, using the delicate prawns on the menu would be difficult. "They deteriorate very quickly," he explains.

Shrimp Starters

Shrimp appetizers are great starters.

  • Mexican Shrimp Salad with Crispy Plaintains: Executive chef Felipe Gaytan serves sauteed shrimp with mixed greens, fried green plantains and fried pasta at Via Real in Irving, Texas.
  • Shrimp Tacu-Tacu: At La Cofradia in Coral Gables, Fla., Chef Jean Paul Desmaison serves large sauteed shrimp with "tacu-tacu," rice mixed with bacon, red onion, garlic, oregano and pureed lima beans.
  • Shrimp shooters: At Terra Restaurant & Bar in San Diego, Chef-owner Jeff Rossman serves shrimp seviche with an avocado-mango relish.
  • Philly Sushi Roll: At Azie in Media, Pa., Executive Chef Takao Iinuma wraps shrimp tempura into a sushi roll draped with kobe beef and garnished with cheese sauce.

Menu Consensus

Shrimp on the menu? It's probable. R&I's 2007 Menu Census finds that shrimp is an operator favorite, menued more often than other shellfish or mollusks. And among overall seafood choices, breaded-and-fried shrimp is second only to salmon in menu appearances.

Here's how foodservice operators are serving shrimp:

  • 45.9% menu breaded-and-fried shrimp;
  • 44.6% menu grilled, broiled or sauteed shrimp;#
  • 23.3% menu shrimp scampi;
  • 11.3% menu stuffed shrimp.

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