Menu analysis of leading U.S. independent restaurants finds innovation begins with the familiar.
Consumers in the United States continue to spend carefully and avoid risk. But at the same time, they are eager to try new flavors and preparations. Many of the leading independent restaurants—those who drive menu innovation and whose ideas are watched carefully by the rest of the foodservice industry—are balancing comfortable with new by offering unique twists on familiar dishes.
Here are a half-dozen themes that emerge from a menu analysis of leading U.S. independent restaurants.
New and Improved Pot Pie
Pie is projected to be on-trend this year. But instead of the burgeoning of sweet fruit or cream pies, it is savory pies that are gradually growing in popularity. These meat-, cheese- and vegetable-filled pies can be served across all dayparts and several meal parts, including appetizers and entrées.
For example, Uptown Pie Company in Chicago serves a Chicken & Artichoke Pot Pie; Caramelized Onion Tart with Goat Cheese and Niçoise Olives; Mac and Cheese Pie; Lobster Shepherd’s Pie; Sweet Corn & Shrimp Cobbler; and Philly Cheesesteak Pie. And New York’s Fig & Olive offers a Fig Gorgonzola Tartlet—warm Gorgonzola, prosciutto, fig, walnut, arugula and tomato on a puff pastry.
Savory pies are adaptable to many kinds of proteins, seasonings and vegetables. Beef, pork, turkey, fish and shellfish can all appear in savory pies, and these proteins pair well with a variety of cheeses and vegetables such as carrots, peas and corn. Because savory pies are so versatile, operators can often use leftover ingredients from other dishes and compile them into a warm pastry shell.
Lamb and Duck Get Downscaled
Dishes such as rack of lamb, lamb shank, duck confit and foie gras have dazzled consumers’ taste buds at higher-end restaurants. However, a recent menu movement has seen lamb and duck featured in approachable dishes such as tacos and burgers. Through the use of lamb and duck, operators are reinventing popular dishes with new flavors and textures.
Less formal lamb and duck dishes on menus include the Lamb Shank Tacos at Second Empire in Raleigh, NC; The Spoon Burger—Minnesota farmed lamb, Moroccan spices, house herb ketchup, lettuce, tomato, pickle and a wheat bun, at Spoonriver in Minneapolis; Grilled Duck Burger with wild rice and mushroom duxelle, bacon bits, herb goat cheese and cherry aїoli at The Happy Gnome in St. Paul, MN; and Warm Frisee & Baby Spinach Salad topped with smoked duck confit, bacon, blue cheese, poached egg and Dijon vinaigrette at Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia, MD.
Many patrons shy away from lamb and duck because they are associated with high price points. By incorporating lamb and duck into more familiar dishes, chefs can showcase the flavors of these meats to patrons who might otherwise never try them.
New Interpretations of BLTs
The BLT, or bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, is a staple in the U.S. Because of its use of bread, fried bacon and mayonnaise, BLTs have unhealthy levels of fat and sodium. Restaurant chefs have taken interest in the BLT and are creating their own equally indulgent interpretations. These new offerings entice customers to experiment with interesting takes on a classic American dish, similar to the gourmet grilled cheese trend from last year.
New interpretations include the Pimento Cheese BLT Sandwich with fried green tomatoes, baby greens and crispy Newman bacon on toasted brioche at Felicia Suzanne’s in Memphis, TN; the Dagwood B.L.T. with arugula, oil-cured tomatoes and horseradish aїoli at Portland, OR’s Urban Farmer Restaurant; and the BBLT—with pork belly, bacon, pickled tomato, cilantro and hot sauce—at Michael Symon’s Roast in Detroit.
The growth of BLTs trails the mega bacon trend that swept the nation last year. Although no longer the big buzzword on every menu, consumers still have a deep love for bacon.
Pretzels Twist Their Way onto Upscale Menus
Pretzels are no longer just found at sports stadiums, concert arenas and carnivals. These contorted baked breads are being featured on full-service restaurant menus as appetizers, snacks or desserts. Many are housemade and served with quality meats or specialty mustards. Patrons find pretzels appealing because they are fun to eat, are filling, and have a comforting, nostalgic quality.
For example, The Contortionist snack at San Francisco’s Straw features pretzel bites with herb honey mustard and chopped parsley. At New York’s David Burke Kitchen, pretzels appear as a snack with pastrami and mustard. And at Michael Symon’s Roast, the Beer & Pretzels dessert includes chocolate pretzels with Guinness ice cream and caramel foam.
Sometimes a successful dish such as gourmet pretzels only requires looking beyond traditional restaurant menus to spur creativity. Because pretzels can take on many shapes and are highly adaptable with the use of various salts and dipping sauces, the baked treats allow operators to easily add a distinctive and craveable menu option.
Gourmet Corn Dogs
Corn dogs—hot dogs coated in cornmeal batter and deep-fried or baked—are commonly associated with street food, fairs and quick-service restaurants. The most distinguishing feature of any corn dog is the wooden stick it is served on, making it extremely portable and easy for dipping. Traditional condiment pairings for corn dogs are ketchup and mustard. Recently, casual-dining chefs are using different proteins and offering housemade, premium condiments to modernize the corn dog. Despite changes in preparation technique and ingredients, many of these fancy interpretations maintain the informal stick plating for nostalgia.
Gourmet corn dogs include the Lobster Corn Dogs with whole-grain mustard and crème fraîche served at celebrity chef Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak; Straw’s Great Expectations snack of Niman Ranch mini corn dogs with curried aїoli, Heinz 57 and honey mustard; and the Chorizo Corn Dog with Manchego and ancho-chili ketchup at The Original Dinerant in Portland, OR.
One of the easiest ways to make a dish contemporary is to use a different protein. For instance, by replacing a traditional pork hot dog with an ethnic meat such as chorizo, the corn dog becomes more appealing to diners craving bolder, nontraditional flavors.
Cupcakes were the dessert craze in 2010, and many industry insiders predicted 2011 to be a huge year for pie. Pastry chefs now seem to be focusing their attention on the versatility of donuts. No longer just a breakfast food, donuts are appearing in all dayparts and meal parts, particularly the dessert category.
In Brooklyn, NY, Dough specializes in yeast donuts with unusual flavors such as Hibiscus, Cheesecake with Graham Crackers, Blood Orange, Nutella Cream, Chocolate with Chipotle and Dulce de Leche. In Portland, OR, Voodoo Doughnut uses toppings such as M&M’s, chocolate chips, peanut butter, marshmallows, blue-raspberry powder, bacon, bubble-gum dust and Fruit Loops cereal.
In addition to creating nontraditional donut flavors, donuts can also be paired with sweet or fruity dipping sauces or topped with ice cream or whipped cream. And because donuts have a highly portable size and shape, the treats are appealing as a morning, dessert or snack option.
Independent operators are introducing more affordable versions of high end dishes to please cash-strapped customers, but also taking familiar items and adding “exotic” twists. Not only do these new preparations excite customers, they also make it possible for consumers to dine out without compromise in our post-recession economy.
Darren Tristano is Executive Vice President of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice consultancy and research firm. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations. For more information, visit http://www.technomic.com.