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Building a Better Bite Produce holds the key to flavor innovation in bar bites and small plates

Inspired by the smashed potatoes made by chef Tom Douglas at Lola in Seattle, red potatoes are crushed then roasted with oregano and garlic until golden and crusty.
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Everywhere you look, operators are maximizing menus with small plates and bar bites. Success makes sense here: Consumers get value and adventure without pesky—and sometimes daunting—commitment. Bar bites also soothe consumers’ sharpest pain point. “When we studied the biggest concerns for diners, the No. 1 answer was that they were going to waste the money and the experience,” says Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential. “With small plates, they’re willing to take that chance—and they tend to order more.”

California Pizza Kitchen is seeing success with its Small Plates menu. The most popular dish on that menu? Hint: It stars produce. Yep, veggies rule in this category. CPK’s White Corn Guacamole boasts avocado, sweet white corn, black beans, jicama and bell pepper. Meanwhile, the chain’s top-selling small-plates flatbread is studded with mushrooms and spinach—not a crumble of sausage in sight.

The Cheesecake Factory, famous for its oversized portions, offers an annex of a Small Plates & Snacks menu that’s also a big hit. The small-portion Fresh Kale Salad is so popular that chef Bob Okura is adding a Kale & Quinoa Salad to that section of the menu. “We’re not concerned that it’ll feel like a re-run because it’s a different build,” says Okura, The Cheesecake Factory’s VP of culinary development and corporate executive chef. “We’re building on the success of the kale salad.”

Indeed, kale rules the roost here, performing well across the menu. “The produce that’s growing in small plates tends to mirror the produce trends overall—kale, butternut squash, chiles. Cauliflower is growing, but not as much as those three,” says Webster.

In addition to menu interest and flavor opportunity, produce carries a well-fitting health halo. Webster says consumers connect the dots between produce and wholesomeness—not a huge leap to take, but an important one to note. “There’s a perceived healthfulness with produce, which increases the perceived value of that dish,” she says. Showcasing produce in small plates reinforces the sustaining trends of foods that are fresh, less processed, authentic and global.

Handle With Love
From their first bite to their last, diners yearn for flavor stories. “I think the key to making produce delicious in small bites is to pay homage to the vegetable and allow it to shine,” says Cassie Piuma, chef-owner of Sarma, a small-plates Mediterranean concept in Somerville, Mass. Diners here can find produce-centric dishes, like shishito peppers, blistered and seasoned with coarse sea salt and peanut dukkah (her version of the Egyptian spice mix combines toasted peanuts, coriander, cumin, Nigella seeds, Aleppo chiles and sumac). “Each spice adds something different—citrusy notes, heat, earthiness,” she says.

Steve Schimoler, chef-owner of Crop Bistro & Bar in Cleveland, emphasizes the importance of technique to successful preparation of produce on bar bites and small plates menus. “As a flavor experience, you have to put the produce first,” he says. “You don’t have fat; you have pure flavor that’s delicate so you have to be careful not to over-season. The goal is to enjoy the inherent flavor, but that does take handling with a lot of love. You need that bite to be ‘Wow!’”

Crispy and addictive: Portobello mushrooms, avocado slices and zucchini are breaded, fried and served with dipping sauces at The Cheesecake Factory. Photo courtesy of the cheesecake factory. On a grilled flatbread, Schimoler might add smoked onion and smoked fennel, along with goat cheese. “We’re getting the produce onto the menu without the enjoyment penalty,” he says. Schimoler cold-smokes a lot of the vegetables on his menu to bring out what he calls the “primal aroma of smokiness.” “The minute we show some love to that produce, especially through techniques like smoking, roasting or caramelizing, we add flavor and value,” he says.

Seasonality plays a factor here, too. “We don’t have the luxury of always being in season,” says The Cheesecake Factory’s Okura, “so we have to treat the produce correctly when developing the recipe—it has to be solid even when it’s out of season.”

Make it Crispy
“Crispy equals craveable” is a pretty solid maxim, and it’s soundly proven with produce: Matchstick Okra Fries tossed with lime, seasoning and salt at Chai Pani in Decatur, Ga.; Battered Fried Pickles with Smoked Serrano Aïoli at The Gage in Chicago. But even here, a deft hand holds the key to maximizing the flavor of produce. At Crop, Schimoler can’t take his Cherry Bomb off the menu. “People are addicted. It’s been on since I opened seven years ago.” He hollows out a Roma tomato, stuffs it with chorizo and Monterey Jack, wraps it in a wonton skin, and deep fries it. He serves it with a smoky black bean sauce or corn purée, depending on the season.

Back at The Cheesecake Factory, Okura tinkered with the batter for the Portobello Mushroom and Zucchini Fries until he found the balance between texture and flavor. He tried a tempura batter, but it didn’t work because of the water purge from the vegetables.  “We went with a very light buttermilk batter instead,” he says. “It adds color and crisp texture, but isn’t dense. Our recipe controls are tight on this one, calling out that the vegetables must not be heavily battered,” says Okura. With the Fried Zucchini small plate, he cuts the vegetable very small and thin. “You see the huge logs of zucchini out there, and they’re impressive looking, but they take too long to cook, and they take on an overly cooked flavor,” he says. “We wanted a fresh vegetable flavor, warmed through of course, but that would taste like zucchini.”

At Sarma, Piuma serves Brussels Sprouts Bravas, a green spin on the traditional Spanish tapas, patatas bravas. She sears the sprouts in olive oil until crisp and caramelized. “The fried leaves are reminiscent of popcorn—nutty and salty,” she says. She finishes the Brussels sprouts with migas (intensely spiced breadcrumbs, hazelnuts and golden raisins), and serves them with a rich aïoli and a piquant red pepper sauce. “People enjoy this dish because of the contrast of textures—creamy, crunchy and tender,” says Piuma. Another crispy small plate of produce here is Squash Fritters. She deep fries cubes of butternut squash until golden on the outside and pillowy on the inside. She hits them with a dollop of spicy green tahini and garnishes with fried garlic mixed with toasted sesame seeds, Aleppo chiles and Demerara sugar. “You get more texture for that perfect craveable bite,” she adds.

California Pizza Kitchen offers a crisp small plate of produce—without the help of the deep fryer. “We wanted a roll with good texture that satisfies the want for crispy, but we didn’t want to do a deep-fried roll,” says Brian Sullivan, senior VP of culinary development. He landed on the Tortilla Spring Rolls, a wildly successful small plate for CPK. In the Mediterranean Veggie version, he rolls a combination of wild mushrooms, eggplant, house-marinated sun-dried tomato, caramelized onion, mozzarella and Parmesan into a flour tortilla. He brushes them with egg whites, then bakes. “The egg whites help give us that crunchy texture we’re looking for,” he says.

Beyond Crispy
Of course, crispy isn’t the only way to handle produce in smaller bites. CPK is developing a poblano and chorizo fundido served with corn tortillas and fresh cilantro. And its Quinoa + Arugula Salad (white quinoa, arugula, sun-dried tomato, toasted pine nuts, red onion, feta) is performing well in the concept’s Lite Adventure category. “We did try a Roasted Beet and Red Watercress Salad. It was our first foray into truly seasonal,” says Sullivan. “We ran it for four months, then killed it. Beets are polarizing. The ‘take rate’ is exactly 50 percent. And we think our customer just didn’t know what to expect with red watercress.” The lesson, he says, is even with a small-plate presentation, stay within your customers’ comfort zones.

At Crop Bistro & Bar, Schimoler features a rotation of deviled eggs. The Avocado Deviled Egg features a mixture of sieved egg, avocado purée (avocado, water, salt, lemon juice), Dijon mustard, ancho and chipotle powder, lime juice and cilantro. “It’s creamy and has that silky, fresh flavor of avocado,” he says. He also serves a bar bite of maple-roasted Brussels sprouts, which he dubs “little sachets of love.” “The über-hipster beer crowd will eat a plate of these Brussels sprouts at the bar, sipping their IPAs. They’ll order these instead of fries.” He emphasizes seasoning with produce in this type of application. “The goal is to make them craveable, and that can be elusive,” he says. “Find the right level of seasoning—just the threshold; don’t over-salt.”

Okura agrees. “I’m not a huge fan of heavy-handed spices,” he says. “Keep it simple. In small plates, it’s really about letting the flavor of the produce shine through.”

About The Author

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Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.