Whole slab bacon brined in apple cider creates the spoon-tender centerpiece that makes this pulled bacon sandwich a standout; cabbage slaw, pickled jalapeños, avocado slices and the “Dutch crunch” roll add contrasting flavors and textures. photos courtesy of gordon food service. Street-level research reveals flavor-building opportunities at every turn
By Gerry Ludwig
One of the primary methods I use in determining the latest menu-based sales building opportunities and in measuring the arc of flavor trends over time is to conduct annual live research tours of carefully selected new restaurants in major U.S. cities. This involves traveling to New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami, where my R&D team and I visit anywhere from 12 to 30 restaurants per city. We taste our way through the menus and talk with the chefs, owners, managers or waitstaff regarding both the restaurant’s concept and the city’s dining scene.
While our principal targets are independent full-service midscale, casual and casual-upscale venues, we also visit our share of fast-casual concepts and any new spots featuring a unique sandwich or handheld. This street-level research routinely yields an abundance of fresh ideas, and our most recent round—having visited 92 concepts and tasted well over one thousand dishes—was no exception. (I must point out though, lest I create the impression of spending most of my time traveling the country dining in restaurants, that this year’s research tour was completed in a time-efficient total of 16 working days.)
From a macro view, the trends that most impact foodservice today continue their gradual evolution. Dining styles remain exceedingly casual in all segments. On the high end, openings of new upscale restaurants are few. Conversely, food trucks are beginning to capture market share from brick-and-mortar fast food operations.
The opening of new gastropubs has slowed, although existing locales offering the rustic, comfort-centric cuisine remain highly popular.
In both the casual and casual-upscale segments, menus are morphing. The typical number of menu items offered has shrunk, in many cases to no more than 20. So has the number of menu parts, as operators increasingly group former appetizers, salads and sides into a single section of shareables.
And as economic challenges persist, savvy chefs continue to seek new ways to both control costs and satisfy consumer demand for flavor and value via the more creative use of economical ingredients such as rough protein cuts, beans, grains and vegetables.
These higher level trends are evident in the cuisines, dishes and ingredients that are proving to be most popular today.
“Skillet smoked” is one hot application for on-trend oysters.
The Rise Of Chicken Thighs
In the search for less costly proteins that please both dining consumers and bottom lines, the chicken thigh—specifically the boneless, skin-on chicken thigh—has risen to star status on casual menus. This value cut is being used throughout the menu parts in sandwiches, salads and entrées.
At restaurant Reno in Chicago, chef Johnny Anderes serves a lunchtime sandwich of crispy wood-grilled chicken thigh topped with melted white cheddar, bread and butter pickles and a “hot honey” condiment that blends local honey with a housemade hot sauce.
The Crispy Chicken Thigh Salad at The Pikey Café & Bar in Los Angeles layers shaved fennel and baby arugula atop the thigh, finished with a drizzle of salsa verde vinaigrette.
Chef John Manion’s Crispy Amish Chicken Thighs, served at his new Latin spot La Sirena Clandestina in Chicago, is an exception to the boneless rule. Manion pan-roasts bone-in thighs and serves them atop garlic and chile-spiked rapini, finishing the plate with a sprinkle of chopped roasted peanuts.
Oysters Are Hot — Literally
While Oysters Rockefeller remains a menu standard in steakhouses across the country, chefs in the casual segment are expanding the ways that hot oysters are prepared and served, layering flavors using a range of cooking techniques.
Whether they are oven roasted, wood grilled, pan smoked or pan fried, hot oysters served in their shells are an ideal fit in a variety of menu parts, including appetizers, bar snacks and sharing plates.
Octopus: Armed and Ready
At first glance, octopus might seem to be a niche ingredient with limited potential for full-service menu applications. Surprisingly, our most recent street-level research revealed more new menu additions featuring octopus than virtually any other ingredient. This is not to suggest you’ll see it on a national casual chain menu in the next year, but its current prominence certainly warrants a closer look.
One likely factor driving growth is affordability. Even when factoring in the required labor to prepare and the significant shrink that occurs in cooking, octopus is still an economical protein. Additionally, unlike its cousin the squid which often has a bit of a rubbery bite, the texture of octopus is rich and meaty, to the point of approaching a steak-like eating experience when it is char-grilled.
Such is certainly the case with the Wine Braised Octopus at St. Anselm in Brooklyn, N.Y., where chef Yvon de Tassigny gives the tender braised arms a thorough charring on the wood-fired grill and serves them in a pool of savory herbed butter.
Octopus is equally delicious in cold applications. La Sirena Clandestina’s menu features a salad of lightly pickled octopus that is cut into chunks and tossed with roasted peppers, onions, olives, baby arugula and tomato confit. The most unique cold dish we encountered was Octopus Salami at Rosemary’s in New York City’s West Village, where chef Wade Moses wraps tender octopus in a casing and chills it until solid, serving it thinly sliced and garnished with spicy giardiniera and shreds of fresh basil.
An almost infinite range of flavors allows charged cocktails to suit the season and spirit, such as this hibiscus vanilla concoction.
Sandwich of the Year
Sandwiches are the top selling item in nearly all segments and dayparts, so we are always on the lookout for the next great one. We hit pay dirt at Animals, a tiny, eight-stool annex attached to a bar called The Wayland in Manhattan’s Alphabet City neighborhood. Animals has no named chef, but with a brief menu of seven items, the kitchen turns out some of the best sandwiches anywhere, all lovingly assembled on a crunchy baguette with innovative fillings and complex layers of flavor.
The menu includes two standouts. There is the Beast, composed of beef shoulder that is slowly braised with red wine, stone fruits and aromatics until spoon tender, then hand pulled, piled on a baguette and dressed with pickled red onions and horseradish cream.
Equally delicious is the Mortadella, a clever riff on a fried bologna sandwich where paper-thin slices of Italian mortadella are stacked, folded, skewered and pan fried until the edges become curled and very crispy. The meat is placed in the split baguette, the center is smeared with fromage fort cheese and rosemary mayonnaise, then finished with slices of Peppadew peppers and shredded lettuce.
There is one other offering, however, that we consider the Sandwich of the Year. It is called the Pulled Bacon, and the meat at the heart of the sandwich is unique and rather ingenious. Whole slab bacon (cured and smoked, not fresh pork belly) is brined in apple cider for a week, and then, in the same manner as the beef shoulder, braised to spoon tenderness and hand pulled.
The sandwich is assembled Latin torta style. The baguette is first smeared with frijoles made in-house from Southern-style baked beans rather than pintos. The pulled bacon is layered on and topped with red cabbage slaw, sliced avocado, pickled jalapeños, lettuce, tomato, and finished with a drizzle of chile mayonnaise.
Not only does pulled bacon serve as the base for a truly astounding sandwich, we see this meat as having huge potential for a variety of applications such as a burger topping, taco filling, or flatbread topping, to name a few.
Cocktails are Charged Up
It has been said that the bar is to a restaurant what accessories are to Gucci: the profit center. That fact is certainly not lost on the many casual and casual-upscale operators who have adopted various aspects of the craft cocktail movement in order to increase the quality and profitability of their bar programs.
New York restaurant group Mercadito has opened several casual concepts in Chicago. For its most recent, Little Market American Brasserie, consultants Tad Carducci and Paul Tanguay—also known as The Tippling Brothers—were brought in to create the bar program. The menu centers around charged cocktails, a highly customizable offering of uniquely flavored housemade sodas that are mixed and matched with various liquors.
The sodas are made by infusing simple syrup with flavoring ingredients ranging from herbs and spices to citrus, stone fruits and berries. The concentrated syrups are stored under refrigeration and reconstituted with filtered water as needed. The flavored water is placed in a CO2 charging canister and dispensed as a carbonated soda.
While the charged cocktail is a simple assembly of ice, liquor, soda and garnish, the resulting drink possesses a quality of flavor approaching that of a craft cocktail, which requires more time and effort to create.
Soda flavors change seasonally, with colder-weather flavors such as blood
orange-cinnamon, apple-lavender and cornflower-yuzu being replaced with cucumber-lemon, orange-hibiscus and banana-passionfruit in the summer months.
Little Market’s menu lists several flavor-compatible liquor recommendations for each soda. Vodka and gin are recommended for the cornflower-yuzu soda; tequila and whiskey match with the blood orange-cinnamon; while rum, bourbon and cognac are suggested for the banana-passionfruit.