Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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New-School Steakhouse The modern steakhouse tailors its menu to today’s evolving consumer

In today’s steakhouse, it’s no surprise to see a bold chimichurri sauce served alongside slices of flavorful skirt steak, like this one from STK.
PHOTO CREDIT: nocredit

“A different cut of steakhouse.” So begins the description on the website for Edge, Steak & Bar, in the Four Seasons Hotel Miami. “Delectable cuisines are served in lighter portions and paired with fresh farm-to-table accompaniments. Casual and upbeat, Edge always radiates a friendly and sophisticated ambiance.”

This could be the manifesto for a whole new generation of contemporary steakhouses now making their presence known in the marketplace: Steakhouses with bolder flavors, more accessible prices, shareable foods and more sociable atmospheres. Steakhouses developed with the Millennial generation in mind.

Wollensky’s Grill in Chicago is another among the new breed of steakhouses. The new concept from Smith & Wollensky (S&W), the venerated beef bastion with 10 locations in the United States and London, Wollensky’s Grill was created specifically with the younger generation in mind. “We’re going after a younger clientele,” says Matt King, Smith & Wollensky’s corporate chef and national director of culinary development. “We’re making Wollensky’s Grill theirs. They can aspire for Smith & Wollensky later in their careers. This is a feeder concept.”

It’s a smart move. Wollensky’s Grill actually existed as a bar room in the back of the original S&W in New York, serving the same menu but in a more casual, taproom-style environment. When it became clear that there was too much S&W space in the Chicago location, explains King, the company spent $1.2 million to convert it into a full-on Wollensky’s Grill concept, with an open, casual environment and a focal-point, racetrack-shaped bar. Not to mention a completely different menu.

The menu is a study in modern trends. Wollensky’s Grill touts itself as the “purveyor of something different,” with a focus on today’s more social, casual and impromptu dining needs. The menu leads off with a Burrata Bar appetizer section and a large selection of signature “Sociables” (think Blistered Shishitos, Smoked Wings, Pork & Beef Meatballs and Lobster Corn Dogs), plus salads and seafood by the piece.

The “Butchery” section includes a burger, smoked ribeye, fried chicken, a French dip sandwich and—over this past winter—braised specialties like osso buco and pork shank. There’s a small selection of classic cuts à la Smith & Wollensky, but instead of being treated to a cooking method of “salt, pepper and fire,” as King puts it, these steaks are sliced for sharing and served with a trio of sauces: Béarnaise, au poivre and chimichurri, reflecting a trend in smaller portions and customizable flavor experiences. No side dishes (other than those paired with the entrées), no Brobdingnagian cuts, no caviar and shellfish plateau. Average checks run $65 to $70 per person—still a commitment, but not the C-note that’s often required at Smith & Wollensky.

Playing with Your Food
Wollensky’s Grill adds whimsy to its shareable menu with this Duck & Chicken Liver Mousse with tarragon and sea salt fried dough.

“We think of this as a gastropub and we treat the food accordingly,” says King, who admits that he’s having the time of his life developing fun, playful foods, many of them focusing on better utilization and lesser-known cuts, like prime rib cap (for carpaccio on one of the burrata dishes), smoked belly (in the hugely popular Cup o’ Bacon) and “baseball cut” top sirloin, crusted with bone marrow for extra flavor and richness.

This strategy not only helps keep costs in check, but it also creates affordable, flavor-forward and—not coincidentally—Instagrammable food. That baseball cut, for instance, is a seldom seen cut that, like the hanger steak before it, is known among cognoscenti (and servers who are well-trained to promote it) as a butcher’s cut—just the kind of secret, insidery backstory that Millennials love and love to share.

Though Wollensky’s Grill is entering its second year of tweaking and listening, the concept is already being viewed as a growth vehicle and may in fact be the next restaurant the company opens—perhaps paired with the parent concept for the sake of synergy.

At Edge in Miami, the vibe and menu are not only distinctive and casual, they also represent the flavor, excitement and climate of that unique Latin-accented city. That means a scene—bar and rooftop terrace, and a bill of fare that includes items like Key West pink shrimp ceviche, stone crab, basil-crusted corvina (a local fish), and the almost obligatory churrasco steak, most frequently ordered with chimichurri, one of six complementary sauces.

“We think of this as a ‘steak lite’ concept,” says Executive Chef Aaron Brooks. “We’re focusing on smaller cuts, more appetizers and sides, and our customers are ordering more things to share. In an old-style steakhouse, a table of four might order one or two sides for the table, but here guests are ordering four apps and four sides and splitting everything, so they’re getting more of an experience.”

Though the menu is large and diverse—more than 40 different selections, including a raw bar, tartares and crudos, signatures (that corvina), proteins “from the infrared grill,” and side dishes—the central theme is flavor, lots and lots of flavor. Beef on the grill is treated to a Spanish paprika-laced “cutting-edge rub,” and the half-dozen or so seafood selections (many of which are served in two different portion sizes) get a more low-key “stock spice” that includes ground fennel seed, ginger and dried orange rind. The steaks start with a hard, caramelizing sear on the grill, then are moved to the oven.

And while it’s a steakhouse, Florida snapper flies out the door when it’s on the menu, befitting the South Florida location. And among 10 or so steaks, including two grass-fed cuts, one of the best-selling meat items is the Aussie Lamb. Its popularity may be because Brooks himself hails from Australia and is a known entity in town, or because the two different cuts of lamb get a “two ways” treatment (recently it was fire-roasted chops and slow-roasted shank with honey and saffron kale; mint and freekeh salad; and sesame yogurt finished with fresh cilantro).

Going Bolder
Although steaks are a centerpiece of the Firebirds menu and capture 35 percent of sales, the 37-unit wood-fired grill concept was prescient when it first opened 15 years ago promising “classic American cuisine infused with bold flavors, fresh herbs and spices.” It offers a diverse menu of hand-cut steaks, seafood and signature dishes, such as American Kobe Beef Meatloaf, Wood-Grilled Salmon (a top seller), and numerous burgers, sandwiches, pasta, substantial specialty salads, appetizers and sides.

“We think of ourselves as a wood-fired grill with really good steaks,” says Vice President of Marketing Stephen Loftis. “We offer the unique flavor of live wood and upbeat, lively energy—we’re not stodgy and dull like a library,” he says.

Once again, the uniting principle is flavor. Flavor, along with customization, rules the modern steakhouse. Crab cakes are served with Old Bay, tortilla slaw, and mango-habanero chutney. The Smokehouse chicken sandwich gets Java BBQ Sauce, applewood-smoked bacon, cheddar and red onion. The salmon is topped with Key lime butter.

And those steaks, of which there are eight—including the bacon-wrapped filet served with shrimp or lobster—get a rubdown with one of three different mixtures: steak seasoning (with salt, paprika and garlic); chile (ancho, smoked paprika, salt, cayenne and a bit of sugar); and a pepper crust (kosher salt and cracked black pepper). “Guests today are looking for that really bold, distinctive flavor,” notes Corporate Chef Steven Sturm.

The best-selling steaks get more than a rub. The Bleu Cheese Filet is bacon-wrapped, topped with sautéed port-wine mushrooms, blue cheese and finished with fresh basil. “You get that aromatic hit of basil and the sweet-salty contrast of the cheese and port, not to mention the deeply satisfying flavor of wood smoke,” says Sturm. “These flavors speak to where the guest is trying to take us.”

Surf for Turf
If new-wave steakhouses are serving more fish and other non-beef items, there’s at least one seafood specialist that’s modeling itself after the steakhouse: The Oceanaire Seafood Room.

Big, opulently fresh portions of protein, simply prepared? Check. Classic hot and cold appetizers, including oysters Rockefeller and seafood cocktails?

Got ’em. Upselling à la carte enhancements (like lump crab topping and a “dynamite” prep with sweet Thai chile butter) and lots of large-format sides? You betcha. There are also half a dozen steakhouse offerings, but they only capture two to three percent of sales.

“This is a seafood restaurant for people who enjoy steakhouses,” says Wade Wiestling, vice president of culinary development for Oceanaire’s parent company, Landry’s. “We’ve made the seafood equivalent of the classic masculine steakhouse.” In the process, they’ve attracted more female diners, as well as people who appreciate good fresh fish and know they probably shouldn’t eat steak every night.

Although fresh seasonal fish and shellfish simply grilled, broiled and seared constitute a menu centerpiece, the menu also follows the approach of many modern steakhouses in featuring specialties where the hand of the chef is more apparent, says Wiestling. Customizable touches abound, in items with sauces and distinctive seasoning treatments. Flavor-forward dishes include the Atlantic Monkfish Gumbo and Grilled Open Blue Panama Cobia with white cheddar polenta, cranberry compote and pecan butter.

Another signature is the seasonal Halibut T-bone, where the cartilage backbone is left in to create a cut with two different sides, which can be grilled, broiled or seared, or inserted into a variety of other preps.

“It’s a real showstopper,” says Wiestling. “When one of these hits the table, it gets a real ‘Wow!’”

 

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10 Modern Steakhouse Cues

  • The ambiance is lively, casual and high-energy.
  • The décor is brighter, more open, with larger emphasis on the bar.
  • You’re handed a craft cocktail list that also includes craft beers.
  • The menu includes lots of appetizers, salads, shareables and small plates; some may be whimsical.
  • There may be à la carte sides, but there are also starches and vegetables as included sides on the plates.
  • Protein portion sizes are relatively small compared with old-line steakhouses, and so are the tariffs.
  • You see beef cuts that you may not associate with steakhouses—or even recognize—like skirt steak, sirloin tip or shoulder tender.
  • There’s also a burger.
  • Flavor is emphasized through rubs, smoking, sauces and garnishes/sides.
  • The service is less intimidating.

About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.