As we have done for the past dozen years, my culinary R&D team and I set out for Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, armed with lists of carefully selected new restaurants targeted for live visits, most of which have been open for less than one year. Our lists included the newest sandwich shops, fast-casual concepts, operations overtly marketing better-for-you foods, and full-service casual and casual-upscale venues.
Each restaurant visit involved extensively tasting the menu, photographing the plates, collecting menus, and questioning the manager, chef and staff about all aspects of their operation. This street-level research gives us a real-world view of the evolution of flavor trends in the most influential American cities. All told, we sampled more than 1,200 dishes in 94 restaurants during 17 working days.
Along the way we encountered creative chefs and sharp operators expanding menu differentiation on a variety of fronts, be it creating new flavors with lesser known and underutilized ingredients, building concepts based on a single, specialized dish, developing handcrafted beverages, or innovating the way food is presented and served in the dining room.
Sharing Plates On Wheels
The “borrowing” of ideas is a constant in the restaurant industry, and the practice is only considered egregious when the idea is blatantly copied. Most times the idea is given a new spin or taken to the next level, which is considered fair play.
Such is the case with American dim sum, a concept pioneered by chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski at their white-hot restaurant State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. Borrowed from the Cantonese dining style of serving small dishes from carts that roll up tableside, State Bird offers a compact à la carte menu of 10 to 12 items, with another two dozen or so dishes being served from dim sum carts.
State Bird Provisions opened in early 2012, and by the next year another restaurant featuring the American dim sum concept appeared: The Church Key in Los Angeles. However, chef Steven Fretz and his crew took the dim sum idea in another direction. The majority of The Church Key’s dishes are offered on the printed menu, and the dim sum carts are simply used to add flourishes to the dining experience.
For instance, one cart features a whimsical drink service, offering cocktails that are pre-mixed, sealed in plastic “Kool Pop” pouches and frozen tableside in liquid nitrogen.
Yet another is equipped with a huge, manual Berkel slicer used for dispensing plates of freshly shaved artisanal country ham—truly an impressive tableside service. Other carts are stocked with small shareable snacks such as fried nuts, flavored popcorn and miniature bacon brioche buns.
And the idea borrowing continues, as David Chang, founding chef of New York’s Momofuku empire, recently adopted the American dim sum concept at his Midtown restaurant Má Pêche, which now features rolling carts filled with classic Momofuku dishes such as steamed pork belly buns, fried Brussels sprouts with chile and rice vinegar, and habanero country-fried chicken.
Full-service menus that offer sharing-style plates and snacks continue to lead the way in the casual segment. Bringing the finished dishes into the dining room allows diners to view each dish before making their choice, creating a more dramatic, immediate and interactive experience.
The Boomer generation has proven their love of sharing plates, and all research indicates Millennials are seeking higher levels of experiential dining in foodservice. American dim sum meets these demands in a new and refreshing way.
Healthy Cuisine, Bold Flavors
In tracking the growth and success rates of new operations that menu and market better-for-you foods, we have observed that the majority of the winners are located in dense city cores with large numbers of office workers seeking a healthier lunch, with the lunch daypart providing the majority of sales volume.
That is gradually evolving, as new concepts have emerged that target all-day diners and those seeking healthier options in the dinner daypart. By exerting greater culinary creativity and energy, these concepts are serving the next wave of delicious, healthy cuisine.
The Little Beet is a new venture in Midtown Manhattan from local celebrity chef Franklin Becker. His philosophy is simply to use the highest quality ingredients and then layer in flavors. Proteins such as skirt steak, salmon and chicken breast gain a caramelized char from cooking on a hot plancha grill. They can be ordered in a sandwich or as a salad accompaniment, but are best when served with Becker’s complexly flavored side dishes, such as: toasted buckwheat with mushrooms, green onions and hazelnut; Southwest-style millet with tomatoes, jalapeño and avocado; or soba noodles with cabbage, pickled ginger, scallions, cilantro and mint.
Two West Coast concepts following a similar path are True Food Kitchen and LYFE Kitchen. If they did not market their food as better-for-you, they would simply be known for their delicious cuisine. Menu standouts at True Food include: Butternut Squash Pizza topped with smoked mozzarella, sweet onion, arugula and walnuts; Edamame Dumplings with daikon radish and white truffle oil; and Roasted Chicken with smoked wheat berries, spinach, preserved lemon, cannellini beans and feta. Likewise, the dinner menu at LYFE Kitchen leads with Roasted Mushroom and Goat Cheese Flatbread drizzled with pomegranate-balsamic glaze; crunchy “Unfried Chicken” with roasted Brussels sprouts, dried cranberries and cashew cream; and Roasted Salmon with fennel, broccolini, garlic and tomato fondue.
To get the clearest view of the future of healthy cuisine, one must venture to a tiny, 20-seat, full-service spot in a nondescript stretch of New York’s Chinatown. At Dimes, owner Sabrina De Sousa and chef Alissa Wagner serve cuisine with such intriguing ingredient combinations and skillful flavoring that the health aspect seems secondary. From breakfast bowls featuring a housemade pudding of acai purée, bananas and almond milk, to a Big Salad of greens, snap peas, gooseberries, feta and farro in mint vinaigrette, to Seared Tuna with bulgur, roasted sunchokes, fennel, radish, beets, basil and olive-anchovy tapenade, chef Wagner adroitly maximizes the craveability in each dish. And the menu at Dimes is not without its indulgences: Each afternoon from 4:00 to 5:30, the sole offerings are “Drinks & Cookies.”
Meatless and Matchless
Healthier offerings are also on the rise in mainstream restaurants, even some with menus featuring more indulgent fare. One of the surprise takeaways from this year’s research was the proliferation of craveable vegetarian sandwiches—both vegan and lacto/ovo. One common trait shared by these is inspired layering of flavors within the sandwich.
Such is the case with the Vegetable Club at Parson’s Chicken & Fish in Chicago, featuring thin slices of pickled beet, radish and cucumber layered with herbed cream cheese and pea shoots, and finished with a drizzle of sherry vinaigrette. Parson’s specializes in fried foods, yet chef Hunter Moore wanted a meatless option on the menu that offers the same flavor impact as his celebrated poultry and seafood. Mission accomplished.
Roasted or grilled eggplant provides the foundation for several sandwiches, including the Roasted Eggplant Panini at chef Susan Feniger’s Mud Hen Tavern in Los Angeles, deftly pressed with roasted peppers, zucchini, mozzarella and basil-olive pesto, and the Spicy Beet and Eggplant Sandwich at Dimes, which includes slices of hard-boiled egg, shredded carrot and pickled red onions.
One of the most intriguing meatless sandwiches was found at Black Tree on New York’s Lower East Side. The Winter Squash Sandwich featured four types of herb-roasted squash, topped with melted mozzarella, crushed potato chips, toasted squash seeds and chopped fresh thyme and rosemary.
And somewhere between vegetarian sandwich and entrée is the Clean Slate, served at chef Caroline Fidanza’s Little Chef in New York. Naan bread is griddled to a crispy crunch and topped with lentil hummus, quinoa, pickled root vegetables, chopped herbs, hot sauce and Greek yogurt; the bread is intended to be torn apart while the toppings are eaten with a knife and fork.
With kale, wild mushrooms, snow peas, red grapes, buckwheat and herbed yogurt dressing, the Big Salad at Dimes proves that healthy can be craveable, too.
Quinoa Goes Casual
An ingredient primarily found on better-for-you menus just a few years ago, quinoa has broken into the mainstream in a big way. Chefs in the casual segment are demonstrating the wide versatility of quinoa, expanding beyond its typical applications in wraps, bowls and salads.
At Fountainhead in Chicago, chef Cleetus Friedman simmers quinoa in a rich vegetable stock for his Mushroom Quinoa Risotto, studded with exotic mushrooms and topped with shaved Parmesan and torn basil. Also in Chicago, Beatrix serves a sharing plate of Warm Quinoa Cakes, griddled until crispy and topped with roasted peppers, fried garlic and Marcona almonds.
Our research uncovered a few better-for-you spots serving quinoa oatmeal at breakfast, but most suffered from a thick, pasty texture. Not so at Jeffrey’s Grocery, a casual concept from Gabe Stulman in New York. The oatmeal was delicate, with the quinoa grains just holding together—a perfectly executed breakfast dish finished with golden raisins, toasted walnuts and maple syrup.
Chefs are also discovering that quinoa makes a noticeably better vegetarian burger than those based on bean mixtures or chopped vegetables. The Old World Grains Burger at Farmhouse in Chicago combines quinoa with exotic mushrooms and poblano peppers, griddled and topped with a slather of garlic aïoli. The Quinoa Burger at 3 Square Café in Los Angeles is blended with roasted peppers and spinach and topped with melted Swiss and romesco sauce.
The most imaginative quinoa burger we encountered was the “Inside Out” at L.A.’s True Food Kitchen, where two crunchy red quinoa patties serve as the bun, filled with slices of cucumber, tomato, red onion and avocado, and topped with hummus, tzatziki and crumbled feta.
Fried Chicken, Then Chicken Fried
Healthy offerings aside, full-service restaurants are still solidly in the business of providing dining guests with a treat. Fried chicken certainly falls into that category. While restaurants specializing in upscale versions of fried chicken have flourished recently—such as at chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster in New York or at Parson’s in Chicago (the Honey Butter Fried Chicken and Leghorn Chicken)—chefs are now applying the technique to a wide variety of proteins in unique “chicken-fried” dishes.
Chef Joaquin Baca serves a lavish version of Chicken-Fried Steak at The Brooklyn Star in New York; smothered with peppered country gravy atop crunchy bacon and a sweet and sour “hot slaw.” The most unique version is served at Chicago’s The Dawson, where chef Christopher Gawronski chicken fries a sirloin strip to medium rare and serves it with collards and country gravy.
The Chicken-Fried Chicken at The Corner Door in Los Angeles features a crunchy boneless breast and thigh served with sriracha crème fraîche, while Dusek’s in Chicago serves Kentucky Fried Quail with country gravy, foie gras cornbread, red beans and pickled okra. A delicious meatless version at Brooklyn’s Pickle Shack, Chicken-Fried Oyster Mushrooms are served with a lemon wedge and cocktail sauce.
A Singular Focus
Several years ago, restaurants specializing in macaroni and cheese, such as S’MAC and Macbar, introduced New Yorkers to the idea of the single-item menu. Over the past year the city has seen a mini-explosion of new concepts that expand upon that theme, focusing on a particular dish or ingredient and then offering it with a wide selection of optional toppings, fillings, garnishes and sauces that allow the diner to create a customized meal.
Potatopia offers 10 different potato preparations, including fried skins, shoestrings, curls and tots, as well as baked and mashed versions of both white and sweet potatoes. Eight protein choices include chicken, shrimp, bacon, steak and vegan chili, and the various toppings feature a dozen fresh vegetables and six shredded or crumbled cheeses. Housemade aïoli is the crowning touch, in such flavors as savory bacon, Parmesan and truffle.
The Nugget Spot applies the same strategy to fried chicken, pork and fish nuggets, employing a variety of flavorful and crunchy coatings made from coconut, puffed rice, cheese crackers, pretzels or sweet cereal, and more than a dozen dipping sauces.
Miniature filled “bagel balls” are the sole offering at Bantam Bagels. Slightly larger than a golf ball, the rotating roster of flavors includes: whole wheat and sesame filled with chopped vegetable cream cheese; cinnamon raisin with toasted walnut cream cheese; onion filled with garlic chive butter; and Greek-spiced with olive and feta cream cheese. The whimsical-looking bantams are serious stuff. The New York Daily News recently rated them the third best bagel in the city.
Taquitoria has the shortest menu, with only four selections of rolled and deep fried corn tortillas freshly stuffed with chicken, beef, pork or black beans, and topped with a choice of the classic garnishes of avocado sauce, shredded lettuce and cotija cheese, or the more indulgent nacho cheese, sour cream and jalapeño relish. The compact menu facilitates superior execution; the taquitos are fried to order, quickly garnished and served piping hot and crunchy.
Empire Biscuit specializes in elevated versions of biscuit sandwiches with bold flavor combinations. Favorites include: slow-cooked brown sugar oxtail with arugula and fennel butter; grilled pineapple with dried cherry cream cheese and jalapeño jam; and spiced fried chicken a l’orange with pickled carrots.
Regardless of the concept’s theme, these menus center on dishes offering high levels of craveability, any of which could translate into unique offerings for varied-menu operations.
This is one part of a two-part feature on Street-Level Trend Tracking. In the next issue: cheese of the moment, the next big vegetable and ingenious indulgence.