As we have done for the past 14 years, my culinary R&D team recently conducted our annual round of research trips, targeting the latest restaurant openings in the three trend-driving cities of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Through a comprehensive vetting process that included studying the websites and menus of nearly 400 restaurants opened for one year or less, along with a small number of existing venues featuring updated menus, the team established an itinerary that resulted in live visits to 114 restaurants, where we tasted 1,185 dishes over the course of 15 days.
This exercise provides our team with a real-world, street-level view of the evolution of foods and flavors in commercial foodservice, and numerous clues to new menu directions in their earliest stages.
We first cited the growing number of chefs adding vegetable-centric dishes to their menus in these pages as part of our 2015 report, and the editors of Flavor & The Menu provided further insights into the movement in the 2016 Top 10 Trends issue.
Veg-centric cuisine—where chefs place fresh produce in the center of the plate and build flavors via aggressive cooking methods, creative garnishes and sauces, and the frequent addition of animal-based proteins—is a macro-trend that will increasingly influence menus in the coming decade.
The large number of veg-centric dishes found in our latest research, along with the simultaneous release of two seminal books on the subject, led us to the conclusion that an update is in order.
Squash: Orange-Headed Stepchild
The emergence of “superstar” vegetables has contributed to the rise in consumer acceptance of veg-centric dishes, beginning with kale several years ago, followed closely by Brussels sprouts. More recently it’s been cauliflower and carrots—the former cut into steaks, large wedges or left whole and roasted or grilled, the latter left whole and unpeeled with stems attached, and aggressively roasted until deeply caramelized.
The latest vegetable making the move from also-ran to star status is hard winter squash. Highly economical and available in well over a dozen varieties, preparation techniques for squash are becoming increasingly creative and move well beyond the most popular method of oven roasting.
In Chicago, Chef Cosmo Goss has added an extensive new category of “Vegetables” to the menu at The Publican, particularly remarkable given that the restaurant made its name as a nose-to-tail concept. His Avocado Salad offers no visible avocado when presented, as it is cloaked in thin curls of butternut squash ribbons tossed in vadouvan spice and garnished with pickled grapes and sunflower seeds. Shaved Brussels sprouts are served in a pool of creamy delicata squash sauce, flavored with charred onion and habanero, and lightened with whipped ricotta cheese.
A mound of thinly shaved delicata squash ribbons serves as the garnish for the Steak Tartare at Michael Anthony’s Untitled in New York. For the Squash Carpaccio at nearby “coastal Italian” restaurant Santina, buttercup squash is roasted just until al dente, thinly shaved and arranged in a pinwheel on a plate, placed under a broiler until the squash is well caramelized and crisp around the edges, and topped with dollops of spiced labneh, chopped herbs and toasted pumpkin seeds.
The Butternut Squash Risotto at New York’s Le Pecora Bianca features a warmly spiced squash purée cooked into the rice, then finished with shards of crispy speck and fried sage leaves. The Butternut Squash & Bacon Rillette at Chicago’s Haywood Tavern puts a new spin on the classic potted meat dish, with the squash slowly braised in bacon fat before being shredded, chilled and served as a spread with slices of grilled bread.
Butternut squash also makes its way into a brunch frittata at Estrella in Los Angeles, laced with goat cheese and sage and topped with toasted, truffled pumpkin seeds.
Global ingredients are flavoring squash-based dishes as well. At Cassia in Santa Monica, slices of Grilled Kabocha Squash are bathed in a lemongrass curry sauce studded with smoked bacon and finished with crumbled feta. New York’s Goa Taco serves globally inspired taco fillings tucked into flaky paratha bread, including a Spiced Honey Butternut Squash Taco topped with salsa verde, feta and toasted pepitas.
Menu Ready Squash: Ribbons, Risottos and Rillettes
Versatility and economy are two of the major drivers of the growth of winter squash. Many chefs have moved away from the typical “brown sugar and butter” treatment to experiment with bolder applications. High-yield squash can help any kitchen hold the line on rising food costs.
- Find your favorite: Our research suggests that butternut squash is the clear favorite of chefs. However, there are many varieties in the market with varying sweetness levels. Smaller squash such as delicata carry the added bonus of an edible skin. Golden nugget is a less common heirloom variety, but is among the best we’ve tasted.
- Expand your methods: Thinly shaved squash ribbons make a unique base for salads, or garnish for hot and cold dishes, bowls and handhelds. Thick purées may create unique dips and spreads, and thinner versions are being served as sauces for entrées and sharing plates. Grilling, torching and smoking are methods that add depth and complexity.
- Fill it up: Stuffed or filled winter squash makes a dramatic and celebratory dish. Smaller squash may be served as individual portions and are ideal for creamy fillings including soups, puréed vegetables, whipped potatoes or vegetables in velouté. Large squash can serve as a functional serving vessel for grain and other dishes.
Vegetables & Toast: a Love Story
One of the most surprising findings in this year’s research was the explosive growth of toast-based dishes on new menus. Venturing beyond custom-topped breakfast/brunch breads and new takes on avocado toast, chefs are creating unique varieties that are broadening the opportunity throughout the dayparts, featuring toasts as both a luncheon sandwich and a sharing plate at dinner.
While meat- and seafood-topped toasts were an easy find, the most original and delicious treatments we discovered featured vegetables creatively combined to maximize color, flavor and texture. And while many of the vegetable-toast builds started with a smear of flavorful cheese, the best were based on boldly flavored vegetable purées, using such ingredients as eggplant, root vegetables, winter squash, mushrooms, tomatoes and leafy greens.
The four vegetable toasts on offer each evening at New York’s Avant Garden elevate the concept from both a flavor and a plate-presentation standpoint. Each is built upon a complex vegetable spread such as smoked eggplant, carrot and harissa, roasted sunchoke and fennel hummus. The toasts are topped with various assortments of diced and sliced vegetables and fruit, olives, toasted nuts and pickles, ground spices and dried chile sprinkles, then finished with sprigs and fronds of fresh herbs and vegetable tops. The results are eye-catching toasts that resemble miniature vegetable landscapes, with craveable flavors to match.
A buttery-smooth cauliflower purée serves as the base for the Asparagus Toast at Zinc Cafe in Los Angeles, which is layered with grilled asparagus, shreds of white cheddar cheese and topped with a poached egg and toasted panko. The Mushroom Toast at The Brixton, a gastro-tavern in Santa Monica, Calif., features an umami-rich mushroom spread topped with wilted arugula, toasted almonds and a drizzle of maple-balsamic glaze.
Vegetable jams also provide toasts with an intense flavor kick. The Green Eggs and Jam toast at Sqirl in Los Angeles layers onion jam with a mound of creamed spinach surrounding a sunny-side-up egg. The Tomato Jam & Egg Toast at Chicago’s Chicken & Farm Shop features housemade tomato jam topped with a crushed medium-boiled egg, sliced Fresno chiles and fresh basil. The Tomato and Egg Toast at wine bar Fifty Paces in New York is a simple but flavorful build of thick tomato jam topped with torn basil and an olive oil-poached fudgy egg yolk.
Menu Ready Toast & Vegetables: A Perfect Pairing
Consumers are continuing to show their love of toast, and vegetable-topped varieties are among the most unique. Garnished with the best of seasonal ingredients, they appeal to both the health-conscious and those seeking new flavor combinations.
- Ace the base: Start the layering with a boldly flavored base. Cream cheese, ricotta and feta may be whipped with a variety of herbs, spices and peppers. Thick vegetable purées with similar flavor additions make unique and cost-effective spreads. Tomato and pepper jams are umami-rich options.
- A crowning touch: A fudgy-yolked egg adds a luxurious finish to vegetable toasts. Medium-boiled eggs or olive oil-poached yolks provide a silky texture but are firm enough to stay on the toast without dripping.
- Don’t forget fruit: Topping toast with fresh fruit is a narrower menu opportunity but still worthy of note. Diced apple and pear or slices of stone fruit, melon or persimmon layered with soft cheese and garnished with chopped nuts and a drizzle of honey can make unique breakfast and snack items.
Bouquets of Crudités
A retro dish of the highest order, crudités are experiencing resurgence on casual menus, but the ingredients and presentations owe little to the traditional assemblage of carrot and celery sticks, cucumber slices and grape tomatoes.
Today’s crudité dishes more closely resemble a bouquet of flowers or a colorful vegetable still life. This is largely accomplished through the use of a wider array of vegetables, and the inclusion of heirloom varieties that broaden the color palette.
As is increasingly the practice in all vegetable cookery in restaurants, chefs are leaving more of the crudité vegetables in their whole state, or minimizing the peeling and trimming in order to retain the green stems and tops and create a more natural, farm-to-table appearance.
And in yet another retro cue, the majority of the crudité dishes we sampled were accompanied by the chef’s version of Green Goddess dressing—some creamy, some vinaigrette style, others enriched with avocado.
The Market Crudité at Cafe Clover in New York is a lovely arrangement of celery hearts, radishes, baby turnips, romanesco, fennel bulb and colored plum tomatoes, accompanied by a trio of dips including Green Goddess, Creamy Tonnato and Black Sesame Ranch. Boeufhaus in Chicago serves its crudités on a bed of ice, the metal bowl teeming with colorful tangles of bell pepper, green beans, a trio of colored carrots, daikon, scallions and frisée, served with a creamy Green Goddess dotted with herb and citrus oils and pomegranate seeds.
At Maré in Los Angeles, Chef Eric Greenspan capitalizes on the West Coast’s year-round bounty of local produce for his Crudité of Vegetables, featuring slices of giant watermelon radish, snap peas, Chinese long beans, endive leaves, whole rainbow carrots and breakfast radishes (both with tops attached), with almond romesco and house ranch dips served alongside.
The grandest presentation by far is at New York’s Santina, where the Giardinia Crudité is a literal cauldron of fresh carrots, radishes, bell peppers, celery hearts and lettuces adorned with various vegetable and herb tops, branches, stems and sprigs that overtakes the table and easily feeds six to eight diners. The dramatic and celebratory dish includes romesco, almond aïoli and chimichurri dipping sauces.
Menu Ready Crudités: A Celebration of Fresh
While few dishes say “humdrum” quite like a plate of cut vegetables, thoughtfully arranged crudités, served with novel sauce and dip accompaniments, are highly appealing to dining consumers seeking fresh, healthy ingredients.
- Go to market: Creating superior crudités may be one of the best reasons to visit your local farmers’ market. Specialty and heirloom produce provides colors, shapes and textures unattainable with conventional vegetables.
- Build height: Make the presentation as vertical as possible. Avoid flat, wide serving dishes in favor of narrower pieces with some depth. Stalks and stems from vegetables and herbs such as fennel, celery, dill and parsley easily increase height and add dramatic eye appeal.
- Limit your cuts: Create a “root-to-stem” appearance by serving a few of the vegetables in their whole state. Obviously this will not work with celery, but a few carrots, radishes or baby turnips presented complete with green tops and hairy tendrils make attractive additions that also speak to ingredient freshness.
- Go green and double-dip: Green Goddess dressing may be an old chestnut, but it is also quite delicious. Stick with the classic recipe or rework a signature version. Avocado is not a traditional ingredient but adds unmatched richness. A growing number of chefs are serving two or more dips with their crudités, increasing flavor, variety and perceived value.
Raw Power: Tartare and Poke
Crudités are not the only uncooked dish showing strong growth on the latest menus. Signature versions of meat-based tartare and raw seafood poke are gaining favor as chefs upend traditional treatments with inspired and unexpected tastes, textures and accompaniments. These are dishes that consumers are least likely to try to prepare at home and rely on restaurants to satisfy the demand.
Reimagined versions of the classic steakhouse dish beef tartare were found on the menus of nearly two dozen of our research targets, with uncommon ingredient additions and globally inspired variations providing the most intriguing flavors.
The Beef and Oyster Tartare at Chicago’s Sink/Swim exemplifies this trend, with the addition of chopped raw oysters adding a potent but pleasing layer of umami to the dish. The Steak American at Resto in New York combines raw chopped steak and marinated mushrooms tossed with smoked beer and crunchy fried shallots. Belcampo Meat Co. in Los Angeles offers a trio of tartares based on beef, lamb and goat. And at L.A.’s Hatchet Hall, Chef Brian Dunsmoor combines tartare and toast with his Chop Steak: raw sirloin blended with green peppercorns, shallot aïoli and chopped chives, spread on a thick slice of grilled sourdough.
Steak Tartare goes global at Israeli restaurant Timna in New York, where Chef Nir Mesika folds the meat with zaalouk pepper spread and puffed quinoa, finishing the dish with shaved onion and radish and a drizzle of gold tomato gazpacho. Asian cues are front and center in the Prime Beef Tartare at Ox & Son in Los Angeles, the steak tossed with soy, onion, apple and sesame seeds with chopped truffled egg, and at Simbal in L.A.’s Little Tokyo, where the Hangar Steak Tartare is flavored with shallot, lemongrass and larb seasoning, and served with a giant puffed sesame seed bread.
No other cuisine or concept is currently garnering more media attention than poke, the Hawaiian dish that, in its most authentic form, consists of diced raw fish tossed in a soy- or mayonnaise-based sauce and topped with chopped nuts.
An explosion of fast-casual poke concepts that have opened in Los Angeles over the past year has fed the frenzy, and New York is following closely with at least three poke-themed fast-casuals set to open there in the first half of 2016.
We visited 14 restaurants either serving or specializing in poke during this year’s research, and our primary finding is that not all poke is created equal.
To build poke into a meal that satisfies the fast-casual value equation, players in the segment are serving the fish atop rice in a bowl—not a traditional or authentic presentation but certainly an on-trend and popular format. The challenge is that when toppings and garnishes are added to a bowl already filled with rice, much of the flavor of the fish is lost in the jumble of ingredients. Most also offer tossed greens as an alternative to the rice, but the same flavor confusion results.
Full-service operators, on the other hand, can offer poke as a starter or sharing plate, less concerned with bulking up the dish and better able to concentrate on serving a great tasting poke.
Also, as opposed to blending the fish and sauce when the bowl is assembled, the majority of the fast-casual operations sauce the fish in advance in large batches, which speeds assembly on the line but also has the effect of masking the taste of the fish.
The flavor advantage of saucing to order became evident during our visit to Mainland Poke Shop, one of the many new fast-casual spots in Los Angeles. The diced fish is stored and displayed on the line, as are squeeze bottles of the various sauces. The fish and sauce is mixed to order as the bowl is built, allowing the flavors to remain separate and distinct. The difference in the quality of the end-product versus batch-saucing cannot be overstated.
So, as might be expected, the best poke dishes we sampled from both a flavor and presentation standpoint were in full-service operations.
One might expect great poke at a Hawaiian restaurant, and Noreetuh in New York’s East Village did not disappoint. Two excellent versions are served: a soy-tossed Big Eye Tuna Poke with pickled jalapeño, chopped macadamia nuts and seaweed; and a creamy, mayonnaise-based Octopus Poke tossed with tobiko, mustard-leaf kimchi and sliced fingerling potatoes.
Subtle saucing accentuates the Tuna Poke at Chicago’s GT Fish & Oyster, where Chef Giuseppe Tentori folds yellowfin tuna with just a bit of shoyu, presses it into a disk and tops it simply with black sesame seeds and a thin shaving of mango.
And after sampling nearly 40 poke dishes in 14 venues, the team’s overall favorite was the simple and subtle Tuna Poke at Santa Monica Yacht Club in Santa Monica, Calif.: generous cubes of albacore in a perfectly balanced toss of soy, Maui onion and seaweed, topped with a few crunchy fried lotus chips.
Menu Ready Poke: Letting The Seafood Shine
While those in the fast-casual segment compete to become the industry’s “Chipokele,” and the public becomes more discerning about the quality of poke, full-service operators have a prime opportunity to distinguish their menus with superior poke offerings.
- “To order” is in order: Without question, the most critical element in creating the best poke is saucing the fish to order. Second is taking care not to over sauce the fish, particularly with soy-based flavorings.
- Avoid overload: Superior poke is about flavor, not portion size. Extraneous ingredients added to increase volume will only degrade the finished product.
- A frugal finish: While your poke presentation should have a signature look, less is still more from a garnishing standpoint. Tiny dollops of fish roe, small fronds of herbs or seaweed, or thin shavings of fruit or vegetables are all that is needed to complete the dish.
Okonomiyaki: New Mash-Ups
Izakaya are Japanese brewpubs specializing in homestyle comfort food dishes. At the heart of this cuisine is okonomiyaki, a craveable savory pancake made from a simple batter mixed with shredded or chopped cabbage. The pancakes are studded with bits of seafood and bacon or pork belly during cooking, then served with a coating of fruit-sweetened soy glaze and Japanese mayonnaise.
While we have followed the gradual increase in the popularity of okonomiyaki over the years, the dish has yet to break into the mainstream. Now, as has been the case with so many casual/street foods such as tacos, burgers and hot dogs, okonomiyaki is being mashed up with a variety of global ingredient additions, and these creative new variations could significantly broaden the dish’s appeal.
Okiway in Brooklyn, N.Y., specializes in creative mash-ups of the classic pancake, including: a barbecue version laced with pulled smoked pork, BBQ sauce and spicy pickles; a vegetarian cake teeming with local sweet corn, peppers and zucchini and finished with a drizzle of ponzu dressing; and a chorizo-filled Mexican version topped with avocado, cilantro and chipotle mayo.
The menu at nearby Shalom Japan features a variety of mashed-up Japanese/Jewish kosher dishes, including its signature okonomiyaki with pastrami and sauerkraut added to the mix, griddled until crispy and topped with a mound of bonito flakes.
Bar Goto on New York’s Lower East Side creates unique oblong pancakes that are folded in multiple layers and served in cast iron, including an umami-rich Grilled Cheese version featuring white cheddar, Parmesan and Gruyère layered with grilled beech mushrooms and sun-dried tomato.
Okonomiyaki is one of foodservice’s best-kept secrets, as most dining consumers are hooked with their first taste. It is not a difficult dish to prepare, and could provide menu differentiation for a variety of establishments from varied-menu casual to sports bars.
Pulled Pork For Vegans
One surprising ingredient we encountered at several of our research stops was jackfruit, native to Southeast Asia. The interior flesh of this giant fruit can be eaten fresh when ripe, and is traditionally used in a variety of sweet and savory applications.
However, the unripe or green jackfruit flesh must be cooked, and its fibrous composition results in a finished product that, when shredded and tossed in a BBQ-style sauce, has a flavor and texture uncannily similar to pulled pork.
At vegan sandwich shop Toad Style in Brooklyn, N.Y., BBQ Pulled Jackfruit is piled on a baguette with Brussels sprouts slaw, fennel jam and spicy pickles. For the BBQ Bao served at Blue Window in Los Angeles, the takeout nook attached to Chef Susan Feniger’s Mud Hen Tavern, Chinese steamed buns are stuffed with BBQ jackfruit and drizzled with a peanut-hoisin sauce. And at eLOVate Kitchen in Santa Monica, Calif., Chef Roberto Martin simmers jackfruit in guajillo chile sauce and tucks it into crispy taco shells, topped with shredded cabbage and guacamole.
As a group of omnivores, our research group was extremely impressed with the jackfruit dishes we tasted. Its meat-like eating quality far surpasses any soy- or gluten-based meat analogues we’ve encountered. If supply is sufficient to meet future demand, this delicious vegan product is certainly bound for the mainstream.
Part two of this report will appear in the September/October 2016 issue of Flavor & The Menu.