Mother may have always told you to eat your vegetables, but she may not have instructed you to eat them first. Savvy menu-makers are doing that now, front-loading menus with produce-driven bar bites, appetizers and small plates that entice diners. It’s a strategy that fits right into the acknowledged role of the top of the menu as the place for innovation and customer trial.
“Fruits and especially vegetables are starting to creep into the mainstream public’s consciousness of foods that are not only healthy, but can also be delicious if prepared correctly and creatively,” says Dean Small, founder and managing partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants, based in Newport Beach, Calif. “This goes beyond the old paradigm of fried foods like zucchini, into new kinds of produce and new flavor-building techniques,” he adds.
“Operators can use the lower-priced platform of appetizers and bar foods to introduce their customers to craveable new produce-driven menu items,” he continues. “Shareables, in particular, can inspire guests to say, ‘What the heck, let’s try these.’ As far as types of vegetables, you almost can’t go wrong with items that have become more widely recognized, like Brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower and edamame. A signature prep method like charring, or a flavor profile such as Asian, can turn these into a signature.”
True Food Kitchen (TFK) is so committed to having customers start their meal with vegetables that a new vegetable section tops off the menu—right after specialty beverages, where many diners may have come to expect a selection of snacks. These are no ordinary vegetables, either: Charred Cauliflower with harissa tahini, dill mint and pistachio; Roasted Toybox Squash with burnt onion, lemon-dill emulsion and toasted pine nut gremolata; Chioggia Beet Bruschetta, a vegan offering with almond ricotta amaranth, arugula and pomegranate molasses.
“There’s nothing more delicious than a perfect vegetable,” says Clint Woods, vice president of culinary for the rapidly growing 13-unit True Food Kitchen concept, part of Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts. “Our hope is that customers will sit down and right away order a vegetable with their drinks—they’re great to share and fun to talk about. It’s also a good way to feature vegan offerings that are more widely appealing.”
Just as important, the three- to four-item section can be used to support TFK’s increasing efforts to feature more seasonal and even micro-seasonal ingredients, as summer’s Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta with almond ricotta, garden herbs and Arbequiña olive oil gives over to autumn’s Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Jerusalem artichoke, sultanas, shallot and toasted hazelnuts.
The Brussels sprouts, in fact, which Woods says have become widely popular, are used as a vehicle to introduce the lesser-known Jerusalem artichoke, or sunchoke, with its rich earthiness that caramelizes in the pizza oven, along with the sweet-and-salty counterpoint of raisins, shallots and nuts.
“It’s a challenge working with the seasons, because once you have one season rolled out, it’s time to introduce a new one,” says Woods. But the separate vegetable section allows for more frequent adjustments to take advantage of something that’s only available for three or four weeks—especially fleeting spring and summer produce. And, having introduced the new menu structure this summer, the company will soon begin varying items location by location within its Virginia-to-California empire.
The rest of the TFK menu is just as produce-forward, and includes such starters as Kale Guacamole, Shiitake Lettuce Cups and Edamame Dumplings, as well as a number of shareable-sized, vegetable-topped pizzas.
Brad Spence, co-chef of Lo Spiedo in Philadelphia, also sees opportunity in veg-centric bar bites. Owned by the Vetri family of restaurateurs, Lo Spiedo (“The Spit”) is described as a “celebration of the most primal, elemental fare: fresh food prepared over wood-burning flame.” Among the rotisserie chicken and slow-smoked brisket are snacks and starters like Grilled Avocado, Mexican Street Corn with Aleppo-lime mayo and Cotija cheese, BBQ Carrots with Ranch, and Zucchini Fries with preserved lemon and mint mayo.
“Most people have had carrots, but they’ve never had them grilled,” says Spence. “Our approach to vegetables is to start with the best seasonal ingredients, season them just a little, and throw them on the grill. The smoke and vegetables speak for themselves.”
Those carrots begin as larger vegetables for a sturdy texture, which are marinated in house barbecue sauce, cooked on the wood-burning grill for smokiness, then finished in the wood oven for tenderness. On the pickup, they’re tossed in a pan with more barbecue sauce and sent out with the finishing touch of a housemade ranch dressing, made more sophisticated with crème fraîche and heavy cream. “It’s got that great combination of sweet, savory, salty and sour flavors,” says Spence. “It’s really simple, but totally surprising.”
The same is true of the popular grilled avocado, which is simply halved, pitted, and grilled with a little olive oil and sea salt until the surface becomes charred. The $8 item is served with housemade grilled, herbed focaccia bread and a knife for spreading, creating a perfect craveable sharing snack that can be scooped right out of the peel at the table.
The New Consumer Demand
“This is a trend that’s really being driven by consumers,” says Gabriel Caliendo, corporate executive chef of Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar, a casual restaurant chain with 18 restaurants in California and four more on the way in Texas and Las Vegas. “Our guests are asking for more vegetables, but you can’t just steam up some broccoli and leave it at that—you’ve got to present vegetables in a way that creates an experience.”
Fortunately, Caliendo’s test kitchen is a fully operational restaurant in Brea, Calif., where regular customers know to expect samples and solicitation for every new item being developed, and the chef gets immediate feedback that goes beyond kitchen crew and servers. “It can get quite detailed,” he explains. “We’ll ask the customers, ‘How do you feel about cumin?’ or ‘Do you like this spice?’”
Increasingly, Caliendo’s R&D efforts are resulting in vegetable starters and small plates, as well as happy hour items like Togarashi Edamame and Sweet Potato Tater Tots—what Caliendo describes as produce that’s been treated “to very flavorful and interesting concepts.”
The smaller format of these items provides an “affordable adventure,” with specialties like last summer’s Street Corn Wheels, cut into inch-thick rounds—the better to make them shareable—then grilled and slathered with lime-spiked garlic sauce, and topped with queso blanco, the Mexican seasoning blend called Tajín and fresh cilantro.
Immensely popular, the dish is part of Lazy Dog’s increasingly seasonal approach to menuing. “There’s big opportunity to use vegetables for seasonality,” says Caliendo. “Not only is the quality better, but the food cost is also better, and we can pass that along to the guest. And it keeps the menu exciting.”
More important, perhaps, is the fact that vegetable starters make customers feel more virtuous—and therefore more likely to order. “Even the presence of a vegetable appetizer adds a halo of health,” Caliendo says of starters and small plates like the Hummus Trio, Caramelized Brussels Sprouts, Roasted Vegetables and Togarashi Edamame Beans, harbored among the Cajun Fries, Hatch Chile & Bacon Mac n’ Cheese, and various quesadillas.
From a purely practical point of view, these items designed for sharing are also less filling than, say, a meatball or a cheesy nacho dish. “I’d say the No. 1 reason for these $5 and $6 [vegetable] items is to mitigate the damage of how much else a customer will eat or spend,” he explains. “They’re filling, but healthy and interesting—the Togarashi Edamame, for instance, come to the table in a big pile on the plate, and you shell them like peanuts, so they’re fun and satisfying to eat, but a lot lighter.”
Looking for more ideas about innovative vegetable starters? Ask a vegan: Dreux Ellis, executive chef of Café Gratitude, a collection of five “100 percent organic, plant-based restaurants specializing in gourmet cuisine” in Southern California. Ellis, who has worked in fine dining in Italy, Boston and San Francisco, now prefers the term “plant-based” rather than vegan, finding it more inclusive and less “angry,” restrictive and self-denying.
“We are trying to create all-natural, delicious, upscale food that people will want to eat over and over,” he says. “We approach the menu with two guiding principles: according to the seasons, which naturally means produce and creates things that are always new; and in recasting favorite foods ‘out in the world’ in a plant-based form.”
Case in point: tostadas, an appetizer in which young Thai coconut replaces white fish in a flavorful ceviche that’s paired with black bean purée, coleslaw, roasted tomatillo sauce, avocado and cashew queso fresco. Other popular apps include Braised Asparagus Arancine (Arborio rice balls filled with asparagus and cashew mozzarella, finished with gremolata, basil-hemp seed pesto oil and arugula); and a Collard Spring Roll wrapped around daikon, wakame, avocado, and pickled vegetables with a sesame-wasabi dipping sauce.
The approach must be working. Ellis estimates that only 20 to 25 percent of his customers are vegan. “The vast majority are average people who just want to eat cleaner and more healthfully, but well.”
This summer, the café in Newport Beach, Calif., was transformed into Gratitude, a more upscale version of the concept that includes a brand-new craft cocktail program. “With the cocktails, we’re getting requests for fried food,” says Ellis, who had already introduced a small plates menu with somewhat larger portions of existing appetizers and new items such as Crispy Tortilla Skewer with jerk-marinated portobellos, roasted garnet yams, cashew queso fresco, pinto beans, and roasted tomatillo dipping sauce.
Now, the chef is experimenting with fried items done with Gratitude, so to speak, such as full-flavored, dry-farmed Peruvian purple potatoes, cut into rounds and fried in canola oil, then tossed with smoked sea salt and gremolata and served with various cashew-based sauces, such as “ricotta” with truffle oil.
“I haven’t wanted to do fried, but you can’t argue with what people want, especially with drinks,” says the chef. “Having cocktails really does increase sales of appetizers and small plates.”