Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Flavors Big & Bold

The Lazy Goat’s “Duck, Duck, Goat” pizza typifies the move toward strong, adventurous flavors, with duck confit, duck egg and goat cheese accented with arugula and sour cherry vinaigrette. Photo courtesy of the lazy goat Move over Buffalo and Caesar, and make room for the next generation of flavors

By Joan Lang

Flavor’s not what it used to be, that’s for sure. Less than a decade ago (2003, in fact), Food Beat’s Diane Fox touted barbecue, Buffalo, Caesar and Cajun as the Four Big Flavors powering mainstream menus like those of O’Charley’s, Applebee’s and Romano’s Macaroni Grill.

Those flavors probably aren’t going anywhere any time soon, but they’ve been joined by a new lineup of bold power-players on the menus of newer, cutting-edge chains and creative independents.

According to the Foodservice Research Institute, the 50 top flavors on chain menus tracked by the MenuMine menu information database for 2012 included not only familiar favorites like mustard, balsamic and, yes, barbecue, but also such up-and-comers as saffron, curry and coconut. Meanwhile, according to the “Heat & Spice: Culinary Trend Mapping Report” released by Packaged Facts and CCD Innovation, flavors on the horizon at various levels of acceptance include smoked foods like bacon, Aleppo pepper and the Korean fermented-chile condiment gochujang.

“Flavor is part of the value equation today,” says Steven Goldstein, partner at the San Francisco-based consulting firm The Culinary Edge. “In the process, chefs are moving away from forced and artificial flavor combinations to what the earth gives us to create flavor — items like smoke, chile peppers, bitter greens, with all the elements in balance. It’s part of a drive toward honesty and authenticity that’s occurring throughout the food industry — purposeful combinations of flavors to build an overall experience, not just fusion for fusion’s sake.”

Goldstein cites specialties like the Kurobuta Pork Belly Banh Mi (braised caramelized pork belly, housemade pickled daikon and carrots, fresh cilantro, cucumbers, jalapeños and chile aïoli on grilled ciabatta) at Los Angeles-based Mendocino Farms Sandwich Market. Or the Med Rim flavors of the 14-unit Roti Mediterranean Grill, where customers design their own salads, sandwiches and plates from  marinated grilled meats, toppings like feta and hummus, and such sauces as cucumber-dill or spicy red pepper “S’hug.”

Purposefulness is certainly the case at the new Juvia in Miami Beach, whose menu follows the cultural diversity of both Miami and chef Sonny Oh: born in Korea, trained among French and Japanese chefs, and enamored of the Latin and South American — particularly Peruvian — traditions and ingredients.

Oh sees the connections between all of these. “French and Japanese chefs have the same meticulous work approach,” he says, “and the Japanese first came to Peru around 100 years ago. And all of these cultures gave a respect for bountiful freshness, product quality and variety.”

The trick is to make the translations in a way that makes sense to Miami customers. Witness the best-selling Hamachi Espuma Crudo, in which pristine fresh fish is married to yuzu-flavored cream garnished with bursts of flavorful micro-cilantro. It works, says Oh, because of the delicate balance of flavors,  textures and visual presentation.

“You have to really understand ingredients to be able to do this,” says the chef, “to know that a red grape tastes different than a black grape, or even a different variety of red, and that Asian pear has a different texture and levels of sugar and acidity than either a pear or an apple. The balance of flavors is just as important as the flavors themselves, especially when you’re using just a handful of ingredients in any one dish.”

New ingredients explore new territory while evoking familiar flavors in Devereaux’s dishes, like this Tuna Sashimi with sesame pearl pasta, daikon, compressed cucumber and yuzu moromi vinaigrette. Photo courtesy of devereaux’s. SIMPLE IMPACT
The same principles work in a menu that’s as broadly appealing as Bertucci’s. Executive Chef Jeff Tenner, who joined the brick-oven pizza chain from the ranks of fine dining and subsequently Legal Sea Foods, spearheaded the introduction of an ambitious new menu in April which features not only a new layout and graphic treatment but also 29 new items and updates.

A new “Art of Sharing” section emphasizes Starters, Small Plates and Sharing Salads which have changed the way customers experience Bertucci’s. “There have been incremental sales gains but it’s also about building repeat business and a more varied experience,” explains Tenner, calling out such shareables as Watermelon, Arugula and Feta Salad; Grilled Shrimp (balsamic marinated and served over crispy polenta “croutons” with housemade pomodoro and pickled red onions); and Warm Assorted Olives.

“Such a simple thing,” says Tenner of the olives, which are marinated and roasted in the pizza oven. “Warming them is a great flavor step that makes them more tender and releases the aromatics. It has a great impact but doesn’t require an additional ingredient.”

It’s the sort of detail beloved by chefs who want to stretch the envelope despite having a clientele that may be conservative or so longstanding that their tastes are fairly entrenched.

At the 13-year-old 333 Belrose Bar & Grill in Radnor, Pa., chef/owner Carlo de Marco has gradually moved the contemporary California-style menu more in the direction of Latin, Caribbean and Creole flavors as his customers have come to trust him. The restaurant’s signature dish is the Java Pork Tenderloin, served with maple-smashed yams, black bean sauce and mango-jalapeño salsa.

Another favorite is the Crispy Salt and Pepper Calamari, a riff on the traditional fried calamari that illustrates how this chef does things. Fresh Point Judith (R.I.) squid are lightly breaded in a 50/50 mixture of fine rice flour and cayenne-spiked panko, ground for a grit that’s still crunchy without the distracting chards, explains de Marco. Mandolined shavings of fresh jalapeño are also tossed into this breading, and then both squid and chiles are fried to order and served with a Serrano-enlivened toasted green-pumpkin-seed aïoli and finished with a cilantro crema. Like many flavorful experiments, it works because the platform — fried calamari — is familiar.

Table 301 Restaurant Group is a Greenville, S.C.-based collection of concepts that includes Soby’s and Soby’s on the Side (Southern influenced restaurant and bakery-café, respectively); Devereaux’s (seasonal and local); The Nose Dive gastropub; casual Overlook Grill; and The Lazy Goat (Mediterranean). Each chef is free to fully explore his or her vision of what those loose descriptions mean.

At The Lazy Goat, Executive Chef Vicky Moore is delving more deeply into the flavors and ingredients of Morocco and the Middle East with items like Harissa-Spiced Hummus, Bisteeya “Moroccan Pot Pie,” and the new Crispy Moroccan Chicken & Waffles, which mixes in the South with falafel waffles, pomegranate syrup for the sweet element, and chicken that’s redolent of spices like turmeric, cumin and ginger. “I’m sorry, but I’m Southern and I love my fried chicken,” Moore admits.

Flavor elements like charmoula, Greek yogurt, fennel and olive oil keep things grounded in the Mediterranean. One of the signature dishes is the Toasted Garlic Shrimp, inspired by traditional Greek saganaki in which feta cheese is mixed with rock shrimp that’s been mellowed with shaved garlic and roasted tomatoes, set aflame with ouzo and then tossed with fresh arugula until the greens are slightly wilted. “There’s something about ouzo that really transforms this dish without screaming anise,” she says.

Specialties like these also help Moore develop a relationship with her customers. “Every day someone tells me that our Brussels sprouts have changed their life,” laughs the chef. And who wouldn’t love this misunderstood vegetable, when it gets the signature treatment of Serrano ham, shaved Manchego and a sherry glaze?

Moore is a proponent of the depth and bright acidity that’s contributed by things like sherry vinegar, balsamic and vinaigrettes. The popular porchetta small plate, for instance, consists of crispy pork belly accompanied by a roasted root vegetable and cannellini bean stew, and finished with golden balsamic elixir. “It’s a pretty way of saying ‘reduction,’ but the white balsamic brings a touch of sweetness and balance.”

Spencer Thompson, Moore’s counterpart at Devereaux’s, indulges much of his flavor creativity by seeking out and experimenting with new ingredients. He gives a shout-out to Red Laurel Rice, for instance, an heirloom rice that was traditionally aged with bay leaves as a preservative and then stored against hurricanes and other events that might interrupt one of the state’s most precious food resources. Paired with fresh herbs from the onsite garden, the rice carries a subtle but distinctive flavor into dishes such as Crispy Red Porgy, with smoked tomato broth, baby carrots and English peas.

The Tuna Sashimi exists at the other end of the flavor spectrum. It’s served with sesame pearl pasta, mung beans and edamame, daikon and compressed cucumber, with yuzu-moroni (Japanese citrus mixed with fermented black beans) used as the base for a vinaigrette. The edamame and pearl pasta are reminiscent of the South’s iconic rice and peas, and yet the flavor references are thoroughly Japanese.

At the new Kokoriko Natural Rotisserie, chef Richard Sandoval brings his flair to popular Latin American dishes like corn cachapas pancakes, offered plain or filled with cheese and tomato jam. Photo courtesy of KOKORIKO. FLAVOR DISCOVERIES
For Justin Keith, executive chef of Atlanta’s Food 101, building flavor is about facilitating a sense of discovery. “I’m always looking for an opportunity to pair rich, savory flavors with sweet or spicy elements, and creating texture as another element of the dish,” he explains. “You want the diner to think, ‘Wow that’s interesting,’ or ‘I never thought of that.’”

Some of Food 101’s new snacks are particularly effective at this. Straightforward as they sound, the Chicken Skins have been a tremendous hit. “They’re like a crackling,” he says. He’s able to buy just the skins, which are dusted with seasoned flour and cornmeal before deep-frying. He serves them with white barbecue sauce — a Georgia tradition of mayo thinned with vinegar and punched up with black and cayenne pepper — and a sweet-spicy honey-sriracha sauce. “The skins are crispy, fatty and rich and they really play off the sauces,” he says. While customers may resist the idea at first, the trained staff talks them up, and they always get a “Wow!” response, Keith notes.

Balanced sweetness is his go-to, and a great way to tame spicy elements: La Belle Farms Duck Breast, with cornmeal-based green-onion hoe cakes, house-pickled kimchee and “General Tso Sauce,” a kind of sweet-sour idea that makes the whole thing read like Peking Duck. In his Pickled Shrimp & Strawberry Salad — with cucumber, serrano pepper, mint and red onion — the sweetness of the berries play off the subtle spice of the chile and  balance the red onion and refreshing mint.

Richard Sandoval, the revered Mexican chef behind such restaurants as Pampano, Maya and Zengo — more than a dozen in all, in locations as far-flung as New York City, Denver and Qatar — fell in love with the flavors and technique of Kokoriko rotisserie chicken when he traveled in Colombia, but he knew that the concept would have to change significantly in order to make the translation to the U.S. market.

The initial prototype for the new Kokoriko Natural Rotisserie, in which Sandoval is a partner, opened earlier this year in Miami with a completely new “artisanal village” ambience and a menu that’s “like tasting Latin America in a village in Colombia,” says Sandoval. “If you want to showcase a different culture, you need to provide the entire experience.

“Peoples’ palates in the United States are more sophisticated, and the traditional 65-year-old recipe for chicken was somewhat bland,” he says. The original version was retained — in part because of Miami’s demographics — but Sandoval created a signature version using an achiote-spiked marinade “that’s bright and more explosively flavored — our twist on the Peruvian-Mexican tradition.”

Flavorful sides include caramelized sweet plantains with chile, Parmesan and queso fresco; corn on the cob with creamy chipotle sauce and fresh cheese; crushed baby potato “tostones” with truffle chimichurri; and creamy aji amarillo cole slaw. The signature chicken is also cross-utilized in chopped salads, tacos, sandwiches and the stuffed dough pockets known as arepas.

“These are unique items but still familiar — everybody is familiar with chicken,” he explains. The chicken is all-natural and the food more healthy and artisanal, a concept he feels will work well outside of Miami. “We designed the menu and the recipes to be more flavorful but also approachable; not too spicy,” he adds. “When you are working at the chain level, the average person still has to understand what it is.”


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.