Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Best of FlavorTop 10 Trends

Impact Ingredients

A sauce featuring dukkah—a Middle Eastern nut and spice mix—lends this dumpling a newly exotic appeal. photo courtesy of mccormick for chefs. Twelve trending flavors that can really make menus sing

By Joan Lang

1. Berry, Berry Trendy
Berries of all kinds are a no-brainer for bringing flavor, color, freshness and seasonality to menus of all types. Corvo Bianco, an Italian restaurant in New York City, features blueberries prominently in both savory and sweet menu items: There’s a seasonal Red Cress salad with blueberries, almonds, and ricotta salata, and a luxurious, multi-textural dessert that pairs mascarpone cheesecake crema with blueberry sorbetto, Graham crumbles and blueberry “paper.”

Operators have also been trading off the healthy profile of antioxidant-laden berries. At Perkins Restaurants, berries highlight a number of new “Wildberry” items, including a Wildberry Chicken Salad (with raspberries and blackberries on garden greens, tossed with Wildberry Balsamic Vinaigrette, Asiago cheese and dill-roasted almonds) and Wildberry Parfait Platter (Greek yogurt layered with raspberries, blackberries and granola, served with eggs, bacon or sausage, and the chain’s new Wildberry Mammoth Muffin).

MontAmoré Berry Salad: Spinach and organic Arcadian lettuce with strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, pistachios, MontAmoré cheese and acai yogurt dressing — Atlanta Bread Co., all locations

Blueberry Mango Dessert Shooter (LTO): Mango filling layered with crumbled sugar cookie and topped with fresh blueberries — McAlister’s Deli, all locations

2. Sauces of the Moment: Romesco, Salsa Verde
Every season seems to have its breakout sauce or two, and right now salsa verde and romesco are having a moment.

What these two sauces have in common is their rustic simplicity, both chockablock with color and texture, making them the perfect complement to simple menu items. Hailing from the Catalonia region of Spain, lusty red romesco is typically made from roasted or raw almonds, pine nuts, and/or hazelnuts, mixed with garlic, olive oil and roasted red peppers, sometimes with the addition of tomatoes, bread crumbs (for texture), vinegar, onion, and mint or fennel.

Piquant, verdant-green salsa verde is a traditional cold Italian sauce or dressing—part of a whole family of herb-based green sauces—made with parsley, vinegar, capers, garlic, onion, anchovies and olive oil.

These sauces are particularly adept at accessorizing proteins, including fish. Sean Brock, at Husk in Nashville, serves local Southern-style catfish with creamed corn, eggplant pickle and sauce romesco, while Wood in Chicago features roasted whole fish, such as rainbow trout with roasted Cerignola olives, salsa verde and heirloom tomatoes.

The Nichols Farm Six Bean Soup at the vegetarian Green Zebra in Chicago gets a float of salsa verde, grilled jalapeño and Hass avocado, and the restaurant’s Caramelized Onion & Rosemary Focaccia is topped with habanero romesco and garlic butter.

There are ways to turn these classic sauces on their head using nontraditional ingredients, as in the roasted mackerel with Parisian citrus gnocchi, ramp salsa verde and pickled ramps at Chicago’s City Tavern, or the halibut with grilled potato, raw zucchini and pumpkin seed romesco at St. Vincent Tavern & Wine Merchant in San Francisco.

Prawns, cocoa nib, romesco — Corvo Bianco, New York City

Grilled Eggplant: Pepperonata, balsamic onions, goat cheese, greens, salsa verde
— Panozzo’s Italian Market, Chicago

3. The Spice (Mixtures) of Life
Spice mixtures have been on the scene in ethnic cuisine for thousands of years, but several are trending now, including togarashi (a Japanese chile-based table condiment that can also include orange peel, seaweed, ginger, poppy seeds and sesame seeds); dukkah (an Egyptian mixture with sesame seeds, roasted chickpeas, hazelnuts, coriander, cumin, and salt and pepper); and vadouvan (a curry-like blend that shows French colonial influences with shallot, onion, fenugreek, cumin and curry leaf).

The Silk Road, a spice-centric restaurant in Missoula, Mont., uses a number of spice blends in its globetrotting menu, including togarashi (Skewered Beef Tenderloin with spicy togarashi sauce on sesame-encrusted rice) and dukkah (which encrusts Alaska sockeye salmon), as well as garam masala (lamb curry), za’atar (fattoush salad) and five spice (duck spring roll).

White nectarine salad: Redwood Hill Farm’s feta cheese, crispy togarashi shallot rings, baby spinach and mustard seed vinaigrette — The Thomas, Napa, Calif.

Summer corn soup, vadouvan, nasturtium — Alma, Los Angeles

4. In the Red: Paprika, Pimentón and More
Time was when paprika was just used for a hint of color on a deviled egg, but now this ground capsicum mixture has become more sophisticated, and has been joined by its kin from Spain, France and Turkey.

True Hungarian paprika is made from peppers that are toasted and blended to create different varieties, from mild, red különleges to hot, brownish-orange erös—eight in all. That gives a chef a lot of leeway. Chef Tim Byres at Smoke in Dallas likes his in a trio of sausages that includes pork andouille, “all-spiced” rabbit and beef paprika.

Milder in temperament, the Spanish paprika known as pimentón also offers up a range of heat, from dulce (sweet and mild) to picante (hot), depending on the type of pepper used, whether the seeds are removed, and how they are processed.
Another type of ground pepper heating up in popularity comes from the piment d’Espelette, which is cultivated in France’s Basque region. Fans love it for its fruity, almost briny flavor. There is also Aleppo pepper, a robust crushed chile that has a flavor similar to ancho but with a little more heat and tartness. Matthew McClure uses it to jazz up the bar menu’s egg salad at The Hive in Bentonville, Ark.

Wisconsin Cheese Curds with smoked paprika aïoli — Riverview Tavern, Chicago

Baby Radish Salad: Millet, pickled mustard seed, Espelette-brown butter, Marconas, Lolla Rosa lettuce — Birch & Barley, Washington, D.C.

Honey makes it to more parts of the menu, whether to complement spicy flavors or to introduce diners to new varietals. photo courtesy of national Honey board.

5. Something’s Fishy
Creative chefs and menu-makers are always looking for ways to add umami, and many are looking to Asian cuisine and its umami-rich ingredients: soy sauce, seaweed, miso, dashi (broth) and, especially, fish sauce. Nearly every culture in Asia has its version of a fermented fish product, from Chinese oyster sauce and Vietnamese nuroc mam to Thai nam pla and Philippine patis.

Fish sauce can be hidden away, as in a vinaigrette or marinade (like the Vietnamese vinaigrette that dresses The Seven Courses of Leaf salad at A Frame in Culver City, Calif.). Or it can be right there on the menu: Andy Ricker, the innovative chef behind Pok Pok and other Asian fusion restaurants in Portland, Ore., and New York City serves his signature Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, which are marinated in nuroc mam and sugar, deep-fried, then tossed in more fish sauce and garlic.

Crispy Salmon Cakes and Thai nuoc cham — Social Club Restaurant & Bar, Petaluma, Calif.

Steak Tartare: mussels, cilantro, nuoc cham, peanuts — Salt of the Earth, Pittsburgh

6.Blue Cheese Breaks Bounds
Of course there’s blue cheese dressing on salads and with Buffalo wings, but within that arena of salty, flavorful cheeses there are great upgrades, distinctive utilizations and lots of variations in the type of cheese itself.
You’d expect an old-school gathering place like Chicago’s City Tavern, for instance, to have a classic wedge salad, but their iceberg is topped with blue cheese-porter dressing, housemade dressing, and pickled radish and cucumber. There’s also a “tavern bite” of duck fat-popped popcorn, seasoned with blue cheese powder and smoked paprika.

Drago Centro in Los Angeles uses Italian ingredients, like the Gorgonzola that adds its salty distinction to a rack of lamb with Yukon potato and rapini.

Spinach Salad: Cabrales cheese, figs, dried cherries, hazelnuts, fig balsamic, Bloomsdale spinach — Cleo, Miami Beach, Fla.

Our Pie + Jeni’s Ice Cream: Rhubarb and blue cheese crust (gluten free) — Southport Grocery & Café, Chicago

7. Kimchi Nation
Fiery, salty, crunchy and funky, kimchi is moving into the mainstream. Like all fermented foods, Korea’s national dish has a reputation for healthfulness. And as a condiment/seasoning, it’s as versatile as its vegetable base ingredients, which can include napa cabbage, radish, bean sprouts, cucumber, spinach, kale and more—these are salted and seasoned with garlic, rice wine vinegar, gochujang, ginger and other seasonings, then allowed to ferment.

At Marination Ma Kai, a Hawaiian/Korean fusion restaurant in Seattle, kimchi is mixed into fried rice, folded into quesadillas and breakfast burritos, used to season sausage for sliders, and whipped into the signature kimchi tartar sauce that comes with the fries. At FuseBox Food and Drink in Oakland, Calif., chef/owner Sunhui Chang prepares a rotating selection of side dishes for sandwiches that includes such kimchi specialties as: daikon, bok choy, turnip greens, komatsuna leaf, Japanese cucumbers and mul (water kimchi).

Steak & Eggs: Bulgogi glazed hanger steak, scrambled eggs, kimchi — Red Door, Chicago

Fluke Crudo: Pickled beet kimchi, ginger-lemongrass sorbet, charred scallion vinaigrette — Restaurant Kelly Liken, Vail, Colo.

8. Honey, Are You There?
With growing appreciation for farm-to-table menus, honey has been enjoying a higher profile. It’s showing up in savory preparations, playing off spicy flavors, and being showcased by varietal.

Promoting a particular type of honey, either by farm or flower, or both, is one of the biggest trends. The new Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken in New York City serves its fried chicken dinners with a choice of four different sauces, including Wildflower Honey. At The Whale Wins in Seattle, an appetizer of roasted fava beans with ricotta cheese takes heat from Aleppo pepper and sweet from Ballard Bee Co. honey.

Honey is grabbing the spotlight in different forms. Sean Brock uses it in an inventive appetizer of Fried Chicken Skins with hot sauce, honey and thyme at Husk in Nashville. At Manhattan Beach Post, in Manhattan Beach, Calif., there’s a Honey Selection offering comb, chestnut and truffle honeys for $3. And at Browntrout in Chicago, comb honey is included in the Layered Rhubarb dessert.

Ricotta Fritters: Housemade ricotta doughnuts, lemon semifreddo, honey chamomile foam — Old Major, Denver

Grilled Peaches (appetizer/small plate): Honey and goat’s milk cheese on buckwheat — St. Vincent Tavern & Wine Merchant, San Francisco

Chorizo-stuffed dates at Avec in Chicago showcase the unique sweetness and silky texture that dates bring to a dish. photo courtesy of avec.

9. Wanna Date?
While dates are a natural in Middle Eastern preps and as part of a dessert recipe, their inherent sweetness and soft texture balance well with salty and spicy flavors. Dates are wonderful as a simple addition to a cheese plate: Cure, in Pittsburgh, serves its Pennsylvania Farmstead Cheeses with multiple sweet accompaniments, including not only dates but also fig jam, tea-soaked prunes and pickled cherries.

Dates also add a complex textural counterpoint to a layered vegan dish like the Crispy Cauliflower with garbanzo purée, dates and spiced garbanzo beans, on the menu at Bandolero in Washington, D.C.

Many chefs are doing riffs on the classic stuffed or bacon-wrapped date finger food known as “devils on horseback” (which are the dark-hued variant of “angels on horseback,” with an oyster or scallop wrapped in bacon). At the wine bar Avec in Chicago, they’re in the form of chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce.

Devils on Horseback: With Dee-Jay’s bacon-wrapped date, almond, bitter chocolate and roasted Fresno pepper — The Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland

Date & Orange Salad on crispy kale and chard tossed in saffron vinaigrette, topped with candied almonds — The Silk Road, Missoula, Mont.

10. Harissa is Serious Heat
Harissa could be the next sriracha. This Tunisian hot sauce, typically made from peri peri, serrano and other chile peppers, along with garlic, coriander, cayenne, caraway and olive oil, packs a wallop of heat and flavor, along with a vivid red hue. An indispensable condiment for couscous and falafel, harissa is widely available, but it’s also easy to make—and to customize. Using a smoked chile such as chipotle adds intriguing smoky flavor—or the sauce can be brightened with mint and/or citrus juice.

Harissa is also versatile. It can be used as a spice paste for meats, as in the harissa-rubbed lamb kebabs at the new Shakewell Bar & Kitchen in Oakland, Calif. It’s crucial to the flavor profile of the Harissa-Braised Meatballs & Chermoula at the Social Club Restaurant & Bar in Petaluma, Calif. It dresses up a mushroom quinoa appetizer at Red Door in Chicago. It’s also great as a table condiment—in the space that used to be reserved for the sriracha bottle.

Farro y Calabaza: Warm farro salad, pea tendrils, squash, hazelnut, whipped mascarpone and harissa vinaigrette — Mercat a la Planxa, Chicago

Beets, avocado, cucumber, harissa, popcorn — Barley Swine, Austin, Texas

11. The Pickle Grows Up
If anything typifies today’s approach to artisanship, it’s the pickle. Partly it stems from a need to preserve the fleeting freshness of seasonal produce. Partly it’s a drive to set the kitchen apart from the competitive fray. But mostly it’s a matter of flavor.

Almost any ingredient can be pickled, and that pickle can exhibit almost any flavor profile, from spicy pickled jalapeños to sweet watermelon rind pickle.

At Talula’s Garden in Philadelphia, chef Aimee Olexy clearly has a thing for pickling. This summer’s menu featured the following, in a variety of dishes: pickled jalapeño (in a sweet corn soup); pickled spring green tomato (with pan-roasted calamari); pickled red onion salad (paired with curry-spiced tuna); pickled mushrooms and shallot (garnishing mushroom pâté); pickled corn (on the plate with honey- and clove-brined pork chop); pickled okra (vegetarian “garden bouillabaisse”); and pickled squash and cornichons (with the warm potato salad).

In every case, a pickle brings crisp texture, color and a hit of refreshing acidity and spice.

Naturally Fermented & Vinegar Pickled Vegetables: French breakfast radish, juniper beet, kimchi, carrot, cipollini onion, chile-mustard parsnip and tea egg — Bar Sajor, Seattle

Honey Jalapeño Pickle Ice Cream — Sweet Action Ice Cream, Denver

12. Preserving the Lemon
If lemon brings a bright spark of flavor to all kinds of foods, preserved lemon does it one better.

Emblematic of Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine, preserved lemons are pickled in salt in their own juices, requiring several weeks to create an ingredient that elevates recipes with their salty-tart flavor profile. Generally only the softened rind is used, but the lemons themselves can be made with a variety of other spices, such as cloves, coriander seeds, peppercorns, cinnamon stick and bay leaf.

At The Hive in Bentonville, Ark., they’re used to create a vinaigrette for the signature Pickled Shrimp appetizer, which gets various accompaniments throughout the year, including ham and cornbread croutons, and marinated beets with avocado. Preserved lemon also garnishes a Creamy Carrot Soup at Green Zebra in Chicago, and an Escarole Salad with pistachio and Pecorino cheese at Miami Beach’s Macchialina.

> Colorado Double Lamb Chop: Summer squash, shishito peppers, charred tomato couscous, spiced cashews, preserved lemon dressing — Old Major, Denver
> Pan-Roasted Mussels: Moroccan-spiced garbanzos, preserved lemon aïoli — Decca, Louisville, Ky.

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.