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Often associated with pork belly, steamed buns make perfect carriers for a variety of fillings, such as smoked and braised lamb belly at Russell House Tavern in Cambridge, Mass. Photo courtesy of American Lamb Board Every component matters when creating modern-day sandwiches

By Karen Weisberg

The classic sandwich: a perfect blend of tender-roasted or hand-breaded melt-in-your-mouth protein layers along with grilled or pickled veggies and a just-spicy-enough signature gourmet sauce, plus a toasted, crunchy, herb-enriched artisanal bread to transport all ingredients safely from hand to mouth. The art of building such a sandwich is an all-consuming passion for many chefs. Then, just when they think they’ve got it right, a new on-trend item beckons further tweaking or another round of R&D.

In the world of foodservice, all new creations are built with the goal of pleasing the target customer. If, for instance, you’re innovating for Cheddar’s, an American chain of casual-dining restaurants located primarily in the South and Midwest, your objectives might be quite different from those of the chef creating Kitchenette’s perpetually changing lunchtime fare that’s sold off a loading dock in San Francisco.

At the heart of the matter, certain broad parameters of sandwich structure hold true. Qualities like tender, toasted, roasted, gourmet, classic, crunchy, artisanal and handmade all coalesce to create a fashionable, flavorful festival when the guest chows down.

SURVEY OF TASTES
Robert Pesch has been busy sampling seafood sandwiches in restaurants around Tampa, Fla., because he needs to. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Pesch joined Cheddar’s in 2012 as director of culinary and R&D. He has come on board during a period of steady corporate expansion as the company adds more than 20 restaurants this year to its current roster of more than 130 locations spanning 21 states. As Pesch notes, “There’s a need to deliver more regional options as we’ve expanded our guest base into Tampa, Boston and upstate New York.”

That’s why he’s been eating out a lot lately, personally sampling menu trends in each of these regions. Now ramping up the R&D process with a focus on summer sandwiches, he’s aiming to perfect the classic chicken salad and tuna salad sandwiches.

“I also see a lot of brisket and roasted pork on other menus. They’re really good items but they’re not currently on our menus,” he says. Pesch is confident that Cheddar’s is in the perfect position to offer those items as well. “All of our food is fresh, made-to-order, from-scratch cooking. That’s rare in casual dining, but it’s one of our pillars.”

Where he’s seeing roasted meats menued, he finds “a lot of robust flavors, especially cumin and paprika, that deliver depth with aromatics and spices that can make the meat really sing.”

Currently, Cheddar’s menu showcases chicken in three of seven sandwiches offered. Both the Napa Chicken Ciabatta and the World Class Chicken feature chicken breast. “We grill them to order [it takes about six to eight minutes] and that helps keep them juicy and warm for the sandwich,” Pesch explains. “Preparing ‘to order’ is so different than something done ahead of time. We rub the chicken with our signature spices, plus we have what’s essentially a Hawaiian marinade for our World Class Chicken sandwich.”

LAYING ON THE LAYERS
Pesch emphasizes the importance of building layers of flavors in a sandwich. “For our Napa Chicken Ciabatta sandwich, we roast our own tomatoes and prepare our own aïoli. For the World Class Chicken sandwich, we make our own brown-sugar bacon — freshly made daily — plus our honey-lime dressing is spread on the toasted bun, along with the layers of melted cheddar, lettuce and tomato,” he says.

He chose Fontina for the Napa Chicken Ciabatta because of its not-overpowering flavor. “It’s different, but approachable,” says Pesch. “We like to have elements that make it special and different but still be items you can get people to try. Last year, avocado was so big — it still is, actually — and people would try it. Avocado is a great flavor provider, plus it gives the sandwich luxury.”

Having noted that many of the roasted meats he’s been seeing on other locations’ menus are served on artisanal breads, Pesch is pleased that Cheddar’s ciabatta is right on trend.

“It has a yeasty flavor to it. Ours are made to our specification, then we toast them for a nice crunch,” he explains. “People really enjoy the texture and distinctive flavor, versus just a normal bun.” He has recently become a fan of the flat-top griddle or, alternatively, the cast iron pan, over the traditional grill, using them for melts and pressed sandwiches to provide crisp texture to the bread.

It’s also imperative that the bread will hold up and be a reliable carrier of the great components of the sandwich.

“On our Napa Chicken Ciabatta, we use spring mix [versus iceberg], layered with avocado, cheese and roasted tomato plus aïoli, so with every layer you’re getting a different flavor,” he says. “We work hard to make all the flavors work together, but if a guest wants to omit an ingredient, the rest are strong enough to stand alone since we’re focused on high-quality ingredients. These elements together create the perception that it’s a handcrafted sandwich — handmade with care — that’s special.”

On balance, Pesch finds that flavor comes from the layers: “It’s not only about the flavor of the meat; it’s from the roasted tomatoes, the sauce — such as our aïoli with hints of acid in the mayo-based spread.”

Authentic Asian influences make Fish restaurant’s menu stand out, with selections like Moo Shu Wraps filled with a choice of protein, brown rice, cilantro, carrots, daikon, sprouts and sauce. Photo courtesy of Fish
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
On a San Francisco loading dock — in an area known as “Dogpatch” to the locals — Kitchenette is open for lunch during a two-hour window of time each weekday and offers two or three sandwiches (one’s always vegetarian) depending on ingredient availability. It’s pretty much catch as catch can. One Yelp reviewer, apparently not minding the average 30-minute wait (or “sold out” items), wrote: “I think this is my favorite sandwich place in the city right now. Amazing use of flavorings; they often have delightful, unexpected pairings.” And Douglas Monsalud, general manager and executive chef (for LRE Catering, as well) will happily tell you that’s what Kitchenette is all about.

Monsalud came up through the ranks in various San Francisco restaurants — from dishwasher through the gamut of positions up to concept development. He finds his parallel work for LRE, catering weddings and functions for a number of tech companies in the Bay Area, provides synergy. If LRE Catering is producing a dish that Monsalud thinks would be interesting on the Kitchenette menu, he’ll prepare a bit more.

All produce and products are predominately from local growers and meat is often “an unusual, less-expensive cut, since we aim to provide an affordable lunch. We do things with tongue, such as braised tongue with sauce gribiche — that’s really tartar sauce deconstructed with a hard-boiled egg and olive oil added separately, like an herbed salsa. Occasionally, we’ll do tongue pastrami — Latin American countries have a lot of tongue on the menu,” he points out.

Menu items here often feature “under-utilized cuts” (pork belly being most frequent), but there’s an equal emphasis placed on creating “classic” dishes.

“We’ll do lamb meatballs, for example, with salad, cucumber, mint, red onion and yogurt,” he says.

Although Monsalud asserts he tries “not to be too unusual or the sandwich won’t sell,” he actually has a lot of leeway here. He just might make a spread of chicken liver — almost a mousse — and serve it with grilled chicken that’s marinated overnight in a highly flavorful fish sauce-based marinade. “We’ll serve that on a sweet baguette — all our breads are from Acme Bakery in the Bay Area,” he says. “This sandwich is based on Vietnamese sandwiches, so it’s French with Vietnamese ingredients.”

CLASSICS WITH A TWIST
The No. 1 best seller at Kitchenette — with at least 100 sold each time it’s menued — is a fried chicken sandwich that’s continents removed from any other: “It’s more of an Indian-inspired recipe,” Monsalud says. He infuses honey with garam masala spices (black and white peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, black and white cumin seeds, and black, brown and green cardamom pods) and spreads that on the sandwich. He adds a spicy slaw of quick-pickled cabbage, cilantro and lime. “So there’s honey for sweetness, lime for sour and pounded chiles in the slaw for a bit of spice,” he says.

Always working with what he has on hand in addition to what he can get that day, Monsalud is evidently pleased when his supplier comes across with beef navel: “I call it ‘the pork belly of the cow.’ Back in the old days, it was the cut that pastrami was made from, so we do a house-cured-and-smoked beef navel as our house pastrami,” he says.

Mayonnaise is transformed in Monsalud’s kitchen, sometimes becoming caper mayonnaise (to deliver a creamy kick with a Crabcake Sandwich along with sweet and hot peppers, arugula and lemon), or making an appearance as shiro-miso mayonnaise, which adds pop to his Fried Chicken Karaage Sandwich (with sesame bean sprouts, marinated cucumbers and shichimi furikake). For this dish, chicken is marinated in ginger and soy, then coated with cornstarch and lightly fried; all ingredients are layered on a torpedo roll.

“We’re trying to come up with really bright, bold flavors, creating a little bit of excitement on the palate — not just another boring sandwich,” says Monsalud.

Rick Bayless’ new Torta Frontera concept at Chicago’s O’Hare airport allows travelers to enjoy griddled Mexican tortas with fillings such as Yucatan pulled pork with black beans, pickled red onions and roasted habanero salsa. Photo courtesy of Torta Frontera.
 

PERFECTING THE BUN
Fish restaurant is one of four historic venues managed by Patrick Properties in Charleston, S.C. It’s also home for the past six years to Nico Romo, who oversees all four locations. Romo is Master Chef of France — the youngest ever, at age 30, to receive this recognition when it was bestowed in 2010. Fish, with seating for 140, is known for its menu of classic French cuisine “with delicate Asian touches,” as well as its emphasis on serving locally harvested produce and product.

Romo makes his own steamed buns, achieving a chewy white-bread consistency. His favorite version is filled with green curry duck confit, cucumber sprouts, cilantro and carrots. As menued at Fish, guests can choose one sauce from three offered, including: Thai vinaigrette, ginger aïoli or sriracha cream. In place of duck confit, options include crab salad, shrimp, tofu, catch of the day, chicken or pork belly. Thus, with a choice of sauce and six different sides, patrons have 126 possible flavor permutations for total customization of their steamed bun.

The steamed bun is steadily gaining fans among chefs who, like Romo, realize its potential for bringing “a whole ’nother dynamic to the sandwich,” says Michael Scelfo, executive chef at Russell House Tavern in Cambridge, Mass. “If you’re a fan of dim sum, that steamed bun is neutral, warm, moist and sits in the palm of your hand — it’s an ingenious way of delivering a set of ingredients and we’ll see them more and more as chefs experiment with different fillings,” he says.

Fried buns — crispy on the outside, puffy on the inside — are also available at Fish, as are buns prepared on the grill. “All of our fish, meat, etc., is seared off on the plancha,” Romo says. “The plancha is the best piece of equipment I ever bought — we use it as a panini press. We put weight on top of the steamed bun, then flip the bun over so it’s browned on both sides like a panini.”

For Romo’s fried bun version, his top choice is to prepare it as he would a lobster roll. “Lobster goes well with buttery brioche so this is a similar texture. Add carrots, celery, toasted sesame seeds, then stuff it all into the fried bun.”

For the panini bun iteration that appears for dim sum, Romo and his staff prepare a filling of local goat cheese, golden raisins, currants, dried cranberries and a choice of any type of charcuterie desired.

“This panini could be used as a sandwich, but here it’s a mini bite for dim sum,” he says.

THE MEAT OF THE MATTER
Scelfo points out that guests are pre-conditioned to associate steamed buns with a classic pork belly filling, but he lists other meats that work well: Korean-style barbecue, fried chicken, crab cake, or his Hickory Smoked Lamb Belly Sandwich on Steamed Bun. That sandwich (his creation for the American Lamb Board’s recent Lamb Jam national competition) will appear as a small plate on the menu at his own Alden & Harlow eatery, slated to debut in Cambridge’s Harvard Square in early summer.

From Scelfo’s perspective, lamb belly is the “fashion cut du jour” now that guests are willing to try new cuts. “This cut — the ‘bacon cut’ — has a richness you don’t usually find with other cuts,” he says.

To prepare, Scelfo smokes this seven- to nine-inch sheet of belly over hickory wood, low and slow, for about 16 to 17 hours, constantly basting the meat with an aged rice-wine soy glaze. For a sandwich of several generous pieces, he likes to brush with a bit of hoisin sauce before reheating, then layers on fresh leaves of Thai basil, mint and cilantro, plus pickled watermelon, radish and cucumber. “Then, as the final ingredient, spread spicy red bean paste aïoli on the bun — that really completes the dish by bringing a bit of umami to the sandwich,” he suggests. “It has acidity, sweetness, salt, a little bitterness from the radish, plus the creamy layer of aïoli that ties it all together for a really tasty bite.”

At Russell House Tavern, Scelfo is currently showcasing a Fried Whole Belly Clam Roll with pickled fennel and celery, mustard-mayo, arugula and house-cured bacon. The fried clam sandwich — a play on a hot dog bun chock full of fried clams — is served up on a sea salt and anise seed roll. The spread is a 50/50 mix of mustard-mayo, the clams are dredged in seasoned flour and fried in canola until crisp — but the bacon is evidently Scelfo’s pride and joy: “More chefs are curing their own, making their own charcuterie. How great is it to make your own bacon or your own ham!”

Scelfo applies a thoughtful approach to his creations. “I have the same philosophy regarding any sandwich, salad or entrée — we want to excite all those taste buds; we want to have saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, plus some acidity; and also texture — something soft and creamy, plus crispy and crunchy, so you’re experiencing different things,” he says. “You’re on a mission to deliver a balanced, harmonious plate of whatever you’re serving.”

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