Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Menu Trends Firsthand: Part 2 Street-level trend research reveals menu innovations at every turn

A top menu trend is the evolution of Italian cuisine from delicate to robust. This earthy pasta from Acanto in Chicago combines chestnut-stuffed agnolotti with roasted sunchokes, chestnuts, huckleberries and a spiced sunchoke cream.
PHOTO CREDIT: Amanda M. Westbrooks

A top menu trend is the evolution of Italian cuisine from delicate to robust. This earthy pasta from Acanto in Chicago combines chestnut-stuffed agnolotti with roasted sunchokes, chestnuts, huckleberries and a spiced sunchoke cream.

This is the second half of my report on the insights gained from the most recent round of live, street-level research which I conduct each year with my culinary team. This tour takes us to new restaurants in the three primary trend-driving cities of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. It included visits to 108 venues where we sampled a total of 1,151 dishes. This annual work not only provides us with a real-world view of the evolution of foods and flavors in commercial restaurants, but also exposes us to an abundance of fresh ideas and innovative dishes from some of the country’s most inspired chefs.

Read the first installment here: Menu Trends Firsthand: Part 1

New Italian: Real and Rustic
The rise of Italian cuisine in the fast-casual segment was among the 10 trends called out in the 2015 “Top 10 Trends” issue of Flavor & The Menu. Innovative new concepts on the full-service side were also easy to spot. Of the 108 restaurants we targeted in our 2015 research, 14 were full-service casual or casual-upscale Italian.

The common element the majority of these restaurants share is a movement toward rich, rustic and hearty dishes. Smooth tomato sauces and delicate creams have given way to thick, robust preparations teeming with chunks of tomato and vegetables, or emboldened with slowly braised meats, intense meat broths, and sharp aged cheeses. Pasta varieties overwhelmingly skew to the large side. Fillings for stuffed pastas are increasingly indulgent. Sandwiches are generously stacked with authentic Italian ingredients. And flavorful cooking methods such as wood-grilling and rotisserie-roasting have become commonplace.

This “real and rustic” mindset exemplifies the qualities of craveability and comfort, and is strikingly similar to the one that has fueled the trend in gastropubs in the United States over the past decade. For lack of a better term, several of these new venues could easily be called “Italian gastropubs.”

That notion is not lost on New York City chefs Jody Williams and Rita Sodi, who refer to their new West Village spot Via Carota as a “gastroteca.” In a dining room of exposed brick, rough-hewn wood and reclaimed furniture, the chefs serve a menu of rustic Italian specialties ranging from shareable bites such as pork sausage-stuffed fried olives and chicken liver crostini with lemon, to meat and fish dishes, including twice-cooked lamb ribs, which are braised and then grilled and served over bitter greens, and grilled tuna served on a bed of heirloom beans.

Williams and Sodi are also leaders of the “veg-centric” trend in New York, with a daily offering of 15 vegetable dishes, some braised until tender such as their fennel bulb confit with citrus, and others char-grilled, including grilled ramps with crispy pancetta and grilled radicchio with pine nuts, currants and goat cheese.

Atypically, only two pasta dishes are offered at Via Carota, but both are in keeping with the menu’s rustic profile: a housemade tortelli stuffed with smoked ricotta, and thick pappardelle noodles smothered in a rich wild boar ragù.

Across our three research cities, oversized noodles topped with hefty sauces and pastas stuffed with creative fillings dominated the latest Italian menus. In New York, All’onde chef Chris Jaeckle tosses lumache gigante shells with grilled treviso and an aged duck ragù. At Contrada in the East Village, chef John Paidas tops giant paccheri tubes with an intense braised pork sugo di carne, and he stuffs agnolotti pockets with butternut squash before pan searing and tossing them with walnut pesto.

The signature pasta at Factory Kitchen in Los Angeles is mandilli, large squares of “handkerchief pasta” layered with an almond-basil pesto. The menu at chef Zach Pollack’s Alimento in L.A.’s Silver Lake features the thick, long pasta bigoli, bathed in a tomato and pine nut sugo, and his now-famous tortelli in brodo, hand-pinched pasta pockets cleverly filled with a sharp Parmesan broth.

Chef Chris Gawronski of Chicago’s Acanto serves black peppercorn rigatoni with a spiced lamb ragù and garlic breadcrumbs, and a show-stopping dish of chestnut-stuffed agnolotti sprinkled with roasted sunchokes, chestnuts and huckleberries in a pool of spiced sunchoke cream. The most indulgent of the “big pasta” dishes may be found at Formento’s on Chicago’s Randolph Street Restaurant Row, where the giant elbow pasta canestri is served with a Sunday gravy that combines braised pork neck, meatballs and housemade fennel sausage.

The sandwiches on many of these menus are increasingly rich and hearty, with the Italian cold cut mortadella taking center stage. At New York’s Bar Primi, chef Andrew Carmellini’s grilled mortadella panino layers a generous stack of the pistachio-studded meat with soft scrambled egg, Fontina cheese and hot peppers. The mortadella melt at Siena Tavern in Chicago also features Fontina, thickly layered and melted into a toasted brioche bun. The Italian-style muffuletta at Acanto stacks mortadella, prosciutto and salami with chopped olives, mozzarella and a giardiniera aïoli. Best in class is the pig in a blanket sandwich at Alimento, where a thick slab of mortadella is grilled, topped with melted stracchino cheese and pickled mustard seeds, and served between pieces of spelt puff pastry.

Menu Ready: Flavors of Rustic Italian
Italian remains the most popular global cuisine with dining consumers, and not just in Italian restaurants. The “Italian gastropub” presents significant potential for innovation in varied-menu restaurants as well. Ingredient selection is a key element, as well as a focus on combining comfort and craveability.

  • Is it a sugo, gravy or ragù? All of these terms roughly translate to “sauce,” and their interchangeable use is largely menu marketing. The more significant term is “rustic.” Sauces should be thick and rich, with generous chunks of meat, tomato and vegetables.
  • Go long. Thicker varieties of long pastas provide differentiation and flavor-carrying versatility. Many of these have a hollow center, such as bucatini, perciatelli and long ziti. Bigoli is simply extra-thick spaghetti. Fettucine has given way to the broader varieties of pappardelle, mafalda and tagliatelle.
  • Go big. The larger the shaped pasta, the better. Rigatoni is today’s entry-level size, but extra-large varieties include garganelli, lumache and canestri, with gomiti and paccheri being the largest.
  • The original Bologna. Mortadella originated in the Italian city of Bologna, hence the name of the loosely related American cold cut. Chefs have proven its appeal and its potential for creating a variety of unique and highly flavorful sandwiches. It may be shaved and stacked, layered with other meats and cheeses, or cut thickly and grilled. Mortadella is delicious cold, but its flavor multiplies when warmed.

Pulling duck confit from the bone offers the chance for flavorful innovation. Faith & Flower in Los Angeles features the decadent duck confit in tacos along with pickled butternut squash and toasted pumpkin seeds.

Duck Has Come of Age
In the ongoing effort to create menu differentiation and offer the dining public new flavors, chefs are increasingly placing duck on full-service casual and casual-upscale menus in a variety of creative ways.

Duck is proving to be an extremely versatile protein, ideal for creating leading-edge dishes throughout the menu parts and incorporating flavors from a wide array of global cuisines. Its rich flavor and high fat content not only lend a comfort aspect to dishes, but enable chefs to control plate cost, since a large portion of meat is not required to create a satisfying plate.

One of the major flavor revelations of this year’s research was the considerable number of duck-based dishes we sampled that tasted far superior to any we had encountered in the past.

The reason is simple: Many chefs have begun aging duck, using techniques quite similar to that of aging beef. They have discovered that like with beef, aging the meat of the duck produces significant boosts in flavor, complexity and tenderness. In our assessment, the aging completely elevates and transforms the eating experience.

Our first taste of aged duck was at chef Andrew Carmellini’s restaurant Little Park in New York, where chef de cuisine Min Kong dry-ages the breast for 14 days, then serves it pan-seared on a bed of red quinoa with roasted turnips and a bing cherry jus. The meat possessed the same kind of rich, funky and faintly blue-cheesy flavor of a dry-aged steak. The superiority of flavor was obvious—no side-by-side taste tests needed.

We then traveled across town to chef Rich Torrisi’s Dirty French, where the signature dish is his dry-aged duck à l’orange. Torrisi had special reach-in coolers installed for his dry-aging that are set to specific temperature and humidity levels. He ages the ducks for 21 to 30 days and cooks them on a large rotisserie. The breast is served in two large wedges in a pool of intense orange reduction. While the flavor of the meat was not quite as potent as at Little Park, the extra aging made a clear difference in the texture, which was dense, exceedingly rich and silkily tender.

The same exceptional flavors and textures were found in each dry-aged duck dish we sampled. In Los Angeles, Redbird chef Neal Fraser dry-ages duck from a local farm and serves the breast medium-rare, accompanied by Hoppin’ John and chorizo made from the leg meat. At Chicago’s Oak & Char, chef Joseph Heppe serves his aged breast with a Concord grape saba and duck liver vinaigrette.

Other chefs without the equipment or inclination to dry-age their duck are intensifying the flavor of the meat via salt-curing. For his signature “Rotisserie Duck for 2,” Kevin Hickey, chef/owner of The Duck Inn on Chicago’s South Side, removes the breasts and then salt-cures the back half of the ducks for a day before roasting them on a rotisserie. The breast is pan-seared and plated with the legs and thighs, surrounded by potatoes roasted in the duck drippings, tossed greens and tangerine sauce.

At contemporary Mexican restaurant Cosme in New York, chef de cuisine Mariana Villegas cures the ducks for her wildly popular duck carnitas by heavily salting the birds inside and out, then hanging them with butcher’s twine inside of speed racks fitted with pans to catch any drippings. The ducks cure a full 72 hours before they are roasted and then braised in a mixture of vegetables, chiles, citrus, condensed milk and Mexican Coke. The highly craveable pulled meat is served with housemade tortillas, onion, radishes and a trio of salsas.

One of the most common and effective techniques for maximizing the flavor and richness of duck is to prepare the leg and thigh confit style, cooking it slowly in duck fat and spices until the meat is fork tender.

We encountered many dishes where the confit leg was served bone-in, such as chef Josef Centeno’s version at Ledlow in Los Angeles, topped with candied kumquats and surrounded with duck fat potatoes, or at Bobby Flay’s Gato in New York, served on a bed of braised mustard greens and roasted squash with a pomegranate jus.

But the most inspired treatments incorporated confit pulled from the bone, such as: the duck confit empanadas with guava mojo at Chicago’s Tippling Hall; the duck banh mi at New York’s Black Tree, topped with pickled carrots, cilantro, spicy mayo and finished with a slather of duck liver mousse; and the duck confit tacos at Faith & Flower in Los Angeles, garnished with pickled butternut squash and toasted pumpkin seeds.

Menu Ready: Differentiating With Duck
Chefs are becoming highly creative with duck, to the delight of dining consumers. Its versatility and bold flavor make it an ideal ingredient for producing exciting new menu items.

  • Dry-aging duck results in a transformation of flavor, but the technique is still quite new to commercial kitchens. As the trend progresses, we see an opportunity for producers to create value-added products by instituting dry-aging programs in their operations.
  • Salt-curing duck is easy to execute, and it serves to intensify the flavor of leg and thigh meat.
  • Duck confit has become a breakout ingredient on the newest restaurant menus. It is ideal for adding compelling new flavors to sandwiches, salads, pizza, flatbreads and pasta dishes.
  • Duck is an easy fit for creating innovative twists on global favorites such as tacos, banh mi sandwiches, spring rolls, soups and noodle bowls.

Heart-healthy acai bowls have taken Los Angeles by storm. The Super Protein Acai Bowl at Harvest Bar blends acai with peanut butter, banana, cacao nibs, hemp protein, dates and hemp milk, then tops it with a multitude of berries, nuts and seeds.

Bowlfuls of Health
In our 2014 report in Flavor & The Menu, we called out a tiny 20-seat restaurant on the fringes of Manhattan’s Chinatown as one of our top “flavor finds.” Dimes, owned and operated by general manager Sabrina De Sousa and chef Alissa Wagner, features a menu of health-oriented dishes prepared with such intriguing ingredient combinations and complexly layered flavors that the “better-for-you” aspect of the food truly seems secondary.

One of our favorite dishes was a craveable breakfast bowl based on a semi-frozen pudding of acai berry purée, bananas and almond milk, topped with fresh fruit, bee pollen, hemp seeds and goji berries. When we asked Wagner about her inspiration for the dish, she pointed us to Los Angeles, where she had found “acai bowls” quickly becoming a menu darling in health-minded restaurants across the city.

The pudding is made by blending frozen acai purée with fresh fruit that has also been frozen, and thinning the mixture to a spoonable consistency with a nut- or seed-based milk. The bowl is finished with sprinkled toppings that include toasted seeds, dried berries and pieces of fresh fruit.

While the acai bowl originated in Brazil, Angelenos have adopted the dish as their own, drawn by the berry’s purported antioxidant and heart-health benefits, the customizable aspect of having a wide variety of toppings and stir-ins to choose from, and the delicious flavor of the acai pudding itself.

So, during this year’s research in Los Angeles, several of our days began by sampling acai bowls from a variety of venues. The four-unit Backyard Bowls chain offers eight bowls in innovative flavor combinations such as kale and ginger, peanut butter-banana, and avocado with coconut. Flake restaurant in Venice has a single acai bowl on the menu, but it is perfectly executed as an “acai sorbet” topped with hemp granola, bananas and berries. From a customization standpoint, The Harvest Bar trumps the competition with 12 blends and nearly as many topping choices. And Amazebowls, a food truck specializing in acai bowls, serves three varieties topped with an assortment of fresh fruit.

Along the way we discovered that most of the venues had expanded their offerings to include bowls based on pitaya, also known as dragon fruit. Pitaya enjoys the same “superfruit” status as the acai berry, with similar nutritional health claims. And while the mild flavor of pitaya is usually masked by the other fruit in the blend, its bright pink color makes for a dramatic presentation in the bowl.

Menu Ready: Delicious and Nutritious Bowls
Acai and pitaya bowls are as close to a “parlor treat” as one will find in the better-for-you arena. And although many of the pressed-juice shops in New York and Chicago have added acai bowls to their menus, much of the country has yet to discover them, providing opportunities to be first to market in many regions and foodservice segments.

  • The vast number of possible ingredient combinations simplifies the process of developing signature bowls.
  • The most popular fruit additions for the base pudding include bananas, strawberries and blueberries. Pineapple, peaches, apricots, mangoes and cherries could enliven the mix.
  • The semi-frozen pudding is thinned to the proper consistency with nut- or seed-based milks such as almond, cashew, hemp and coconut.
  • Aside from bits of fresh fruit, crunchy and colorful toppings include bee pollen, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, goji berries, cacao nibs, shredded coconut and granola.

You don’t miss the meat in the eggplant tonkatsu served at Chalk Point Kitchen in New York. Vegetable-based schnitzels provide ample heft and satisfaction.

Crispy, Crunchy Comfort
Yet another breakout menu item our research uncovered was the schnitzel. And while we sampled several updated versions of the classic breaded and pan-fried veal cutlet, we found a surprising number of chefs who are taking the dish in inventive new directions.

At the epicenter of this trend is Schnitz in New York, the new brick-and-mortar outpost of a former food stall at the weekends-only Smorgasburg market. Eight crunchy cutlet sandwiches are offered, and the chalkboard menu expands the options with special plated entrées and waffle-based schnitzel dishes.

Each sandwich is distinguished by a combination of unique toppings and condiments. Chicken schnitzels highlight the menu, with standouts like The Bamberg, topped with pickled cucumber, daikon, ginger and caramelized onion mustard, and The Sweet Onion, layered with sliced jicama, radish, cilantro and roasted beet tzatziki.

Most creative are the Lt. Dan, a crispy shrimp patty topped with a crunchy jicama-fennel slaw and finished with a dollop of lemongrass mayo, and The Yonz, a unique meatless schnitzel of smashed butternut squash and corn, topped with jicama slaw and honey-Sriracha mayo.

Schnitzels made from unexpected meat, seafood and vegetable ingredients were found throughout the tour. Chef Joseph Heppe at Chicago’s Oak & Char serves a deliciously intriguing schnitzel made from thin slices of skate wing, accompanied by a tart rémoulade sauce based on a purée of roasted cauliflower.

At nearby Tippling Hall, chef Guillermo Tellez thinly pounds a butterflied thick-cut pork chop to the size of a hubcap for his Southern-fried pork schnitzel, topped with black-eyed peas, braised collards and a sunny-side egg. Pork is also the ingredient of choice for the schnitzel salad at New York’s hyper-seasonal Park Avenue Winter (the name changes each season), a thick, pan-fried cutlet topped with radicchio and frisée salad and drizzled with housemade pear mustard.

The Japanese version of the schnitzel is called tonkatsu, usually made from a thin cutlet of chicken or pork. Chef Joe Isidori of New York’s Chalk Point Kitchen offers a meatless version with his eggplant tonkatsu, served in a pool of soy-chile broth with freshly sliced radish, pickled red onion, avocado and cilantro.

The most unique schnitzel we discovered was also meatless and also a team favorite. The celery root schnitzel sandwich at Little Park in New York is made from a thick slice of the root that is poached until tender, breaded and crisply fried and served on a seeded bun with Dijon aïoli and a crunchy apple slaw.

Menu Ready: If You Bread It, They Will Crunch
Numerous statistics confirm that dining consumers highly value restaurant dishes they cannot easily prepare at home, so the labor-intensive nature of preparing a schnitzel may contribute to its popularity on commercial menus.

  • From an ingredient standpoint, today’s definition of a schnitzel includes much more than the traditional veal cutlet. Thin slices of chicken, pork loin, pork belly, turkey breast and even firm-fleshed fish are viable proteins.
  • A wide array of vegetables are suitable for creating meatless schnitzels, including eggplant, summer squash, roasted winter squashes, cauliflower, celery root and rutabaga.
  • Whether served as a salad, plated entrée or sandwich, signature schnitzel dishes require a thoughtful layering of flavorful toppings, garnishes and condiments.

About The Author

Gerry Ludwig

Chef Gerry Ludwig is a nationally recognized food writer, speaker and trend tracker, and leads the Culinary R&D department for Gordon Food Service, based in Grand Rapids, Mich.