Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Best of FlavorTop 10 Trends

Menu Trends Firsthand: Part 1 A profusion of new restaurant openings makes for an idea-rich season of trend-tracking

Exemplifying this year’s trends: beets with beet tops show root-to-stem application at Ladies’ Gunboat Society in Los Angeles.

These smoked beets at Cadet are garnished with candied bacon, illustrating that veg-centric doesn’t necessarily mean vegetarian.
Each year, my culinary team and I set out on a street-level trends tour with the goal of providing menu-ready ideas that are translatable across foodservice segments. This year’s research provides a rich crop. Although we bolster our annual culinary R&D trip with statistical data from industry research firms and media reports on consumer dining behavior, it is our proprietary external research that gives us the deepest insights into the evolution of foods and flavors in restaurants.

Starting with extensive lists of new restaurant openings compiled over the prior year, we visit hundreds of websites searching for the top 40 venues in each of the three primary trend-driving cities—New York, Chicago and Los Angeles—whose menus appear to best represent the leading edge of mainstream dining.

2014 was a banner year for new openings across the country, yielding the greatest number of prospective restaurants since the pre-downturn year of 2007. More than 120 made our list in New York and nearly 100 in both Chicago and Los Angeles. We traveled to those cities and visited the restaurants firsthand, extensively sampling the dishes, photographing plate presentations, scanning the menus, and talking to staff members regarding their establishment and the prevailing dining scene in the city.

This year’s research encompassed 108 restaurants, and 1,151 dishes were sampled over the 15 days spent in the three cities, with much learned along the way.

Goodbye Vegetarian, Hello Veg-Centric
The greatest surprise of this year’s trends tour was the rapid rise in the number of menus featuring “vegetable-centric” cuisine. A growing number of chefs are focusing their creativity on dishes that place produce squarely in the center of the plate, and an entirely new menu category is emerging in the process.

And while the number of vegetarians in the United States remains statistically flat, omnivorous dining consumers are gravitating toward these vegetable-based offerings featuring fresh produce prepared in unique ways and with increasingly craveable flavor treatments.

Chefs are holding vegetables in the same high regard as they do meat, fish and poultry. The incorporation of specialty produce, including wild mushrooms, heritage crucifers and exotic fruits, combined with aggressive cooking methods such as wood grilling, charring and oven roasting, are key elements of this trend. Highly flavored protein elements are often incorporated, including the practice of cooking the vegetables in a meat broth, resulting in veg-centric dishes that are by no means meatless.

Our research leads us to the conclusion that veg-centric cuisine will become the next macro-trend that will influence commercial menu development for many years to come.

One of the earliest proponents of this style of cooking was chef Travis Lett of restaurant Gjelina in Venice, Calif. Our research team first visited the restaurant upon its opening six years ago and we were struck by the menu part entitled “Vegetables” which featured 16 dishes with unexpectedly bold and complex flavors. Early menu stars included: Charred Romesco with linguica sausage, sofrito and chili, and Grilled Radicchio bathed in an anchovy-rich bagna cauda.

The restaurant remains wildly popular today and is one of the few that we have revisited several times over the years. Some of the inventive vegetable offerings on our most recent visit included: Roasted Sweet Peppers with cured olives and white anchovies; Charred Okra with black olive, pine nut and tomato confit; and Roasted White Eggplant topped with walnut, sumac and a cumin-scented goat’s milk yogurt.

At the recently opened Chalk Point Kitchen in New York, Michelin-starred chef Joe Isidori has taken a Gjelina-like approach with his 18-item menu part of “Vegetables to Share,” but there the similarity ends. Isidori creatively layers Asian and Latin ingredients into vegetable dishes that are unmistakably American at their core, such as: his signature Grilled Watermelon Steak with sweet chile, Thai basil, feta and lime; smoky and spicy Grilled Russian Kale with chorizo and guajillo chile; Brussels Sprouts a la Plancha with house-smoked bacon; Succotash with corn, mushrooms, carrots and peas in a truffled lemon vinaigrette; and Sweet Potato Tempura with tuna flakes, ponzu and yuzukosho, a fermented condiment of yuzu citrus zest and ground chiles that Isidori prepares in-house.

The vegetable menu at chefs Jody Williams and Rita Sodi’s new restaurant, Via Carota in New York’s West Village includes 15 items, all reflecting a rustic Italian sensibility. Their dish of sliced Cara Cara and Blood Oranges with pickled onions in prosecco vinaigrette proves that veg-centric cuisine is not just about vegetables. The Roman chicory puntarella is julienned and tossed with anchovy and lemon; black kale is braised in a rich pork sausage ragu; and fennel bulb is poached in veal stock and served in a pool of orange vinaigrette.

These chefs are the true leaders of this trend. However, another 16 restaurants in our research featured vegetable sections on their menus, all offering an array of highly creative, boldly flavored dishes where produce takes center stage.

At Cadet in Los Angeles, chef Kris Tominaga braises Belgian endive in chicken stock and white wine and serves the heads sandwiched between thin slices of country ham and melted Gruyère cheese. His dish of smoked beets is bathed in pistachio vinaigrette and garnished with pickled egg and candied bacon.

Chef Roy Choi serves a host of veg-centric dishes at his Los Angeles restaurant Commissary, including: Charred Rainbow Carrots with fresh thyme chermoula; Collard Greens with kimchi and ginger gremolata; and Broccolini with pea purée in Parmesan brodo.

At Andrew Carmellini’s Little Park in New York, what first appears to be a tartare of crimson-red tuna is, in fact, roasted and chopped beets, formed into a disc and topped with smoked trout roe. Artichoke hearts are filled with lamb ragout and served in a pool of fresh tomato sauce. At Italian restaurant Vic’s in NoHo, chef Hillary Sterling serves chunks of caramelized roasted celery root topped with horseradish gremolata, and Crispy Sweet Onions are dusted with tomato powder and served with a rich Parmesan fonduta dip.

In another sign of chefs elevating their regard for produce, two newly opened New York restaurants have installed rotisseries specifically dedicated to roasting vegetables. The open kitchen at Narcissa features a vertical rotisserie with slowly turning beets, which are sliced and served atop Bulgur Wheat Salad with apples and creamed horseradish. At The Gander, chef Jesse Schenker spit-roasts whole heads of cauliflower to a rich caramel hue and crowns them with crunchy caper and anchovy bread crumbs.

Menu Ready: The New Center of the Plate
Veg-centric offerings appeal to a wider audience than traditional vegetarian cuisine, and they heighten menu differentiation and build sales. A few principles for signature vegetable dishes:

  • Adopt a veg-centric mindset: When ideating new menu items, consider produce as equal-opportunity ingredients for the center of the plate.
  • Crisp, caramelize and color: Employ cooking methods that enhance flavor and texture, such as pan searing, charring, grilling, oven roasting, smoking and flash frying. ABS stands for “anything but steam.”
  • Protein elements enhance and enrich: Judicious addition of meat and other protein ingredients increases richness and flavor complexity. Small crumbles of sausage, thin slices of cured meats, anchovies, smoked fish and fish roe are all ideal. Cooking vegetables in meat-based broths is an effective technique.
  • Layer in the flavors: The craveability of veg-centric cuisine lies in the sophisticated flavor layering not found in typical “side dish” vegetable treatments. Flavorful condiments such as gremolata, chermoula and chimichurri are frequent choices. Cheeses of all varieties are a key addition. Vinegars, pickles, olives and agrodolces provide an acidic kick. And sprinkles of ground chiles, sumac and spice blends provide a finishing touch.

Root-to-stem cooking is taking hold. At Chalk Point Kitchen, winter radishes share space with their radish tops.

Cooking From Root to Stem
An adjunct of the veg-centric movement is “root-to-stem” cooking. Chef Isidori is a passionate advocate of the practice, which he describes as “using all parts of the vegetable in the same way that nose-to-tail chefs utilize the entire animal.” He says that not long ago he felt fine about composting his vegetable trimmings and tops, but now his goal is to get those by-products out of the compost bin and onto the plate.

Isidori makes broths from seasoned and roasted vegetable peelings, fibrous leaves and corncobs. Root vegetable stems and tops now serve as green garnishes and salad ingredients. And a wide variety of stalks, stems and rinds are used to create unique pickles.

His aforementioned Grilled Watermelon dish is garnished with tart cubes of pickled watermelon rind. Roasted Butternut Squash with ricotta, basil and aged balsamic is sprinkled with the squash seeds that have been shelled and toasted. And Hanoi-Style Pickles include both winter radishes and their pickled tops.

At Little Park, chef Carmellini maximizes the yield of broccoli by creating a green sauce made from the leaves and trimmings, and pickling the lower part of the stalk, which he thinly shaves as a plate garnish. The Carrot Salad at Contrada in New York’s East Village is nearly equal parts roasted carrots and sautéed carrot tops, which chef John Paidas tosses with caraway, harissa and buttermilk. Parsley stems are a prominent ingredient in Travis Lett’s Mixed Herb Salad with cucumber-lime dressing. And at nearby Superba Food + Bread, chef Jennifer Toomey sauces a plate of Baby Turnips with maple and braised bacon with a pesto made from the turnips’ greens.

Menu Ready: Out of the Compost, Onto the Plate
Food waste is currently a hot-button topic, but most solutions such as donating excess to food banks and local zoos only repurpose waste. Root-to-stem cooking results in true waste reduction, maximizing the yield from fresh produce and benefiting the bottom line.

  • Trimmings become broths: Season and oven-roast peels and trimmings, then cover with water in a pan and simmer. Ingredients include peels from root vegetables, potatoes and fresh ginger, artichoke leaves and corncobs.
  • Multipurpose stems and tops: Sprigs of carrot or radish top make an attractive garnish. Stems and tops may be incorporated into salads and vegetable dishes, either raw or quickly sautéed. Create unique pestos and flavored butters from finely chopped or puréed tops.
  • Expand your pickle palette: Thicker and more fibrous stems and stalks are delicious when pickled. Options include stems from chard, collard and mustard greens, watermelon rind and vegetable stalks from broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
  • Powder your peels: Peels from apples and pears may be dehydrated and powdered to create sweet and fruity sprinkles.

This sandwich of soft scrambled eggs and grilled mortadella is a daily lunch item at New York’s Bar Primi.

Eggs Proliferate Menu Parts
The single ingredient that seemed to appear everywhere in this year’s research was the egg. The popularity of serving an egg as a dish or sandwich “topper” has been growing for several years. But the number of newly opened restaurants employing eggs and yolks in unique treatments across menu parts has surged.

To get the complete picture, we must reference one of our top 2014 finds: the Eggslut counter at Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, where diners wait in long lines for the privilege of mopping up egg yolks that run in and over the deliciously inventive sandwiches and plates.

Eggs are front and center at Eggslut, but each dish features compelling flavors from housemade condiments, aged cheeses and creative toppings, such as: the B.E.C. sandwich, which layers an over-easy egg with sharp white cheddar, smoked bacon and chipotle ketchup; The Fairfax, featuring cheddar, chives, caramelized onions and Sriracha mayo on brioche; and the namesake Slut, a jar of potato purée topped with an egg, sealed and poached in an immersion cooker, and garnished with garlic aïoli, chives and grilled bread.

The popularity of Eggslut is the apparent inspiration for The Eastman Egg Company in Chicago, which follows the M.O. of elevating traditional egg sandwiches with highly flavorful ingredients. Their signature sandwich is The Crown, garnished with chorizo, avocado, Egmont melting cheese and salsa verde, but they also have a Fairfax on the menu, which layers a farm egg with bell pepper, spinach, cheese and green goddess dressing.

New York’s Egg Shop further expands the boundaries of egg-based cookery. There are runny yolks aplenty in their sandwiches and bowls, but inspiration is apparent in innovative dishes such as the Poached Burrata, where fresh mozzarella is stretched into a sealed pouch surrounding a poached egg and served on a bed of crispy chickpeas.

Newly opened casual restaurants across the country have embraced the egg as an ingredient that adds flavor, texture and value, and examples of egg-topped dishes numbered in the dozens in this year’s research.

Menu Ready: Let ’em Run
Opportunities to incorporate eggs throughout the menu are many. Diners appreciate the depth and richness they add to a wide variety of dishes.

  • Make sandwiches: The same flavor revolution that burgers experienced over the past decade is now happening with egg sandwiches, featuring exotic cheeses, bold condiments and meat additions. These elements, combined with a rich, liquid egg yolk, are creating a new category of craveable handhelds.
  • Share the plate: Our research revealed a host of shareables enhanced with a poached, sunny-side or over-easy egg, including plates of roasted mushrooms, fried or roasted potatoes, avocado toast, crispy polenta, cauliflower steak and ratatouille.
  • Try unique variations: To garnish its Super Tuscan Salad, the Egg Shop pan-bastes an egg with duck fat and herbs until the exterior is nicely browned but the yolk is still soft. At Chicago’s White Oak Tavern, chef John Asbaty tops his Vegetable Tartare with an olive oil-poached yolk that is slowly cooked to a custardy texture.

Among the selection of matcha beverages at ChaLait in New York: Matcha Cortado, a matcha shot cut with steamed milk.

Matcha: Coming Soon To Your Beverage Menu
Dining consumers seeking healthy menu additions were rewarded with more options this year, including unique beverages or new ways to reduce sugar intake.

Matcha is a Japanese ceremonial beverage made from powdered premium-grade green tea leaves that are combined with boiling water and whipped together using a specially designed bamboo whisk. Enthusiasts claim the beverage possesses numerous antioxidant benefits, as well as compounds that create both a stimulating and calming effect when consumed.

Matcha burst onto the New York dining scene with the opening of several cafes specializing in the beverage in the last half of 2014. However, not all of their sales are of the ceremonial “Straight Shot,” which is quite concentrated and can be an acquired taste. Rather, matcha-based versions of coffeehouse favorites and iced drinks are taking the beverage into the mainstream.

At ChaLait in the West Village, owner Michelle Gardner serves two grades of Ceremonial Shots, along with a matcha Americano, cortado, hot chocolate and matcha iced tea.

Kimie Kobaya, manager and matcha authority of Matcha Café Wabi in the East Village, specializes in matcha lattes, in both full-fat and vegan varieties, the former made from a matcha and heavy cream reduction, the latter containing almond milk and brown sugar syrup.

In Brooklyn, Graham and Max Fortgang have plans to take matcha to the masses with their MatchaBar concept, offering the widest variety of creative matcha-based drinks, in flavors such as Matcha Chai, Cinnamon Hemp, Vanilla Almond and Fuji Apple, as well as a menu of snacks made with matcha including biscotti, doughnut holes and macaroons.

Menu Ready: Mucho Matcha
While matcha cafes are soon bound for all major cities, full-service operators can be first to market by adding matcha drinks to their beverage programs.

  • Streamline the process: Create drinks based on matcha “pastes,” simple reductions prepped in advance that speed up the drink-making process at service time.
  • Add popular flavors: Position your drinks for mainstream palates with flavor additions such as chocolate, caramel and cinnamon.
  • Run hot and cold: Matcha is equally delicious served as a hot latte, iced tea or fruit-enhanced soda.

Bone Broth: The World’s First Comfort Food
Pressed juice bars have saturated our largest cities as consumers seek ways to cure and cleanse. The only drawback is that even the greenest of these juices tends to be high in sugar. For those seeking a restorative beverage minus the carbs, New York chef Marco Canora has offered an alternative in bone broth, which he began serving last fall at Brodo, a takeout window at the rear of his restaurant, Hearth, that now draws daily lines of devotees.

The bone broths, made from beef, chicken, turkey, or a combination of the three, are slowly simmered and said to be rich in protein, collagen and minerals with virtually no carbs. They are also quite delicious, as Canora offers a variety of flavorful additions for the broths, including shiitake tea, ginger juice, chile oil, bone marrow, coconut milk and fermented beet juice.

Others have quickly followed Canora’s lead. East Village dumpling house Mimi Cheng’s has added a Chicken Bone Broth to the menu, sold with or without a fish ball. Two operators in Los Angeles have also jumped on board. Belcampo Meat Co. in Grand Central Market sells a mixed bone broth so rich it is sticky in texture. And fast-casual concept Asian Box now offers a chicken and beef broth with pho seasonings.

Menu Ready: Beauty in the Bones
Offering a rich bone broth presents yet another opportunity to create menu differentiation.

  • Avoid complication: It does require long cooking, but is also a simple assembly of ingredients.
  • Promote customization: An offering of additional flavorings broadens appeal.
  • Package it wisely: Bone broth could be sold for on-site consumption, as a take-out or grab ’n go item, or packaged and chilled for home consumption.
  • Think larger scale: For multi-unit operations, a broth concentrate could be developed via a manufacturer that specializes in bone-based stocks and sauces, which could be reconstituted at the unit level.

Gerry Ludwig is corporate consulting chef at Gordon Food Service, where he creates trends-based culinary solutions for operators, conducts seminars and workshops and hosts trend-tracking tours. 

This feature is Part 1 of a two-part Flavor Expedition; look for the next installment in the September/October 2015 issue.

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.