Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Planting 12 Ideas Creative ways to leverage the giant opportunity in plant-forward menu development

Spring onion, rhubarb and barbecued carrot make the Warm Grain Salad at Dusek’s in Chicago stand out, with accents of feta, egg and almond dukkah.
PHOTO CREDIT: Dusek’s Board & Beer

The veg-centric movement built the road that led to a world of stunning innovation in vegetable cookery. Chefs have mastered craveability in this category, fueling their efforts through strategic use of umami-rich protein—from dollops of ’nduja to glazes of bagna càuda. Veg-centricity has paved the way to a new era of plant-forward cuisine, where everything from beans and legumes to fruits and vegetables are given serious flavor treatment so they can take center stage in menu development.

Before, any type of “plant-based” terminology used to appeal mostly to vegans, vegetarians and so-called “health nuts.” Now, it signals nutrient-rich, real, modern food. But like everything else on the menu, plant-forward dishes have to keep flavor in deep, steady focus.

Here are 12 ways into the trend, all serving up creativity and craveability with every delicious forkful.

1 Playing with Purées

Thanks to the full-throated consumer support of hummus, plant-based purées are finding their way onto more menus today, either as shareables or components of a bowl build, entrée or salad. From a black bean hummus topped with blistered salsa to a swipe of sweet pea purée under a grilled flank steak, purées offer a playground of both texture and wholesomeness.

  • Heirloom Cucumber: Balled, shaved and sliced cucumbers with housemade green-garlic custard, popped rice and summer herbs
    —LH Rooftop, Chicago
  • Mochi Gnocchi: Bouncy rice cakes, shiso pesto (shiso, walnut, pine nuts, Thai basil oil, gochugaru) and zucchini
    —6th and La Brea, Los Angeles

2 Tacos Carry the Day

Tacos have proven themselves as versatile carriers, welcoming global mash-ups and New American builds with open arms. Chefs are exploiting their popularity, often using them to introduce bolder flavors or play off of familiar flavor systems. Plant-forward versions feature taco fillings like roasted peewee potatoes, mole-glazed carrots, and, of course, beans of all kind.

  • Taco de Yuba Guisado with tofu ribbons tossed in spicy guajillo salsa blend and topped with diced white onion and fresh cilantro
    —Big Star, Chicago
  • Paneer Cheese Taco with spinach pesto, garam masala fried chickpea, pickled tomatillo
    —Goa Taco, based in New York
One Market Restaurant

Beet Carpaccio at One Market in San Francisco demonstrates how well vegetables can hold their own on a plate.

3 Surprising Sides

Sides are a crucial component in modern menu development, often stepping in as shareables. Or, when playing the side show to an entrée, they’re now expected to do heavy lifting in the surprise-and-delight realm. This is where the glory of veg-centricity shines, and chefs pull out all the stops in coaxing out flavor. At One Market in San Francisco, the Beet Carpaccio wows with paper-thin beets, radishes, fresh chèvre, and sherry vinaigrette.

  • Bloody Mary Breakfast Potatoes: Crispy potatoes dressed in a special aïoli laced with horseradish, Worcestershire, fried garlic, celery salt, smoked paprika and Louisiana hot sauce
    —Scofflaw, Chicago
  • Japanese Sweet Potato caramelized with brown sugar, red wine vinegar and heavy cream, topped with housemade chimichurri
    —El Che Bar, Chicago

Chicago’s Scofflaw dresses crispy potatoes in a bold aïoli with horseradish, Worcestershire, celery salt, smoked paprika and Louisiana hot sauce.

4 Satisfying Burgers

Expectations in the burger realm are through the roof, thanks to the excitement around breakout brands offering patties that attempt to mimic the experience of a meat-centric burger. Diners looking for a plant-based burger are not willing to trade down on the flavor experience, so chefs are answering with clever, delicious takes that satisfy.

  • The Veggie Shack Burger: Made from black beans, brown rice and roasted beets, topped with provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles
    —Shake Shack, at select locations in Texas
  • The BGS Sandwich: Crispy falafel, red curry soubise, Urfa yogurt, fennel, pickled cauliflower and gem lettuce, served on a soft potato bun
    —Publican Quality Meats, Chicago

5 Loaded Bowls

Like veg-centricity, bowls are a movement unto themselves, with innovation requiring all sorts of mindful flavor combinations, including a serious focus on plant-forward foods. Whether the bowls are build-your-own or curated, the expectation is that the options are loaded with flavor, from hearth-roasted harissa carrots to slow-simmered black beans.

  • Miso Eggplant & Mushroom Bowl with miso shoyu sauce, Japanese eggplant, shimeji mushroom, sun-dried tomatoes, shiso and market radish
    —Sweetfin, based in Santa Monica, Calif.
  • Ancient Grains Bowl: Miso-glazed sweet potato, turmeric, charred onion, snow peas, grilled portobello, avocado, hemp seed
    —True Food Kitchen, based in Phoenix

Miso eggplant and mushroom combine for an umami-laden bowl at Sweetfin.

6 Grain-infused Beverages

It makes sense that the next iteration of nutrient-dense beverages includes whole grains, especially considering our collective embrace of global beverages and ingredients. In South Korea, misugaru is a drink made with coffee, milk, rice, barley, beans, corn, millet and sesame seeds. It’s early days for adaptation here, but given the trend in functional eating and gut health, smoothies and shakes fortified with quinoa or barley don’t seem far-fetched anymore.

  • Roasted Barley Crema
    —Tea Era, Cupertino, Calif.
  • City of Oats Smoothie: Almond milk, banana, strawberries, peanut butter, date, cinnamon, steel-cut oats
    —Happy + Hale, Raleigh, N.C.

7 Crispy Textures

Today, the texture game is more important than ever, where every element on the plate needs to wow. Chefs are demonstrating the textural power of plant-based ingredients, with clever garnishes like popped sorghum in a salad or crispy farro over pasta.

  • Mousse de Chocolate Fortunato: Peruvian chocolate mousse, cacao nibs and meringue with popped and crispy quinoa
    —Tanta, Chicago
  • Burrata, Tandoori Squash and Baby Carrot with wild garlic chutney and puffed barley
    —Rooh, San Francisco
Mistey Nguyen

Popped quinoa adds crispy texture to the chocolate mousse at Tanta in Chicago.

8 Dairy Alternatives

It wasn’t really that long ago that the only cream options at a coffee shop were whole milk or skim. Now, soy, almond and coconut milk are commonplace, with oat milk slowly emerging as the next barista darling. Nut milks are also adding their wholesome profile and creamy texture to soups, smoothies and sauces, extending the plant-forward messaging seamlessly.

  • Mint Cacao Chip Smoothie Bowl with housemade almond “mylk,” banana, spinach, matcha, almond butter, peppermint, local raw honey, cacao nibs
    —Blake Orchard, Portland, Maine
  • Vegan Mac & Cheese: Macaroni, vegan cheese, almond milk, bread crumbs
    —Busboys and Poets, Washington, D.C.
  • Pancake Napoleon with seasonal fruit sauce and coconut whipped cream
    —Fare Well Diner, Washington, D.C.

9 Spiralized Vegetables

All hail the zoodle! The zucchini “noodle,” propelled through the blogosphere and adapted by foodservice, acts as a great ambassador here: colorful ribbons of produce that provide texture, height and visual appeal. So much opportunity for spiralized signaturization: carrots, mango, cucumber, radish, apple, celeriac, beets, pear and more.

  • Angel Hair Zucchini with roasted cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, asparagus and sunflower milk
    —Juniper Spirits & Oysters, Chicago
  • Goji Berry Noodles: Zucchini and carrot noodles, bell pepper, roasted cashew, grilled sweet potato, grilled onion, cilantro, basil, ginger, garlic, coconut oil, and goji-cashew cream sauce
    — Judahlicious, San Francisco
  • Zucchini Thai Green Curry with Shrimp: Zoodles with sweet coconut-green-curry sauce, shrimp, pineapple, broccoli, red onion, snap peas, lime, black sesame seeds and cilantro
    —Noodles & Company, based in Broomfield, Colo.
Juniper Spirits & Oysters

“Zoodles” star in this Angel Hair Zucchini with roasted cherry tomatoes, peppers, asparagus and sunflower milk, served at Juniper Spirits & Oysters in Chicago.

10 Breakfast is Big

The breakfast category is so exciting to watch, thanks to the dining consumer’s embrace of bold flavors, global mash-ups—really anything that helps launch their day with a spring in their step. The opportunity with plant-forward here is clear, leading with the health-and-wellness story, then coloring it in with craveable combinations.

  • Spring is in the “Heir” Salad: Heirloom cherry tomatoes, a semi-soft boiled egg, avocados, roasted corn salsa, zucchini, spiced pepitas and Cotija cheese atop watercress, arugula and spinach, pistou vinaigrette
    —Snooze, based in Denver
  • Spring Pea Hummus & Eggs: Lamb merguez, poached eggs, flatbread
    —Studio, New York

11 Toasts with the Most

The toast trend is alive and kicking, illustrating staying power with its versatility and wide consumer appeal. Of course, avocado still rules the plant-forward roost here, but other stars of the veg-centric movement fit quite nicely into this platform. Creative spins on toast take root in the breakfast space as well, naturally, where featuring produce fits well into a fuel-focused meal part.

  • Smoked Carrot Lox with housemade vegetable-cashew cream cheese, served on long-fermented toasted levain
    —The Drawing Board, Petaluma, Calif.
  • Cauliflower Toast with whipped ricotta, apple, almond vinaigrette
    —Dutch and Doc’s, Chicago
The Drawing Board

Smoked carrot lox and vegetable-cashew cream cheese sit atop toast at The Drawing Board in Petaluma, Calif.

12 Bar Bites Take Flight

If there’s any doubt that plant-forward foods belong at the bar, look to the shishito pepper. Or the Brussels sprout. They champion the opportunity here, standing out with fantastic flavor touches and aggressive cooking techniques. With so many diners wanting to eat sociably, sharing plates of all kinds, dishes built around plants signal freshness, premium positioning and craftsmanship.

  • Blistered Shishito Peppers with housemade black garlic aïoli, charred lemon and white soy
    —IO Godfrey, Chicago
  • Grilled Rapini with Thai peanut sauce, pickled Persian cucumbers
    —Estrellón, Madison, Wis.
  • Crispy Brussels Sprouts & Potatoes with malt vinegar aïoli
    —Yard House, based in Irvine, Calif.
IO Godfrey

IO Godfrey in Chicago offers a bar-bite favorite: Blistered Shishito Peppers, served with housemade black garlic aïoli.

  From the Sept/Oct 2018 issue of Flavor & the Menu magazine. Read stories from the current issue online or check if you qualify for a free print subscription.

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About The Author


Katie Ayoub serves as managing editor of Flavor & The Menu and content strategist for the Flavor Experience, an annual conference geared toward chain operators. She is president of Katie Ayoub & Associates, serving up menu trends expertise, content creation and food & beverage consultancy. Based in Chicago, Katie has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 20 years and part of the Flavor team since 2006. [email protected]