By Gerry Ludwig
September 10, 2019
This is the third and final installment of our 2019 report on menu-based opportunities resulting from our most recent street-level research in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where we collectively visited 116 restaurants and tasted 1,205 dishes.
One of our research tour rules is that team members must taste every menu item that is ordered—following the simple logic that you cannot develop a flavor memory without tasting the dish.
Most of the time this is not a major issue. However, there are occasional exceptions, such as when we encountered two dishes containing the infamous tropical fruit durian, known for its pungent odor and singular flavor.
The first was a Durian Bread sold at the Asian tea shop Bingo Tea in Chicago. The durian custard in the center of the bread was not particularly aromatic, but had a strong flavor of alliums that one team member compared to “onion soup mix” and another to the taste of “chopped chives.”
We found the second offering at another tea shop, Mi Tea in New York—a Durian Mille-Feuille cake that was listed on the menu but noticeably absent from the pastry case. When we asked if they were out of the cake, the manager said “no,” they simply store it in the walk-in cooler because it “stinks up the pastry case.”
The cake’s aroma was repellent, to put it mildly. But its flavor, which I can only liken to a blend of onion, sugar, vinegar and limburger that has been fermenting in the sun for too long, made it by far the most challenging bite in the history of our research.
We later surmised that the Durian Bread we had tasted earlier must have contained very little durian. A truly humbling experience that, unfortunately, comes with the territory.
Menu Ready: Chicago’s Croquettes
Chefs in the newest restaurants in the Windy City were in sync this year with a diverse offering of unique croquettes and fritters on their shareable and snack menus. Any of these ideas could easily be executed by operators seeking new and unique offerings.
- Celeriac & Gruyère Croquettes with caraway aïoli and celery leaves —Le Sud
- Braised Ham Hock Croquettes with smoked Gouda, honey Dijon aïoli, giardiniera —Stock and Ledger
- Fried Manchego Gougères with garlic aïoli —Bar Biscay
- Black Truffle Croquettes with aged white cheddar and jalapeño —S.K.Y.
- Reuben Croquettes with corned beef, sauerkraut, Mornay sauce —Half Sour
- Elote Corn Fritters with chile lime, Cotija, garlic aïoli —Merchant
Shareables, Snacks and Bar Bites
Dining consumers highly value restaurant dishes they cannot easily prepare at home, which is why the macro-trend in sharing plates, which offers diners the opportunity to taste numerous dishes comprised of dozens of ingredients in one sitting, has endured through the decades.
And as consumers increasingly snack throughout the day, savvy full-service restaurant operators continue to expand their reach with menus featuring small bites and finger foods that are offered in the bar area before, during and after the traditional dayparts.
This category continues to enjoy high levels of innovation, and this year’s research revealed new opportunities with dips and spreads, fried vegetables, croquettes and fritters, and an assortment of cleverly creative signature snacks.
Spreads featured prominently on menus, including the Mediterranean fish-roe-based dish Taramasalata, featured at New York’s La Mercerie topped with trout roe and served with tiny housemade blinis.
At nearby Simon & The Whale, the dish was accompanied by barley black bread and kelp butter.
The Burgundian washed-rind cheese Époisses is baked to a soft spreadable texture at Free Rein in Chicago and served with honeycomb, toasted walnuts and grilled baguette.
Crispy Kalettes are a signature fried vegetable snack at Etta in Chicago, tossed in a sweet/tart/hot dressing of caramel, lime and pickled red chile.
The Fried Cauliflower served at X’tiosu Kitchen in Los Angeles features florets that are deep fried until golden and topped with pickled turnip, served with a chile-spiked Arabesque salsa based on the Middle Eastern creamy garlic condiment toum.
Dramatically presented Daikon Frites are featured at Chicago’s Z Bar—footlong sticks of daikon radish crusted with powdered lap cheong sausage and garlic chive, fried to a crisp and served standing tall in a stainless shaker glass with a spiced tomato jam for dipping.
Highly creative, one-of-a-kind signature snacks were a frequent find in all three cities.
The refreshingly delicious Japanese Cucumber dish at S.K.Y. in Chicago features ¾-inch barrel cuts of cucumber marinated overnight in garlic, soy and rice vinegar, and served double-stacked in a pool of the marinade with a generous topping of togarashi.
The Potato Foccacia Pinwheels at Cal Mare in Los Angeles are bite-sized rolls of dough draped with an intensely cheesy Parmesan fonduta and finished with basil pesto.
In New York, the surprisingly craveable Pickle Sandwich at Momofuku Ko features small bundles of pickled cucumber and daikon sticks tucked into toasted miniature hot dog buns.
And the highlight of the Tuna Tartare at The Usual in New York are strips of nori that are tempura-batter-dipped on one side and deep fried into a crunchy cracker.
Menu Ready: Heaven In A Tart Shell
Two new shops in New York—Frankie Portugal in Chelsea and Joey Bats on the Lower East Side—are exposing locals and tourists alike to the joys of the Portuguese egg tart, also known as pastel or pastéis de nata.
These small, four-bite tarts consist of a flaky and buttery crust baked with a crème brûlée-like custard filling. They are dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon and served warm, resulting in a true love-at-first-bite treat.
The pastel’s sweet, craveable flavor and portable size make it the kind of dessert that could create clear menu differentiation and word-of-mouth promotion for operators in a variety of segments.
Menu Standout: More Okonomiyaki
We first called out the savory Japanese cabbage pancake okonomiyaki as a menu opportunity in 2008 and have reported on its incremental growth in popularity many times since. We have always enjoyed cooking and sampling this dish at industry events and watching the eyes of the guests pop when they get their first taste.
We encountered two more versions of the pancake in this year’s research, both of “next-wave” quality. Max Ng, the new executive chef at Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York, serves a 7 Spice Brisket Okonomiyaki that is loaded with meat and thoughtfully topped with assorted greens.
And Japanese chain Chinchikurin has brought the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki to Los Angeles—their signature layer of tender noodles produces the thickest, heartiest pancake we have tasted.
Okonomiyaki is classic Japanese comfort/bar food, and continues to present mainstream operators with the opportunity to create menu differentiation with the dish. It is comprised of economical ingredients that, when combined, result in one of the most craveable treats any cuisine has to offer.
Pairing Plants and Proteins
Chefs continue to take the levels of flavor, umami and craveability in plant-based dishes to higher levels via the veg-centric practice of incorporating small amounts of highly flavored meat and seafood proteins into the dish.
This is in contrast to vegetarian, vegan and plant-forward dining styles that focus on the elimination of meat, and rely to a great degree upon meat analogues and vegetable oils to bolster flavors and increase the richness of the dish.
That is not to say one practice is superior to the other, but in our experience, veg-centric cooking allows the natural flavors and freshness of the produce to shine without needing to be manipulated or morphed. It is also an inclusive way of eating, carrying strong appeal for the vast majority of dining consumers—omnivorous diners who will choose plant-based dishes on restaurant menus as long as they have levels of craveability that are comparable to those that are meat-based.
This year’s examples included many enhanced with flavorsome bits of cured meats, bacon, artisanal hams and sausage. We were pleasantly surprised to find the best of these dishes in the vegetarian stronghold of Los Angeles.
Ronan in West Hollywood features a sharing plate of Oyster Mushrooms that are oven roasted in a guanciale-laced carbonara sauce and finished with baby arugula and pickled shimeji.
At Sixth & Mill, Seared Turnips are served in a broth enriched with pan-roasted ham, turnip greens and mustard seed.
And a dish of Confit Parsnips at the modern French restaurant Tesse clearly displayed the power and potential of veg-centric cooking. The parsnips are cooked until tender in duck fat and then tossed in a rich red-wine Bordelaise sauce with shallots, pine nuts, dried grapes and soft herbs.
Veg-centric plates including seafood-based umami-boosters such as bagna càuda, fish sauce (or nuoc cham), XO sauce and tonnato were a frequent find.
Examples include: the Cucumber Salad at New York’s Simon & The Whale with avocado, dill and black sesame seeds tossed in a nuoc cham dressing; the Marinated Eggplant at Breva in Los Angeles, drizzled with chile aïoli and topped with a generous mound of bonito flakes; and the Wood-Grilled Broccolini at Chicago’s Free Rein, topped with dollops of the classic Italian condiment tonnato, a creamy smooth purée of olive oil, egg yolk and oil-packed tuna.
While meatless dining gets the majority of media attention, restaurant-goers vote with their taste buds, which is why we believe that vegetable-centric dishes on foodservice menus will continue to increase in popularity well into the future.
Menu Standout: Panzerotti
The panzerotto is a beloved street-food snack from the Apulian region of Italy, consisting of a thin dough pocket that is filled with mozzarella and assorted garnishes and deep fried into a delicately puffy pocket.
It differs from the calzone, which is made with a much thicker dough and is baked rather than fried.
Two new shops in New York, I Love Panzerotti in SoHo and Panzerotti Bites in Brooklyn, both helmed by chefs from Apulia, are serving authentic versions of this Italian treat, with filling combinations that include prosciutto, arugula and truffle oil, mortadella and pistachio, sausage and Gorgonzola, and salami with zucchini, peppers and mushrooms.
We see panzerotto as an ideal menu add for any fast-casual or full-service kitchen with a deep fryer, and staff possessing the basic skills required to assemble an à la minute stuffed dough pocket.
Full-service newcomer Sixth & Mill in Los Angeles is a prime example, whose panzerotto features an exceedingly crisp and flaky dough, filled simply with mozzarella and tomato and plated for sharing.
We focus some of our research efforts on dessert menus every three years or so, and this year was one of them. After tasting more than 150 desserts at 43 of our research restaurants, we were pleased with the level of innovation found.
A common creative thread observed in many of the treatments fall into a category we have dubbed “Garnished Portions”—premade and portioned pieces of cake, mousses, tarts and sweet breads that are finished with complementary toppings, sauces and garnishes at service time. This technique produces multi-faceted desserts with enhanced varieties of flavor and increased eye appeal.
Among our favorite “Garnished Portions” desserts was the Butter Toasted Pumpkin Bread at Oxomoco in Brooklyn, N.Y., topped with apple jam, julienned apple, burnt canela gelato and brown-butter/cinnamon syrup, and finished with a scatter of pomegranate seeds.
A beautifully layered treatment of the classic Middle Eastern semolina cake Basbousa is served at Kish-Kash in New York, presented in a pool of coconut water and garnished with a drizzle of rose-orange simple syrup, shredded coconut, toasted almonds and macerated berries.
The Wedding Cake dessert at Tied House in Chicago whimsically combines large chunks of hand-torn angel food cake layered with raspberry jam, frosting, rose petals and a crunchy rose-flavored crumble.
Most elegant was the Almond Brown Butter Cake at Tesse in Los Angeles, an individually baked disc of cake surrounded by assorted berries, sticks of fresh persimmon, and a quenelle of yogurt gelato capped with a toasted almond tuile.
Adopting the “Garnished Portions” technique can greatly enhance the perceived value of a dessert. And as it involves a simple assembly of prepared ingredients, it can be accomplished without a significant increase in the time required to finish the plate at service time.
Menu Standout: Foie Gras
Chefs in the full-service casual segment have become increasingly creative with foie gras, starting with a small portion of the luxury ingredient and building up the plate with other flavorful components that allows them to keep the sell price in the $16 to $20 range.
Some of the best include the Foie Gras Halva at Bavel in Los Angeles, a creamy blend of foie and sesame seed confection served as a shareable spread.
Others are: the Foie Gras Tarte at Chicago’s Le Sud, baked in a butter crust and topped with plum caramel and burnt almond; and the Nurungji Gras at Korean restaurant Soogil in New York, a seared slice served atop crispy rice adorned with sautéed spinach, ramps and oyster mushrooms.
Also worthy of mention is the foie gras add-on offer at Guerilla Tacos in Los Angeles, which allowed diners to enjoy a silver-dollar-sized piece of seared foie atop their Rojo Beef Taco for a mere $3—one of the best-tasting tacos we have sampled anywhere.
Of course, the above examples from Los Angeles restaurants are no longer offered, due to the recent foie gras ban in California, but chefs in the balance of the country can draw inspiration from them and continue to innovate their menus with this upscale favorite.