Of all the sections on the menu, bar bites is perhaps where chefs get to play the most. For consumers, it’s the Tinder of dining—thrilling and potentially fulfilling, without any pressure of commitment. Today, the snacking category is huge. It not only serves as noshes and nibbles, but more diners are crafting their meals from a patchwork of them. Global flavors make a play in this space, offering a bit of adventure with a big dose of a signature flavor experience.
The Pork Belly with Korean barbecue, kimchi and radish is a starter on the menu at Provision PGH, a food hall at Federal Galley in Pittsburgh. It boasts big, brash, on-trend flavors—Korean barbecue is up 190 percent on appetizer menus over the last four years, according to Datassential.
“We take our bellies and braise them slowly with scallions, ginger, tamari, five spice, Shaoxing wine, mushroom soy and pork stock,” says Stephen Eldridge, chef/owner. “This technique allows us to impart all those wonderful umami flavors. To finish the dish, we crisp up the belly on the grill, glaze it with our Korean barbecue and serve it with radish greens and sautéed kimchi that we make in house.”
The dish is finished with pickled red onions. “This flavor combination makes a real nice pairing with any of the craft beer selections we have here at Federal Galley,” adds Eldridge. It represents the opportunity in bar bites today—showcasing on-trend, global flavors while keeping drink-friendly deliciousness and approachability in mind.
On The house
Chefs are in the business of hospitality, which, of course, needs to be calibrated with profitability. Where is the sweet spot? Doc B’s Fresh Kitchen, a modern American casual concept based in Tampa, Fla., has gone old school, with a complimentary bar bite of its signature candied bacon, served in a glass.
“We prepare trays of candied bacon throughout the evening for guests at the bar, made with turbinado sugar, cayenne and golden dry mustard,” says Brian Wright, executive chef. “Each bacon strip is coated on both sides, then baked to crispy perfection. It’s a perfect balance between salty and sweet.”
The Bar & The Courtyard at The Setai in Miami Beach, Fla., also offers complimentary bar snacks. Instead of a bowlful of nuts, they extend warm—and memorable—hospitality with an elegant trio of snacks served in a gold dish: housemade potato chips, chile-spiced olives, and cucumbers flavored with sesame seeds and oil.
“We want guests to know that their experiences at The Setai mean more to us than what they purchase,” says Vijay Veena, executive chef. “The trio is meant to be something that enhances the overall dining experience, and we think it does just that.”
Minis of any kind are welcome at the bar—meatballs, sliders, skillets. At Azabu Miami Beach, a Japanese eatery at the Marriott Stanton South Beach, the lobster tempura is miniaturized for a perfect bar bite. Morsels of slipper lobster tempura are served with a spicy mayonnaise and “bubu arare” rice crackers—seasoned rice pearls. Guests dip the lobster in the mayo, then the crackers, for a luxurious, interactive bite.
“The sauce, a blend of mayonnaise, hot sauce and lime, when combined with the lobster meat and crackers, helps the flavors come together in perfect harmony,” says Masatsugu Kubo, executive chef. “The rice crackers offer a nutty, toasted flavor and crunchy texture to round out the dish.”
Meatballs carry flavor, offering diners everything from safe, familiar bets to serious adventure. Making them snackable requires a playfulness in both flavor and presentation. Skillets are a smart way to make meatballs a shareable, bringing them to the table in a homey, rustic presentation that drives home their comfort-food status.
At Ousia, a Greek restaurant in New York, the Kos Meatballs, served in a cast-iron skillet, are made with ground beef and lamb, nestled in a cumin tomato sauce and topped with Greek yogurt. “Our meatball recipe stems from generations of home recipes passed down to our kitchen,” says Ousia manager Enrico Livanos.
“The hint of cumin in the sauce brings a warmth to the flavor that is followed by the soft tenderness of the beef and lamb mixture.” Plenty of other meatball interpretations are popping up on bar-bite menus:
- Nonna’s Meatballs: Giant brisket meatballs, pomodoro and lemon ricotta
—Tavernonna Italian Kitchen, Kansas City, Mo.
- Duck Meatballs with grits, heirloom tomato, Parmesan
—Kettner Exchange, San Diego, Calif.
- Pork Meatballs with broccoli rabe and pesto
—Fausto, Brooklyn, N.Y.
- Stuffed Meatballs with caciocavallo, peppers, onions and mustard seeds
—Iron Gate, Washington, D.C.
The Austin Taco Project in Austin, Texas, describes its food as a “shameless celebration of all things eclectic.” Its tacos range from traditional, like the Al Pastor with pork, pineapple, onion and cilantro, to the new-school ones, like the Shrimp Tacos with jerk, collards, peanut and coconut.
Another eclectic offering is found on the bar snacks menu: the Tots are an indulgent dish starring ribeye cap barbacoa, fried cheese curds, poblano gravy and a sunny-side-up egg. Tots are big business today—with menu mentions up 174 percent over the last four years, according to Datassential.
The advent of Brussels sprouts at the bar a few years ago helped usher in a new era of snackable veg-centric dishes. Craveability steered the produce boat, employing aggressive cooking and strategic uses of protein to make those dishes sing.
At Upland Miami, a California-chic inspired eatery in Miami Beach, Fla., the signature bar bite is Crispy Squash Blossoms. It’s a staple on the menu. Chef Justin Smillie whips the dish up with Parmesan, fresh cheese and soft herbs, topped with lemon, describing it as an easy starter and perfect sharing dish.