In our last issue, Part 1 of this report explored the creative menu ideas we encountered in our research of new restaurants across the country. As noted in Part 1, our findings and conclusions are based solely upon the external research we conduct annually in major U.S. cities. And while our primary goal is to identify opportunities presented by the latest menu innovations, we would be remiss not to acknowledge the passing of an iconic American restaurant that provided us with one of the greatest lessons in flavor development in recent years.
Requiem For The Sausage Superstore
Perhaps the most surprising development in the restaurant world this year was the closing of Hot Doug’s in Chicago, the venerated “Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium,” owned and operated by the wildly creative and eccentric chef Doug Sohn. The announcement of the closing became an event in itself; within two hours of its posting on Sohn’s Facebook page, the restaurant was surrounded by local television crews covering the story.
During its 13-year run, Hot Doug’s became famous for the long lines of devotees who would patiently wait to experience one of Sohn’s sausage sandwich creations. Sohn’s approach was simple: Start with fresh, scratch-made sausages (produced to Sohn’s specs by a local butcher), grill them over a wood fire, and then layer in flavors with unique housemade condiments, unexpected toppings and exotic cheeses.
The tricky part was to successfully marry seemingly divergent ingredients—and that is where Sohn excelled. No matter how strange the combinations appeared, the flavors always worked.
And so, from the first time Sohn served such creative classics as his Pecan-Smoked Jalapeño Pork Sausage with Passion Fruit Mayonnaise and Habanero Jack, and Tuscan Lamb Sausage with Pepper-Olive Mustard and Goat Cheese, the state of the American sandwich was forever changed.
In addition to the high quality ingredients, consistent execution in the kitchen was another of the restaurant’s hallmarks. This was due to Sohn’s insistence on being present during all hours of operation, without exception. Each day he could be found behind the counter taking and expediting the orders, and overseeing the finished product.
Sohn’s pioneering approach to flavor development and savant-like ability to combine ingredients has provided inspiration for chefs everywhere and has spawned numerous imitators. His duck fat fries were a sensation long before the resurgence of animal fats on American menus, and his legendary Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aïoli and Foie Gras Mousse was a menu standard—most notably served in defiant fashion during the two years that the sale of foie gras was banned in Chicago.
Sohn blazed a flavor trail that inspired Anthony Bourdain to name Hot Doug’s as “One of the 13 places to eat before you die.” His final accomplishment was yet another feat: exiting while at the top of his game.
Three Innovative Ingredients
As chefs and operators continue their quest for cost-effective center-of-the-plate products, alternative protein choices and the integration of fresh produce are gaining ground on menus. The innovative use of rough cuts, pork belly, bacon, chicken thigh, dark turkey meat and cruciferous vegetables continues to offer operators cost-effective ingredient options that are enjoying increasing acceptance by consumers. In our recent research, we encountered three ingredients in particular that are providing a new sense of culinary creativity and affordable luxury.
At Chicago’s Fountainhead restaurant, buttermilk-marinated Chicken Fried Chicken comes with apple sausage gravy and Gruyère mashed potatoes. A crisp kohlrabi slaw complements the dish.
1. Tender Little Lamb
The scrumpet is a classic Irish snack of braised lamb shoulder or breast that is cut into bite-sized pieces, breaded and fried, and served with a mint-based dipping sauce. These tender morsels have popped up on numerous sharing-plate menus across the country this past year, following the lead of chef April Bloomfield, whose scrumpets, served as a bar snack at her Manhattan restaurant The Breslin, have become a menu favorite.
While most scrumpets we sampled were prepared from lamb shoulder, Bloomfield uses the breast—its high fat-to-lean ratio results in an exceedingly indulgent snack, perfectly accompanied by a tart malt vinegar dip flavored with freshly chopped mint.
At Ada Street in Chicago, chef Zoe Schor adds a bit more lamb fat to her braised shoulder, which she says lends richness and helps to hold the chilled mixture together when portioning. Schor serves the scrumpets in a pool of minted pea purée with a side of malt vinegar. Also in Chicago, chef Dirk Flanigan of The Green Door Tavern accompanies his scrumpets with a less traditional creamy horseradish and peppercorn sauce. And at British gastropub The Cavalier in San Francisco, chef Jennifer Puccio braises individual pieces of lamb sparerib before they’re breaded, fried and served with a pickled mint and chile dipping sauce.
Chef Schor notes that because of their mild flavor and comfort-based preparation, scrumpets have become quite popular—even with patrons who do not usually order lamb. The use of shoulder meat keeps the cost down, and preparation is relatively simple. These combined factors make the scrumpet a potentially attractive addition for operators seeking to increase menu variety and differentiation.
2. The Next Big Vegetable
Kohlrabi is the latest member of the brassica family (which includes broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage) to emerge on mainstream menus in a big way. It is a common vegetable in northern and eastern European cuisine, where it is typically simmered in soups and stews.
It is most frequently seen on today’s menus in cold applications: sliced into a julienne and used as a salad topping at both Dimes in New York City and 3 Square Café in Venice, Calif.; at Black Tree in New York, the bulb is thinly shaved and served on a sandwich of white wine-braised cremini mushrooms with spinach leaves and shredded white cheddar.
Kohlrabi also provides a crunchy base for various slaw and composed salad preparations. At Summer House Santa Monica in Chicago, chef Jeff Mahin serves Wood-Grilled Swordfish with a Shaved Kohlrabi and Heirloom Apple Salad, while chef Cleetus Friedman of Chicago’s Fountainhead serves creamy kohlrabi slaw with his Chicken Fried Chicken with Apple Sausage Gravy. Kohlrabi slaw also makes an ideal sandwich topping, as in the case of The Chupacabra at Untamed Sandwiches in New York, where tender braised goat is piled on toasted baguette and topped with fresh goat cheese and an oil-and-vinegar dressed slaw.
Chefs continue to use pickling as a go-to cooking method, and the mild taste of raw kohlrabi marries well with both sweet and sour pickle recipes. At The Wallace in Culver City, Calif., the Roasted Spigarello (sprouting broccoli) with Tahini and Crumbled Feta is finished with thin shavings of pickled kohlrabi, as is the Smoked Chicken with Red Apple Miso Glaze at The Dawson in Chicago.
As kohlrabi’s emergence on mainstream menus follows closely in the footsteps of its cousin the Brussels sprout, it was no surprise to find them paired in a hot dish of Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Kohlrabi at Chicago’s Chop Shop, caramelized and tossed with crunchy bacon lardons and toasted almonds.
3. The Cheese of the Moment
Another frequent menu addition cited in our research is burrata, the fresh mozzarella cheese “pouch” that is filled with a combination of heavy cream and fresh mozzarella shreds and sealed into a ball.
While the larger trend in foodservice cheeses is all about increasingly complex and intense flavors, burrata’s primary draw is its creamy, luxurious texture. And as more domestic varieties are being produced at significantly lower costs than those that are imported, burrata has assumed a position as an affordable luxury on casual menus nationwide.
Menu treatments can be simple, such as Black Tree’s burrata, which is sprinkled with sea salt and cracked pepper then served with toasted Italian bread, or as elaborate as the Burrata Pugliese at Chicago’s The Purple Pig: topped with a haystack of shredded and grilled kohlrabi, apple, mustard greens and crispy speck, then finished with a drizzle of beer agrodolce.
While most dishes are served cold, chef Andrew D’Ambrosi at Brooklyn’s Bergen Hill warms his burrata until slightly melted before topping it with tuna confit, capers and chile flakes. At J. Rocco in Chicago, the Burrata in Mom’s Gravy is baked in the oven until nearly heated through, so that the cheese melts and melds in its pool of rich red sauce, ideal for dipping the accompanying slices of crunchy, charred grilled bread.
Craft Pop, Soda Shoppe
In last year’s report in these pages, we cited charged cocktails as an emerging opportunity, with many restaurants enhancing their bar programs with adult beverages that incorporate handcrafted sodas created with housemade syrups.
The soda bases are made by infusing simple syrup with flavoring ingredients ranging from herbs and spices to citrus, stone fruits, berries and even tea leaves and chai. The concentrated syrups are stored under refrigeration, reconstituted with filtered water and carbonated in a variety of ways, including the use of old-school charging canisters and outboard CO2 tanks.
And while the charged cocktail remains popular, today the sodas themselves are stealing the spotlight. The most frequent addition sighted in our research this year were handcrafted sodas on beverage menus.
Puréed syrup lends fresh, loaded flavor to this Blackberry Tarragon “Craft Pop,” one of the signature handcrafted sodas served at Dusek’s in Chicago.
A recent indicator of the potency of this opportunity: Starbuck’s has entered the handcrafted soda arena with their Fizzio line. The sodas are carbonated and mixed to order by baristas, and the company’s ad pieces tout the fact that they are “handcrafted one at a time.” However, the three available flavors are purely mainstream: Ginger Ale, Root Beer and Lemon Ale. The compelling flavor innovation in craft sodas is happening behind the bars of full-service casual restaurants.
Some operations offer a single craft soda, while others menu up to four at a time. In Chicago, the signature soda at Parson’s Chicken & Fish is made from local Honeycrisp apples. The Breslin features two flavors: a Cucumber Celery Soda combining both juices with lime and housemade celery bitters, and a Ginger Soda with lemon and fresh Thai basil. Craft sodas at Jeffrey’s Grocery in New York’s West Village include Lemon Verbena and Maple, and Pomegranate Soda flavored with orange, ginger and grenadine. The Wallace offers four unique soda flavors: Earl Grey Tea, Chai Fennel, Persimmon and Honey Ginger. Our favorite craft sodas combine seasonal ingredients with sophisticated blending techniques and complex flavor layering. Near the top is the “Craft Pop” offering at Dusek’s in Chicago. Rather than creating the expected crystal-clear sodas, beverage director Will Duncan finely purées his finished syrups rather than straining them, resulting in a finished drink that is nearly opaque, but loaded with the flavors of the source ingredients. Signature blends include Rhubarb and Pink Peppercorn, Sorrel and Lemon, and Blackberry and Tarragon.
The absolute best examples of craft sodas are on the “Soda Shoppe” menu at The Dawson, overseen by beverage director Clint Rogers. The flavor layering in each of his creations is of true artisanal quality. The fresh ginger syrup in the Ginger Beer Soda is enhanced with star anise, vanilla and mint. The Cherry Phosphate features a retro combination of housemade tart cherry syrup and phosphoric acid powder.
The standout, however, is the Greyhound Soda: Fresh grapefruit syrup is combined in a charging canister with filtered water and a housemade pineapple gomme. Gomme is simple syrup prepared with the addition of powdered gum arabic, which when added to a drink creates a richer and smoother mouthfeel. Once dispensed, the soda is enhanced with a few drops of bergamot extract and finished with a generous spritz of juniper tincture, created in-house by marinating juniper berries in grain alcohol. While this multi-step process may be more involved than many operators would find practical, the resulting soda is the standard against which all others should be judged.
On occasion, our research uncovers an operator whose new concept appears to have caught the proverbial “lightning in a bottle.” Such is the case with Donut Friend in Los Angeles, the brainchild of Mark Trombino, a session musician and record producer-turned doughnut monger.
The menu at Donut Friend enables guests to completely customize their doughnuts from a wide choice of fillings, glazes and toppings. The doughnuts are then freshly assembled to order. Quite unexpectedly, we found the eating experience of made-to-order doughnuts to be incomparably superior to any prefinished product found in a box or bakery case. The concept would be successful in any city center, shopping mall or theater multiplex in the country.
Guests begin by choosing a doughnut, either yeast-raised, vanilla cake or chocolate cake, all of which are plain and unglazed. The doughnuts are split lengthwise for filling. The selection of garnishes is vast, featuring many unique and creative flavor components, both sweet and savory. There are more than 30 filling choices, including artisan jams such as apricot ginger, blackberry bay leaf and raspberry habanero, creamy cheese spreads including cheddar, goat and Gruyère, and custard creams such as lime, dark chocolate and coconut.
Warm glazes include vanilla bean, chocolate, maple and lemon, with 10 accompanying drizzles available, including a balsamic reduction, dulce de leche and Sriracha. Toppings provide the crowning touch, with more than two dozen varieties of chopped candies, nuts, colored sprinkles and spiced sugars.
Donut Friend provided the greatest flavor surprise in this year’s research. The concept is a true original, offering the combined attributes of freshness, variety and customizability to perfectly meet consumer demand for a unique and indulgent treat.