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R&IEditorial Archives2004 — December 1 — Food

Carte du Jour
In the culinary world, high fashion means local products, global tastes, small plates and more.

At Dominic, Chef Ken Munz does a modern take on penne with prosciutto and peas by using rustic strozzapretti pasta and anointing it with white-truffle oil. Cafe Annie (below) gives Southwestern flair to shrimp.

Embrace them, discard them or shape them for a better fit, but don’t deny the impact that trends have on menus. Short-lived or enduring, they once again made marks across the foodservice industry in 2004.

Two of this year’s biggest influences—the growing focus on nutrition and a deep-seated attraction to comfort foods—continue to affect menus across the spectrum. But inspirations shaping chefs’ selections extend beyond these ideas:

  • Comfort foods’ hold on appetites makes it little surprise that chefs and diners alike are drawn to simplicity. White-tablecloth restaurants still abound, but many notable restaurateurs are shifting gears to take formality down a notch or two.
  • Seasonal ingredients, always fundamental on menus, move to center stage as kitchens place higher premiums on locally grown and raised products. This demand for quality translates into growing interest in organic ingredients among chefs and consumers.
  • On a broader level, chefs are helping guests expand their dining horizons with deeper explorations of global fare, characterized by interest in more-adventurous flavors, authentic ingredients and specific cuisines.
  • Flavor, variety and value still rule, fueling interest in small plates beyond traditional boundaries such as tapas, meze and dim sum. This demand for bold and varied tastes also encourages widespread use of accents—condiments, sauces and seasonings—designed to kick up flavor.
  • Shifting Gears
    “You have to move with the mentality,” says Sirio Maccioni, proprietor of New York City’s venerable Le Cirque 2000, which will close this month and reopen sans the numeral in its name at an as-yet undisclosed location. “I want to do more food-wise ... have a place that’s a little smaller, more controllable.”

    The restaurant’s latest incarnation will not be significantly more casual and will retain signature dishes, Maccioni insists, but the menu will be more flexible, highlighting seasonal ingredients and “whatever the day’s market can supply.”

    Across the country, a change in diners’ demands drove San Francisco-based Aqua Development Corp. to transform Charles Nob Hill and its elegant California-French cuisine into the less-complex C&L Steak. The formal dishes, high check averages and drawn-out tasting meals of the former concept no longer matched what customers wanted from the location, says Corporate Executive Chef Laurent Manrique. Opened in mid-November, the new operation’s menu highlights eight steak options, each based on the culinary traditions of U.S. cities from Miami to San Francisco.

    Other operators are starting from scratch rather than remaking concepts. In Chicago, Zealous Chef-owner Michael Taus says new Mediterranean-influenced concept Saltaus, slated for an early 2005 opening with partner Nader Salti, will be a fun, creative outlet for him while bringing guests great food at lower price points.

    Also looking to shake the constraints of fine dining, former Ritz-Carlton Chicago executive chefs Sarah Stegner and George Bumbaris ended their long tenure at the highly rated hotel to open more-relaxed spot Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, Ill., in October.

    Nature’s Best
    Relying on local organic and sustainable ingredients as often as possible is crucial to Stegner at Prairie Grass, where the comfort-food menu features such specialties as Un-traditional Shepherd’s Pie made with butternut squash, parsnips and potato gratin over braised beef and Swiss chard.

    Organic sourcing is the only way to do business for Cesare Lanfranconi, chef-owner of Ristorante Tosca in Washington, D.C. To get the best organic products, the Italian-born chef elevates relationships with local vendors to a personal level, inviting them to his restaurant and also visiting their farms. In turn, vendors raise products such as quail or guinea hens especially for Lanfranconi and refer him to farmer friends for other menu needs.

    Scapinasch—ravioli with aged ricotta and raisins—is among Chef-owner Cesare Lanfranconi’s signature dishes at Ristorante Tosca.

    Despite challenges including cost and consistency of products and distribution, more independent and chain restaurants are following the same path as Stegner and Lanfranconi. Executive Chef and Senior Vice President Rich Vellante last spring and summer menued organic tomato salad at 30-unit Boston-based Legal Sea Foods. He says health perceptions among chefs and consumers help fuel organics as a fast-growing aspect of the industry.

    Companies including Denver-based Chipotle, Agoura Hills, Calif.-based Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill and Atlanta-based Ted’s Montana Grill also are putting efforts into sourcing, placing more emphasis on hormone- and antibiotic-free proteins.

    “The public has said, ‘I like simple, grilled, excellent-tasting, high-quality proteins,’” says Ted’s Montana Grill Co-founder George McKerrow, noting that customers also look for menu cues such as “from scratch,” “vine ripened” and “fresh cut.”

    A shift to top-shelf ingredients such as branded beef has helped propel Miami-based Burger King to a much-needed rebound. Calvin Harris, senior director of product innovation for the chain, says the strategy will continue, incorporating new elements such as aged cheeses in more varieties.

    Growing Global
    With basic ethnic flavors now standard on many menus, chefs are promoting a logical evolution toward more-specific regional tastes.

    “We see a lot of [food professionals] coming back [for continuing education] who are ... looking at Thailand, Vietnam and other parts of Asia whose cuisines haven’t been as thoroughly explored as that of China,” says Mark Erickson, vice president for continuing education at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y.

    This trend also plays out throughout the corporate and campus accounts of Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho USA. At Binghamton University in Binghamton, N.Y., comment cards requesting Cambodian-, Thai- and Mongolian-style menu items spurred Executive Chef John Enright II to introduce a program called Far East Fusion. The lineup features red, green and yellow curries; less-familiar noodle options including soba, udon and cellophane; and dishes such as Thai squid salad with mint and cilantro.

    Mexican cuisine is following a similar path on American menus as consumer willingness to explore options beyond fajitas and burritos increases. Next stop on the tour: authentic regional flavors and preparations.

    Szechuan Sesame Noodles at Sodexho USA.

    Both Oaxaca and Jalisco, Mexico, were recent research destinations for Jeff Clark, director of product development for Santa Barbara, Calif.-based La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill. Though he believes true regionalization remains more the domain of higher-end independents than of the chain’s fast-casual segment, he strives to create authenticity in flavor profiles and make customers comfortable with unfamiliar options.

    “We have to introduce guests [to new tastes],” says Clark, who currently is exploring menu applications for moles and frescas (fresh fruit juices). “There is still some reluctance and apprehension. We’ll take them toward it in baby steps.”

    Robert Del Grande, co-founder and executive chef of the Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group in Houston, has watched customer palates evolve at regional Southwestern fine-dining restaurant Cafe Annie since the 1980s. Although some flavors still must be tempered to American tastes, a slowly rising tolerance and appreciation for heat gives chefs greater latitude.

    “In the old days we worried about dishes being too spicy. Now the comment is more likely to be, ‘Can I get something really hot and spicy?’” Del Grande says. “But we balance it so it’s not hot for hot’s sake. You need more shape, texture and flavor as well.”

    Small World
    When Corporate Executive Chef Jeff Moogk decided to overhaul the menu at Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza in La Jolla, Calif., his direction seemed obvious: small plates. After all, customers had been sharing pasta, pizza and salads at the 15-unit chain since its inception.

    Moogk divides each of his new menu items—offerings such as pan-fried pork dumplings with cilantro, green onions and sweet-chile sauce, and duck mini-tacos with feta cheese, tomatoes, cabbage and tomato-cilantro sauce—into portions for four, six or eight.

    This share-and-share-alike approach draws diners on multiple levels. Not only do small plates provide a variety of flavors and textures, they make it easier for guests to try new things without committing to full-sized entrées. Their flexibility appeals to diners’ sense of value as well.

    “The consumer’s appetite for new and interesting flavors and dishes has not waned ... anything an operator can do to tease the palate through small plates or other approaches that let people try multiple dishes in one seating is a trend that will continue,” says the CIA’s Erickson.

    As with any trend, however, not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Bill Paul, founder of Milford, Ohio-based consulting firm The Menu Advantage, recognizes small plates’ attraction but calls the strategy “a double-edged sword.”

    “It can be very beneficial, but in some cases it allows the guest to trade down from a larger plate at a higher profit level,” he says. “I prefer the sampling approach, where you can put several things on the same plate.”

    Kicked-Up Comfort

    Executing classic recipes is far from predictable when they include flavor-packed twists and turns.

  • The Capital Grille, multiple locations: Pan-fried calamari with garlic butter, cherry peppers, pepperoncini, pimientos and scallions; steak accompaniments include brandy-cognac cream and peppercorn sauce, Roquefort butter sauce or a sauté of cipollini onions, wild mushrooms and fig essence.
  • Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, multiple locations: Lobster tempura with red jalapeño jelly; seafood stacks with mango salsa and wasabi-lime sauce; for potatoes, three compound butters: truffle and sun-dried tomatoes, Parmesan and cracked black pepper, and blue cheese.
  • Paragon Restaurant Group, multiple locations: Blackened tuna tacos with jicama and avocado-wasabi aïoli in taro-root shells; pan-seared wild king salmon with heirloom tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, frisée and mizuna topped with opal basil oil.
  • The Ritz-Carlton Central Park, New York: Central Park Sub with prosciutto di Parma, rosette de Lyon, hot sopressota, aged provolone, roasted peppers, pickled onions, lettuce, tomatoes and spices.
  • Two Chefs, Miami: Maine lobster with avocado, cucumber, micro greens and guajillo sauce (right); Gorgonzola Cheese Soufflé.

  • Can Healthful Fare Go Full Flavor?

    The pinnacle of low-carb dieting has passed, but the shift toward better health and nutrition remains a key issue as chefs help conscientious customers realize they don’t have to sacrifice taste.

  • Reducing trans fats is a high priority for Sodexho Corporate Services, where Area Retail Director of Culinary, National Accounts Russell DeCesare experiments with options such as canola oil and swapping butter for margarine.
  • Vegan and vegetarian tasting menus, featuring items such as Peruvian purple masala dosa with curry emulsion (above), are specialties of Zealous’ Michael Taus.
  • Ken Munz, chef de cuisine at Italian spot Dominic in New York City, favors vegetable purées of broccoli and cauliflower rather than heavy sauces to complement proteins such as Atlantic skate.
  • More whole grains, legumes and Mediterranean-influenced items—such as falafel-encrusted salmon with yogurt sauce and hummus—are making their way onto Rich Vellante’s menus at Legal Sea Foods.

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