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R&IEditorial Archives2005January 1 — Food

Custom Fit
Driven by demand for more choice and healthful alternatives, trends aim to accommodate diners’ many tastes and moods.

Bold and beautiful: spring rolls (above) at Chinois in Las Vegas; a salad with Serrano ham and persimmon at Los Angeles’ A.O.C. (below); and blackened-chicken salad at Old Chicago locations across the country (bottom).

Will 2005 play as a case of culinary déj vu, with the big food trends little more than a remix of years past? Or are the industry’s chefs and operators carving a clear path through the maze of consumer messages, emerging with menus that respond to wide-ranging tastes and interests?

The coming months will dish up some of both. Last year’s big-bang topics will continue to evolve as they seep further into the dining mainstream while other developments, quietly gaining speed on the fine-dining fringes, will become more central. Net effect? Menus acknowledging that, for consumers and chefs alike, food is about sustenance, pleasure and health.

Some influences are lining up to move across all segments:

  • Health-mindedness, driven as much by baby boomers’ desire to grow old gracefully as it is by outside pressures to respond to America’s obesity issue.
  • The notion of dietary denial will continue to erode, helped along by waning interest in Atkins- and South Beach-type diets.
  • Craftsmanship and pedigree matter, as seen in growing preferences for fresh, high-quality ingredients, artisan products, organic foods and local ingredients.
  • Global and ethnic cuisines continue to shape menus, intriguing chefs and stimulating diners. Asian foods go increasingly mainstream while lesser-known lands also assert themselves.
  • “Honest” becomes a buzzword, connoting that although ethnic preparations may not be rigorously authentic in execution, they are true in spirit.
  • Small plates and shareable items allow patrons to tailor meals with a variety of tastes and sensations, and also let them replicate the family dinner-table tradition of passing plates.
  • Flavor from sauces, condiments and add-ons that guests either select or use to customize their meals at the table.
  • Meal occasions and dayparts continue to expand and blur, as consumers carry on lifestyles that demand food choices whenever, wherever and however. Snack, anyone?
  • Here’s to Your Health
    As no other generation has, aging baby boomers will hunt down longevity with whatever ammo they can find, including food choices. Health plays front and center for the long haul, shaking up kitchens and making demands on menus—think lots of salads, more alternatives to deep-frying, new approaches to fresh and smaller portions.

    “When it comes to everyday dining, you don’t want to eat two pounds of anything,” says Peter Wyss, vice president of operations for New York City-based Restaurant Associates. “People don’t finish their plates the way they used to.”

    Healthy lifestyles are not the only menu driver, however. Patrons also look at meals as fun occasions, to be enjoyed, even celebrated, as part of the fabric of family, social and cultural life. They like food and will continue to pursue the pleasures of the table, at times indulging in extravagance when the situation warrants it.

    “Dining out is still considered special—an ‘I am treating myself’ occasion—whether it is for a business lunch, a quick dinner or that ‘meal that I need,’” says Diane Symms, owner of three Lombardi’s Neighborhood Italian restaurants in the Seattle area. “For that reason, guests will think ‘healthy’ for one but not all courses. Healthy dining is becoming less talk and more action.”

    With that, consumers will look for smart choices that they can live with for the long haul.

    At Cleveland-based multiconcept operator Select Restaurants, for example, growing awareness of the relationship between food and health has led to lighter fare.

    In Baltimore, guests request Caesar salad with salmon and dressing on the side instead of salmon with a cream sauce, says Ed Prutzer, general manager of The Rusty Scupper, a Select Restaurant. “There is no doubt that this will continue because the public is being bombarded with reasons to eat healthy, starting with messages about child obesity. The public and chefs are trying to strike a balance between great flavor profiles and good nutrition and not sacrifice either.”

    “Fresh” has become a standard, one that conveys quality and, increasingly, health. Port Washington, N.Y.-based researcher The NPD Group reports in its 2004 Eating Patterns in America study that freshness is a significant motivator for a majority of diners in choosing what to eat.

    “Fresh foods are linked to health trends and our interest in living a heathy lifestyle,” says Linda Rhodes-Pauly, vice president of business development for HDS Services in Farmington Hills, Mich.

    New twists: Grilled beef tenderloin at Spago in Las Vegas (above); Goat Cheese Bruschetta with Basil Salsa Cruda, part of a new menu introduced in 2004 at the Houlihan’s chain.

    To be sure, though, one factor has not changed. “People are not willing to sacrifice taste and flavor for healthy,” says John Kaufman, owner of Twin Palms in Pasadena, Calif.

    Small Changes
    Tapas—small plates that originated as bar food in Spain—have paved the way for a new way of dining, as practiced at such concepts as A.O.C. in Los Angeles, Avec in Chicago, Martine in Salt Lake City and One Midtown Kitchen in Atlanta. Inspired by the casual food of the Mediterranean, these hotspots serve small portions of simple dishes with complex flavors.

    Late last fall, Rick Tramonto, in conjunction with Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, opened Osteria Via Stato—part wine bar, part casual prix-fixe dining. The wine bar offers small plates such as fresh mozzarella with Calabrian chiles, short-rib crostini and a salumi plate.

    “It’s about taste sensations,” says Tramonto, chef-partner of Tru, also in Chicago. “It’s much more exciting to get a lot of stimulation from the flavors of many plates than a lot of bites from one dish.”

    Such small plates open up big opportunities as restaurants offer their own brands of petite portions, typically signature items or classics such as macaroni and cheese or meatloaf in tasting, appetizer or half servings.

    “The driving force appears to be the incredible appetite guests have for a variety of tastes and flavors,” says Roland Henin, corporate chef for the parks and resorts division of contractor Delaware North Companies, based in Buffalo, N.Y. “They aren’t satisfied with just a great-tasting dish. They want several flavors and textures in one meal.”

    Globetrotting Tastes
    Expect Asian and Latin American cuisine to continue as the most sought-after flavor profiles. “China’s ongoing emergence in the global economy continues to play a part in our interest in things Asian,” says Rhodes-Pauly. “The twist will be incorporating more fresh foods and unusual fruits and vegetables.”

    Assimilation of ethnic ingredients into American dishes will continue. “I see new spices incorporated into old favorites, such as adding curry to pot pie,” says Elizabeth Stone, founder of The Stone Kitchen Catering and Special Events in Houston.

    Immersed in books, travel and online resources, diners have grown knowledgeable about food. They also want to be privy to product origins, says David Robins, corporate chef and managing partner of the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group in Las Vegas. Knowing that the produce on their plate comes from a certain farm or that the fish from a particular body of water communicates freshness, quality and comfort, he says.

    Fresh and seasonal: Stone crab claws at Restaurant Associates’ Tropica in New York City.

    “Being in Las Vegas and getting customers from around the world, we have started to use this information on menus,” Robins says.

    At Lombardi’s Neighborhood Italian restaurants, Symms has added cuts of natural beef and organic chicken, noting that their higher menu prices have not hurt sales.

    Whether right or wrong, branded ingredients connote quality and goodness, according to many operators who add such descriptors to menus. “We will look for more ‘branded’ items to incorporate into our menu, such as beef, free-range chicken and certain types of artisan cheeses,” says Marilyn Davenport, director of marketing for Louisville, Colo.-based Rock Bottom Restaurants. “While core menu items continue to be strong, we recognize the importance of giving guests choices based on their dietary needs and more-sophisticated palates.”

    • Serrano Ham With Persimmon, Almonds and Parmesan
    • Pavo Pavo Quesadillas
    • Pan-Roasted Veal Chop With Gouda and Corn Ragot
    • Mangalore Fried Shrimp
    • Thai Pork Ribs With Panang Curry Sauce

    Heard on the Street

  • “Families want to eat at restaurants that reflect their community and that feel like a ‘home away from home.’ Consumers are looking for atmosphere as well as a menu that is inviting for parents and children alike.” —Nick Vojnovic, chief operating officer, Beef O’Brady’s, Tampa, Fla.
  • “There definitely appears to be growing interest in lighter dining. At Darden Restaurants, we continue to offer a number of choices on menus at Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze and Smokey Bones.” —Blaine Sweatt, president, Darden Restaurants’ New Business Division, Orlando
  • “Seniors have more-sophisticated tastes from travel experiences. They want pilafs with jasmine rice, Indian curry, flavored coffees and teas. Chefs are getting more aggressive and creative with ethnic-specific herbs and spices.” —Don Paul, food and beverage director, Friendship Village, Dublin, Ohio
  • “In 2005, there will be a growing demand for mainstream quality combined with value. You will see casual-dining chains walking the fine line of tapping new trends without abandoning their heritage.” —Bob Hartnett, chief executive officer, Houlihan’s Restaurants, Leawood, Kan.
  • “We’ll have more grab-and-go options for time-pressed customers, such as chicken panini and packaged entrée salads, and more hot grilled items instead of hot ntrées.” —Linda Lafferty, director of food and nutrition services, Rush-Presbyterian-St. Lukes Medical Center, Chicago
  • “I hope the trend will be that people eat better, not necessarily less but balanced and more moderate.” —Rick Tramonto, chef-owner, Tru, Chicago

  • Hot List

    What’s in store for the new year and beyond?

  • Raw fish presented in non-Asian ways
  • Ordering sensible entrées and splurging on dessert
  • Renewed interest in the high-carb foods banned by Atkins, including potatoes, bread and pasta
  • Artisan cocktails—ingredients from the kitchen cross to the bar: green apple-ginger martini or vodka with pomegranate juice, black pepper and balsamic vinegar
  • Salsas made of exotic fruits such as persimmon, guava and cherimoya
  • Big splurges such as foie gras, truffles and confits
  • Cola drinks
  • Grains, grains and more grains
  • Asian vegetables such as choy sum, long beans and Chinese chives, but also basic American root-cellar staples—parsnips, Brussels sprouts and winter squash
  • Indian foods and spicing
  • More co-branded locations
  • Ethnic ingredients that pack a punch— miso, fresh wasabi, sumac, cardamom and hot chiles, used both authentically and cross-culturally
  • Food plated so it’s homey and approachable, not towering
  • Connecting (business or personal) via the power breakfast or lunch
  • Domestic cheese, especially artisan varieties
  • Braising and wood-fire cooking
  • Specialty meats, such as American Kobe beef and Kuruboto pork
  • Pairing dishes with wine on the menu
  • Locally sourced ingredients
  • Untraditional flavor combinations
  • Cured meats and sausages
  • Laura Yee is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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