For 15 years, my culinary R&D team has conducted annual on-site research trips to new restaurants in the three major trend-driving cities of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. While many of the nation’s smaller cities have burgeoning food scenes and sometimes achieve “best restaurant town” status on media lists, none offer the breadth and variety of new restaurant openings each year as do the “Big Three.”
As with previous years, our list of potential restaurants exceeded 400, allowing us to select the top 120 based on a thorough study of each venue’s website. This year’s research included visits to 107 restaurants, where we tasted 1,197 dishes.
As in past years’ research, the practice of tasting our way across the menus of these restaurants has enabled us to accurately track the evolution of foods and flavors, and to identify a number of innovative menu opportunities in their early stages.
La Vida ’Oca
Perhaps the most exciting discovery of our latest research was Brazilian tapioca pancakes, a traditional South American street food made with tapioca flour (dried and milled yuca root) filled with savory and sweet fillings.
New Yorkers are getting their first taste of this Brazilian treat, as three restaurants specializing in tapiocas have opened there in the past year. And while each uses the same basic technique for preparing the pancakes, clear menu differentiation was evident via a wide variety of flavor and ingredient combinations.
At its most basic, the pancake is prepared by combining tapioca flour and water. Rather than creating a liquid batter, however, the two are mixed into coarse granules, which are sifted into a hot pan using a wire strainer. When the granules hit the pan, they quickly coalesce, and, with a small amount of shaping using a pastry brush, form a pancake.
This technique might seem a bit strange at first, but it is actually quite straightforward and not terribly difficult to master. A total cook time of just a couple of minutes is also a plus.
The tapiocas served at Galeria are prepared using the basic flour and water mixture, then filled with authentic Brazilian ingredients, such as dried beef and requeijão cheese, and a sweet version featuring chocolate brigadeiro (bon bon-like delicacy) and fresh strawberries. More familiar profiles are showcased here, too, from a BLT to a smoked salmon and cream cheese version.
The first U.S. unit of Brazilian chain Market Ipanema broadens variety by infusing its base mixture with ingredients that add exciting flavors and eye-catching colors to the tapiocas. Its Chicken, Parmesan and Basil Pesto Tapioca features a pancake flavored with beet purée, producing a vibrant red shell. Spinach purée is used to similar effect in the bright green Avocado, Cashew Cream and Roasted Tomato Tapioca. And sweet tapiocas are filled with ingredients such as shaved coconut, banana and homemade jam, served in an attractive pink pancake infused with blackberry purée.
Restaurant Oca serves the most sophisticated tapiocas, with fillings such as Prosciutto di Parma with Dates and Mozzarella di Bufala, and Salmon with Cashew Nut Cream, Wasabi and Pepitas. And its Egg N’Oca, filled with scrambled eggs, dried tomato and basil, features a pancake that starts with shaved Parmesan in the pan, which creates a crunchy cheese crust on the outside of the tapioca.
MENU READY: Delicious and Healthy Handhelds
Restaurants that serve the Brazilian tapioca typically call it a crêpe, but we choose to call it a pancake, and for a specific reason. We believe the opportunity for the tapioca to reach mainstream popularity in the United States lies in its potential as a new and unique handheld.
However, if the tapioca is too thin, it has a tendency to crack and even break apart. So, during development in our test kitchens, we created a version that is marginally thicker, approaching that of a pancake, which greatly increased its ability to carry ingredients while retaining the basic look and texture of the original.
Do a two-step: To facilitate volume production, our development also included the creation of a two-step process for making the base mixture: The tapioca flour and water are mixed and sifted through a large-mesh wire strainer, which results in a coarse blend that needs an additional sift at preparation time. This mixture, however, can be refrigerated for several days so that it is always at the ready.
Prepare in advance: While the restaurants we visited strictly prepared their tapiocas to order, the pancakes created in our test kitchens were cooled and stored between layers of plastic film, enabling batch preparation. The pancakes simply need a quick heating in a pan at service time to re-crisp the exterior.
A fit for all segments: Ideally, the Brazilian tapioca may be marketed as a new and unique menu item. But it is also gluten-free, low in calories and fat-free, so it certainly would be at home in commercial operations featuring healthier fare, as well as the college and university and healthcare segments.
A single inventory add: The tapioca can also be a cost-effective menu addition from an inventory standpoint, as tapioca flour is the only ingredient needed to create the pancake. A host of variations may be ideated using items that are already in-house.
Veg-Centric: Year Three
While the normal M.O. in trend tracking involves identifying an opportunity, reporting on it and then moving on, we are again citing vegetable-centric cooking as having strong sales-building potential for operators across the country.
Veg-centric is a macro-trend that will continue to influence commercial menus well into the future, and our most recent research revealed another surge in momentum as chefs increasingly experiment with vegetables as center-of-the-plate ingredients, and dining consumers enthusiastically follow their lead.
There are two primary aspects to the evolution of this trend. First is the judicious inclusion of boldly flavored, umami-rich meat and seafood proteins in the dish, which could be a sprinkling of sausage crumbles, shavings of country ham or dollops of fish roe. These ingredients provide a huge new flavor arsenal for chefs to ply, but result in dishes that are not vegetarian. The upside is that veg-centric dishes appeal to the vast majority of diners who do not adhere to a meatless diet. It is now apparent that having vegetables and meat in a dish is no longer an either/or proposition, and dining consumers are proving that they will order more vegetable-based dishes in restaurants if they possess increased levels of craveability.
Second is the strategy of eliminating the category of “Side Dishes,” which is usually relegated to the bottom of the menu and treated as an afterthought. In its place is a carefully executed category of “Vegetables,” placed directly in the center of the menu or, in a few cases, at the top. These offerings are not side dishes, but rather composed plates with the same levels of flavor and complexity as the meat, poultry and seafood-based items on the menu. We saw this repeatedly in all three cities, including at the meat-centric Cannibal Beer and Butcher in Los Angeles, on the new menu at Chef Marco Canora’s East Village stalwart Hearth in New York, and the new steakhouse concept GT Prime in Chicago.
MENU READY: The Steady Rise of Veg-Centric
In our research, new restaurants featuring veg-centric dishes numbered in the dozens—far too many to call out here. Here is an overview of our latest findings:
Bagna cauda is the protein “add” of the moment: First brushed onto Wood-Grilled Radicchio eight years ago by veg-centric leader Chef Travis Lett at Gjelina in Los Angeles, the classic Italian dip comprised of olive oil, garlic and anchovy paste is now providing an umami blast to dishes on new menus across the country, including the Roasted Zucchini with Bagna Cauda, Calabrian Chile and Pecorina at Chicago’s Monteverde, Grilled Lettuces with Bagna Cauda Bread Crumbs at Manuela in Los Angeles, and Warm Beets with Bagna Cauda and Chervil at Momofuku Nishi in New York.
Protein “adds” expand: The list of boldly flavored proteins used in veg-centric dishes now includes lardo, crispy Iberico and country ham bits, bonito flakes, lap cheong (Chinese sausage), soppressata, crispy chicken skin, Spam, and a host of liquid proteins including XO sauce, dashi, beef jus lié and bone broths.
New vegetable stars emerge: Maitake mushrooms and sunchokes have broken out on new menus in a big way. Whole heads of maitake are being oven-roasted, wood-grilled and even deep-fried to a crispy crunch. Braised and stewed maitake are being served on toast, over creamy or crispy polenta, or topped with rich cheeses such as burrata and Brie. Sunchokes are everywhere, most often simply scrubbed, quartered and oven-roasted, and tossed with a vinaigrette, brown butter or cream sauce.
With its rich, fragrant spices, comforting curries and craveable breads, it is unclear why Indian cuisine has not experienced greater acceptance by mainstream American diners. Every city has its Indian restaurants, but they largely remain in a niche that hasn’t shown significant growth. One possible answer may be that, for many dining consumers, authentic Indian cooking is simply too authentic.
If such is the case, three new restaurants in New York may provide clues to increasing the popularity of Indian cuisine by embracing the macro-trend of mashing up global flavors.
At Indian Accent, Chef Manish Mehrotra has created a menu that intentionally blends classic Indian flavors with global ingredients. His pumpkin soup is redolent with cardamom and ginger, but finished with a generous amount of blue cheese. Black Pepper Pork Mini Sliders feature soft, American-style buns. Baby back ribs are served spoon-tender, coated in sun-dried mango glaze. And his Kulchas—stuffed dough pockets similar in appearance to empanadas—contain a variety of nontraditional fillings, including hoisin duck and shredded pastrami.
Dining consumers should find the mash-ups at Pondicheri—the New York outpost of Chef Anita Jaisinghani’s popular Houston restaurant—particularly accessible, as they are primarily a cross of Indian and American casual fare. The menu features Indian flavors woven into many American favorites, such as Masala Chicken Wings, marinated in yogurt and masala spice and fried in a chickpea batter.
The broad offering of tossed salads, based on a blend of arugula and baby spinach, combine mainstream ingredients such as roasted beets, goat cheese, blueberries and pumpkin seeds with the Indian flavors of tandoori chicken, tamarind chutney, crispy “channa” chickpeas and jaggery lime dressing.
Bun Kebabs are Chef Jaisinghani’s take on a “roadside sandwich,” featuring grilled lamb or paneer cheese tucked inside a traditional brioche bun. The menu of bar snacks features Crudités served with a Chutney Dip, and Desi Fries—housemade curly fries dusted with chickpea flour and chaat masala. These offerings deftly meld new flavors with the familiar.
Certainly the most daring and inspired mash-ups are found at Tapestry, where Chef Suvir Saran applies Indian flavors to an eclectic array of global dishes. Here, the Italian bar snack Arancini is flavored with coconut and cashews and served in a pool of green curry. The Parmigiano Lamb Burger is topped with bone marrow butter and Brie, as well as mango chutney and Indian kachumber salad. Steak au Poivre is crusted with cracked Indian Tellicherry peppercorns, accompanied by a vegetable “baklava” and Cognac jus.
Chef Saran also riffs on classic Latin cuisine with his Indio Posole, a stew of tender pork and hominy simmered with ground chiles and finished with saffron and tomato chutney. There is even a taco on the menu, served in a housemade flatbread that is equal parts roti and tortilla, filled with pulled pork, grilled pineapple pico de gallo, avocado and pickled cabbage, and adorned with crispy shards of fried ginger.
Just as the Kogi Taco introduced legions of diners to the flavors of Korean cooking, these mash-ups may prove to be gateway dishes that expose a larger dining audience to the pleasures of Indian flavors, and bring the cuisine that much closer to the mainstream.
Meat and Three, Yankee-Style
Yet another mash-up of sorts is occurring in Chicago and New York, with the opening of several concepts that put a contemporary twist on the traditional “meat-and-three” restaurants of the American South.
Meat and threes give dining guests the choice of one entrée along with three side dishes, from a menu that usually offers six to eight main dishes and up to a dozen sides. The cuisine is classic Southern homestyle comfort food. Typical entrées might include fried chicken, meatloaf, country-fried steak and roast ham, with sides such as green beans, corn, potato salad and macaroni and cheese. These restaurants provided their guests with high levels of variety and customizability nearly a century before the first Chipotle.
Now the idea is making its way north, as operators recognize the opportunity to create differentiation with their own version of a meat and three, and with each taking a slightly different approach to adapting the concept to their market. One commonality they share, however, is uniformly well-prepared and delicious cuisine.
The menu at Mr. Donahue’s is limited to five mains and a dozen sides, with classic offerings that are tweaked to maximize appeal to its Manhattanite clientele. Here, the chicken is from a rotisserie rather than a fryer, the trout steak is grilled, meatballs are made with turkey, and the meatloaf is dry aged. Chicken-Fried Pork Cheeks offer guests a truly indulgent option. The side dish of Mac ’n Cheese is completely traditional, while most others are slightly upscaled. Pickled Beets are sprinkled with goat cheese, Braised Greens are tossed with olive oil and lemon bread crumbs, and the Roasted Squash is topped with rosemary meringue.
Harold’s Meat + Three in New York’s Hudson Square is a sprawling space with an equally large menu that is evenly divided between classic Southern and contemporary American fare. More than two dozen entrées are offered. The daily specials that include Smothered Pork Chops, Fried Fish, Ham Steak and Meatloaf are straightforward meat-and-three staples, and the menu includes the requisite Fried Chicken, Beef Pot Pie and Country-Fried Steak. Likewise, traditional sides include grits, potato salad, peas and carrots, and green beans. But from there the menu exits the South and does not look back, with main dishes such as Grilled Salmon Bordelaise, Filet au Poivre, Whole Branzino with Citrus Vinaigrette, Curried Lamb Shank, and sides that include Baked Artichoke Heart, Crushed Cauliflower, Sliced Avocado and Quinoa Salad.
Saint Lou’s Assembly in Chicago limits its menu to five mains and eight sides, with little Southern influence evident in main dishes that include an Indian mash-up of Roasted Chicken in Tikka Masala Sauce, a tender Duck Confit, Seared Diver Scallops and Grilled Skirt Steak. The housemade Grilled Tasso Ham is the lone dish with meat-and-three roots, as is the side of Mac ’n Cheese, which is offered alongside Brown Butter Sunchokes, Smashed Yuca, Red Curry Lentils, and Roast Shiitakes and Turnips.
So, whether a Southern theme is carried through or not, these Northern meat and threes are presenting a unique menu proposition in their markets, serving inspired versions of craveable American comfort fare in a format that satisfies consumer demand for greater choice and customizability.
’Nduja: a Hot Commodity
Our research routinely uncovers ingredients that make their appearance on multiple new menus simultaneously, and right now the most prevalent of these is ’nduja, the intensely flavored spreadable salami from the Calabrian region of Italy.
’Nduja has become a go-to flavor booster for chefs. The main attraction is its extreme versatility and ability to enhance the flavor of dishes throughout the menu parts. That said, it is our hunch that a significant part of the growth in these menu incidences is the result of chefs approximating their own versions of ’nduja in their kitchens.
And we see no problem with that. Authentic ’nduja is so powerfully spiced that it is usually used as a component in a dish rather than eaten on its own. It is also an extremely costly artisan product.
One U.S. company produces what it calls “’Nduja Americana,” made from smoked prosciutto and chiles that are puréed together, and its flavor and texture is somewhat similar to the real thing. This product is also quite expensive, which is why we speculate that some of the versions we tasted in our research, all of them delicious, were housemade using similar ingredients.
Shareable plates of ’nduja spread, served with toasted or grilled bread, were an easy find. The ’Nduja Spread at Roberta’s in Brooklyn, N.Y., is served simply garnished with just a drizzle of olive oil, while brewpub Forbidden Root in Chicago dresses its version with pickled mustard seed, chives and a few dabs of honey. The menu also features an “NBLT,” a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich enlivened with herbed mayo and a generous slather of ’nduja.
Several restaurants served dishes dressed with ’nduja vinaigrette. At Brooklyn’s Sauvage, sunchokes are oven-roasted, tossed in the spicy dressing and garnished with shreds of mint. Roberta’s served an astounding plate of sweet onion that is cut and sectioned to form small cups. The sweet onion cups are then poached in white wine and chilled, dotted with halved gooseberries and filled with ’nduja vinaigrette.
At Italian newcomer Monteverde in Chicago, Chef Sarah Grueneberg blends the sausage into the risotto she uses for her ’Nduja Arancini, crispy fritters laced with tomato and served in a pool of creamy olive oil-poached tuna purée.
’Nduja may also be pan-fried to create crispy nuggets or granules. The Duck Egg Toast at all-day café Winsome in Los Angeles features a thick slice of sourdough topped with melted raclette, crispy bits of ’nduja and a sunny-side egg.
MENU READY: Quite the Spread
The vast creative uses for ’nduja enable chefs to add flavorful sizzle across the menu.
Burgers: Add a spicy punch that doesn’t overwhelm to thick burger patties by modestly studding them with pinches of ’nduja.
Spreads & butters: Purée ’nduja with mayonnaise to create a flavorful sandwich spread, or with softened butter for an accompaniment to grilled breads, rolls and biscuits.
Pizzas & flatbreads: Spread a thin layer across a prepared crust as a flavor-enhancing base, or pinch small pieces for use as a topping.
Pasta dishes: Add a small amount to your red sauce while simmering for a piquant “fra diavolo” effect. Switch crispy bits of ’nduja for bacon in your carbonara.
A second installment of this report will appear in the September/October 2017 issue of Flavor & The Menu.