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50 Great Ideas 2008: 21-30

21. Burgers get vertical

Todd Winer, executive chef of Met Bar and Grill in Natick, Massachusetts, was frustrated with the typical method of grilling a hamburger. “You never get an even sear or an even temperature,” he says. But rather than just gripe, Winer was driven to create what he contends is the ultimate way to cook a burger: a vertical grill. He uses a stainless steel custom grill basket to flatten a 6.5-ounce meatball into a perfect circle, then inserts the grill basket vertically into a custom-fabricated stainless steel box. Inside, two columns of gas flames sear the meat to perfection. The kitchen can now cook 32 burgers at once (they use four grill baskets, each holding eight patties) in 8 minutes. “That’s something crazy like 164 burgers an hour,” Winer says.

22. Adults only ice cream
You’ve got to be 21 to buy a scoop of Mercer’s ice cream. Not only is this frosty treat 12 percent butterfat, it’s also 5 percent alcohol—the result of a marriage between New York wines and the state’s dairy farmers, with help from the New York State Wine & Grape Foundation. “We were pouring wines over ice cream and people said, ‘Gosh, this tastes really good,’” says Roxaina Hurlburt, a partner of Mercer’s Dairy. So the dairy began blending wine into vanilla ice cream to create this decadent dessert. Packed in pints, five-quart and three-gallon containers, Mercer’s Wine Ice Cream comes in such vinous flavors as Ala Port, Peach Wine Zinfandel and Red Raspberry Chardonnay.

23. Say less, sell more
While many chefs load menus with descriptors, Martial Noguier, executive chef of Chicago’s 160 Blue, keeps it simple. “Monkfish. Truffle. Corn. Boom!” says Noguier. “That’s all I want it to say.” By paring down descriptions, Noguier forces his customers to go to their servers for details. When the server works closely with the guest, says Noguier, that builds trust, and trust translates into a tendency to order whatever the server suggests. Of course there’s more training involved, but Noguier swears it’s worth it.

24. If food could talk
Hugo Liu wants to change the way people think about food. But unlike most foodies, Liu is an expert in computational linguistics. Working at MIT’s Media Lab, he created “The Synesthetic Cookbook.” The database includes 60,000 recipes that are tagged with 5,000 keywords for ingredients and 1,000 descriptions, which include both culinary descriptors—spicy, sweet, etc.—and more abstract words such as comforting, melodic and pensive. Plug a few of those words into the database and you’ve got yourself a recipe for Sad Oatmeal (various spirits, plus wine, soda and, presumably, oats) or Poetic Pizza (a crustless pie). Looking for something Caribbean-ish? The search function just might concoct your next nightly special. 

25. Mom, can I have a double?
When the Dallas-based Boston’s The Gourmet Pizza redesigned its menu, executives paid special attention to the children’s section—and to beverages in particular. “We’ve always had kids’ specialty drinks, but they weren’t anything unique and they weren’t changing with kids’ taste profiles,” says Bill Hancox, vice president of foodservices. That’s not the case with the chain’s new Sour Apple Soda and Strawberry Melonade—both made in-house from a vendor’s syrups and fizzy water. Among the kids’ drinks at Boston’s, milk is tops, but specialty drinks are neck-and-neck with branded carbonated soft drinks.

26. Flooring tops the tables
From composting food scraps to using reclaimed barn wood as siding, Townline BBQ in Sagaponack, New York, is on a green mission. To create tabletops, architect Cass Smith turned to flooring. He bought rolls of an eco-friendly linoleum product called Marmoleum, glued it to thick slabs of plywood and weighted it down to tame the natural curl. Not only is the material renewable and “cool” looking, says Townline partner Christy Cober, it’s durable. “Since [it’s] a flooring product, it can take a lot of beatings and repeated cleanings.” 

27. How’s this for a custom menu?
You know how it is—the customer with a food allergy asks for wheat-free breading on his shrimp and the picky eater wants the pasta sauce without garlic. While most restaurants accommodate customization when possible, Rockfish Seafood Grill encourages it. The Richardson, Texas-based casual concept features a “Be the Chef” section, where diners create a meal. There are eight fish selections, like Lake Victoria Perch and Alaskan Flounder; six sauces, including ancho cream, maple glaze, fresh tomatillo salsa and roasted red pepper; eight sides, such as creamed corn and apple cider slaw; and several healthier cooking preps. “We want guests to be in the driver’s seat, whether that’s eating low calorie, avoiding gluten or simply enjoying a tasty favorite,” notes marketing director Aaron Horton. Since its launch in August, Be the Chef sales are up almost 48 percent.

28. The weight of wine glass
Sens Restaurant in San Francisco is taking recycling to the next level. Tables at the recently opened restaurant sport water glasses made from trimmed-down wine bottles. Although the glasses cost more initially, it’s worth the commitment to the environment, says general manager and sommelier Saeed Amini. But there’s a bonus, he notes: “Since the bottle glass is thicker, they don’t break as easily and are actually more cost effective than conventional tumblers.” The recycled glassware fits in with Amini’s green philosophy: Sens cocktails are mixed with organic spirits and the wine list promotes organic and biodynamic viticulture. “Even when you’re drinking, you can help the future,” he says. Customer response has been positive. “They want to know where they can buy them.” Answer: Amini gets the glasses from Wisconsin-based Green Glass Company.

29. Less caffeine, more flavor
The decaffeination process often removes some of a coffee bean’s flavor. But Daterra Coffee out of Brazil may have an answer: Arabica beans grown to be lower in caffeine. Daterra’s Linda Smithers says typical Arabica beans are 1.2 to 1.9 percent caffeine. But Opus 1 Exotic, which took 12 years to develop, comes in at 0.849 percent. Production last year was just 2,662 pounds. “This is the perfect after-dinner coffee,” Smithers says.

30. Play with your dessert
Pastry chef Boris Portnoy makes playful desserts that stimulate guest interaction—but he likes to maintain some control over the experience. Those two objectives merged perfectly in a dessert called “Destiny” that he put on the menu at Campton Place in San Francisco. Portnoy created a paper fortuneteller—the kind kids make and put on their fingers, opening one way then the other—and printed ingredients and techniques on its panels; diners manipulated the folds to come up with combinations, such as berries and chocolate. “Although there were many different possibilities, I purposely arranged ingredients in pairs. No matter what a guest landed on, it would be compatible,” Portnoy explains. And the pastry chef himself had the final word. “The last component was left up to me.” 

50 Great Ideas 2008: 1-10   |  11-20   |  21-30   |  31-40   |  41-50

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