I always approach the aisles of the National Restaurant Show with a plan: hit my favorite coffee places first for a cup of extra-bold java or a latte, then snack on samples of bacon, cheese and bread so I can have “breakfast” before the big graze begins. This year started out the same, as I walked the floor at Chicago’s massive McCormick Place, but I soon got caught up in a feeding frenzy, elbowed by the thousands of attendees all vying to taste the latest and greatest of 2011. Flatbreads, gelato, iced tea, frozen yogurt, gluten-free products and Asian foods were in abundance, along with some new finds. Taste buds numb and a few extra pounds heavier, here’s what stood out.
Best coffee: There’s a machine hissing out foamy espressos on almost every aisle, but I’m partial to Royal Cup’s dark brews. The Sumatra hit the spot. Community Coffee, a newcomer to the show, also had a deliciously dark French roast.
Best gelato: Who would have thought that a company named PreGel would have such good gelato and sorbetto? It came pumped out of a soft-serve machine so the texture was great; I tried the mascarpone and it was creamy and luscious. Other flavors came all dressed up on a stick.
Favorite frozen yogurt: Honey Hill Farms had a bunch of flavors, but I’m a purist and their California Tart was just perfect. But I couldn’t resist trying Cupcake too, so I topped by cup off with a swirl—it tasted just like red velvet cake.
Longest lines: As usual, hot dog kings Nathan’s and Chicago Dog had lots of fans queued up for freebies, but Dietz & Watson beat them by a nose. The booth handed out regulation-size deli sandwiches—not tiny nibbles—filled with quality Angus roast beef, roast turkey and artisan cheeses.
Most refreshing beverage: Zobo Ginger Hibiscus. It really was time to cleanse my palate, and this did the trick. The all-natural drink made its debut at this year’s NRA and is sure to make a splash.
Best packaging idea: Cedar Bay Planked Atlantic Salmon. The individual fillets of salmon are seasoned, placed on a plank of wood and packaged for foodservice, ready to grill or cook in the oven. Restaurants can then serve the salmon on the plank for an impressive presentation.
Most comforting dessert: Michigan 4-berry Pie from Achatz Handmade Pie Co. Crust was flaky and homemade-tasting; filling was just the right sweetness. The combo was perfection. Yes, this company is run by Grant Achatz’s relatives—his cousins to be exact.
Most convenient: Burger Blue Cheese from Plumful Foods. Packaged in just-right-size slices to plop on top of a burger for on-trend cheeseburgers.
Tastiest iced tea: B.W. Cooper has a blend of pomegranate and green tea that really quenched my thirst after some salty snacks that will remain unnamed. It’s lightly sweetened with cane juice.
Most variety: McCormick for Chefs. Using all their brands—Lawry’s, Zatarain’s and McCormick—the chefs did recipe demos on everything from Cinnamon Chipotle Rubbed Tenderloin Sliders to Seafood Dirty Rice, Old Bay Shrimp with remoulade and Green Curry Coconut and Chicken Soup.
Most authentic baked good: Lantmannnen is a European company that makes pre-proofed croissants, Danish and other pastries that bake up and taste like the real thing. The buttery layers of flaky dough melt in your mouth.
Happiest crowd: Coca Cola’s booth, where attendees could create a custom soft drink with Coke’s Freestyle machine. You get over 100 choices I chugged down a “creamsicle”—Diet Coke mixed with Orange Coke and Vanilla Coke—terrific!
Most surprising: Smoked olive oil in three variations: Napa, Sonoma and Sante Fe (with a slight kick). The subtle smokiness was enticing and not at all overpowering. The parent company, The Smoked Olive, useds crushed California olives for its flavorful oils and has a patent pending for the smoking process.
Biggest portions: Baily International, makers of dim sum, spring rolls, noodles and other Asian ingredients and ready-made dishes, was handing out plates loaded with food. Enough for lunch!
Most unexpected: Microgreens are not new but except for the herbs, it's tough to differentiate one from another. Popcorn shoots are another story. One bite and you get the flavor of everyone's favorite movie munch—only in a fresher, prettier, healthier form.
Most talked about: Adult Chocolate Milk. The boozy drink, served on the rocks in the Wine, Spirits & Beer Pavilion, created quite a buzz. But it tasted a lot like Bailey’s Irish Cream on ice—not that buzzworthy.
Best flatbread: Kontos hand-stretched flatbread could have been sold in a Middle Eastern bazaar. It was thin and flexible with a pleasantly yeasty flavor—and versatile enough for pizzas, wraps and dipping.
Smartest healthy effort: Blount soups reduced the sodium and fat in its top sellers, but I sure didn’t notice the difference. They were packed with flavor and goodness. The natural Chicken and Wild Rice was my fave.
Most attention-getting: Magic Pop attracted hordes of attendees to its booth with a machine that popped out crispy rounds that weighed in at only 20 calories apiece. People waited in awe for the next disc to come tumbling down. They looked like bigger, thinner rice cakes but tasted a lot better. Can work as a base for salads, pizzas, etc.
Best import: Magners Pear Cider from Ireland. It had a clean, fresh taste and just the right balance of alcohol and fruit.
Tackiest: Molten orange cheese that came squirting out of a nozzle. Maybe the nacho crowd will crave it, but it was a hard sell for me.
Best Grab-and-Go: Kru vodka. It's sold in stainless steel bottles ranging in size from single-serve to crowdpleasing for spirited imbibing wherever and whenever. And it doesn't skimp on quality.
Food truck standout: By now, seeing food trucks at a trade show devoted to foodservice is not newsy. But a pizza truck equipped with a genuine woodburning brick oven is taking the trend to the next level.