Over 100 foodservice operators kicked off the 2018 National Restaurant Association Show with a Saturday morning dine-around that encompassed several of Chicago’s hottest new restaurants. The Taste the Trends tour, hosted by FoodService Director magazine and Basic American Foods, provided plenty of actionable ideas for participants to bring back to their operations. Here are some of the top trends spotted on this year’s tasting tour.
1. Boozeless drinks get crafty
Bartenders showed off their skills crafting nonalcoholic drinks. At Punch Bowl Social in Chicago’s West Loop, the 12th location of this eatertainment concept, the brand goes beyond lemonades and infused sparkling waters to appeal to teetotalers. Tour participants were greeted with a handcrafted mocktail featuring housemade strawberry syrup, fresh squeezed lime juice and aloe vera juice, garnished with fresh strawberries. At Gideon Sweet, a new restaurant from celeb chef Graham Elliott and business partner Matthias Merges, the mocktail of the day was a housemade rhubarb and mandarin soda, while Sushi-San, a new Japanese restaurant from Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, offered up a housemade soda made with pomegranate shrub.
2. Out-of-the-box presentation
At Sushi-San, guests could also opt for something stronger—a blend of several rums with a hint of curry. The unique drink was trumped by an even more unique presentation that tied into the restaurant’s Asian theme, as the cocktail was served in a Chinese takeout container accompanied by two chopstick-like straws for sipping. Presentation also ruled at Gideon Sweet, where a bone marrow croquette was served in a hollowed out bone with crab aioli and bonito flakes. And at Marchesa, a more formal restaurant with a European menu, chef Mark Sabbe’s one-bite version of Coquilles St. Jacques was served in a tiny scallop shell.
3. Differing flavors and textures
At HaiSous, a modern Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, several contrasting flavors mingle in one dish in perfect balance. The restaurant’s signature papaya salad exemplifies this best, combining strands of green papaya with housemade beef jerky and Thai chilies. Gideon Sweet played up contrasts as well with its creamy potato ramp soup garnished with a crunchy granola made with minced olives and almonds.
4. Fin-to-collar prep
Chef Kaze Chan of Sushi-San wowed operators with his fresh tuna demo, explaining the four sections of the fish. Just like a pig or a chicken, each of the tuna’s “cuts” has a different texture and richness—from the cheeks to the loin. The fattier the meat, the more expensive the sushi. Using a half bluefin tuna to demonstrate (with a stuffed tuna toy as a backup), chef Chan showed how he must quickly and carefully cut each of the four sections, as oxidation causes the tuna to change color every minute and one slip of the knife costs dearly. An important takeaway for operators serving sushi: the tuna is better tasting if it’s aged a couple of days rather than prepared fresh from sea to table.
5. Personalizing the space as well as the menu
Each restaurant on the tour boasts design elements that reflect the concept. Marchesa’s old- world charm was evident not only in the dining room, where the menu focuses on Italian, Spanish and French dishes, but in the downstairs bar and wine cave, carved out of a former speakeasy and filled with romantic flourishes.
Twenty-five-thousand-square-foot Punch Bowl Social has a retro diner vibe, with booths and kitschy accessories, while Gideon Sweet’s white brick walls are adorned with abstract murals to mirror its arty small-plates menu. HaiSous and Sushi-San are both sleek and contemporary in design with open kitchens and chefs’ counters, highlighting that the technique and preparation is as important to the dining experience at these spots as the finished dish.