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5 takeaways from the Chicago dining scene

NRA Show Taste the Trends food dish

The National Restaurant Association’s annual show started yesterday for about 100 foodservice operators with a dine-around tour of new hotspots on the Chicago restaurant scene.  Included in the Taste the Trends tour were destinations less than a year old that exemplified trends attendees could replicate in their own foodservice operations, which ranged from fast-casual restaurants to college dining halls.

Here are five ideas that came to light during the tour.

1. Pickled accompaniments can reflect your concept

RPM Steak, a steakhouse, and Ramen-san, a Tokyo-style ramen house, both operated by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, offer pickles to enhance a dish and reinforce the cuisine. At RPM, the 48-ounce porterhouse, meant to be shared, comes with sautéed pickled cherry peppers and the server instructs diners to eat them together. Ramen-san serves a side of spicy kimchee to stir into its steaming bowls of ramen—a move that ramps up the flavor.

2. Repurpose ingredients before they lose freshness

The best margaritas are made with freshly squeezed lime juice, but it only retains its freshness for about 12 hours. So at Bar Takito, the kitchen dehydrates lime juice after that point, mixes it with chopped chilies and combines it with coarse salt to rim their margarita glasses.

3. That '70s Show

There’s a lot of nostalgia for 1970s-style food, but not the mundane stuff that came out of a box. The Brass Monkey, a retro brasserie, serves favorites such as fish sticks, meatloaf and seven-layer dip, all prepared with locally sourced, artisanal ingredients and expert technique. The fish sticks, for example, are made from scratch with North Atlantic cod, panko breadcrumbs and housemade tartar sauce. The short rib meatloaf with A-1 glaze appears in a TV dinner-style compartmentalized tray sided by mashed potatoes, local corn and peas—priced for $25 with dessert on TV Dinner Tuesdays.

4. Infuse global cuisine with a regional sensibility

Chicago restaurants are big on incorporating Midwestern roots into ethnic dishes. Corn showed up in the bowl of ramen at Ramen-san and Wisconsin farmhouse cheddar is used in Brass Monkey’s ham and cheese croquettes. 

5. Sherry is undervalued as a beverage

Salero, a Basque concept serving pinxtos or Basque-style tapas, trains its servers to upsell sherry as an alternative for Sauvignon Blanc wine drinkers. Sherry has a reputation as a sweeter wine, but it actually has an acidity and pairs well with seafood and salty foods. It’s a good value and a point of differentiation for operations that want to do something a little more unique than beer or wine.

The Taste the Trends Tour is sponsored by Basic American Foods and hosted by CSP Business Media, the parent of Restaurant Business magazine.

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