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Food

Playing with flavor

"Bold" is becoming a boring mantra on menus; flavor-craving customers want more. To tempt their taste buds—and wallets—chefs and menu developers across all segments are experimenting with flavor enhancing cooking techniques, layering flavors for maximum effect and punching up dishes with housemade condiments.

Casual

Gordon Biersch
Chattanooga, Tenn.-based
When Gordon Biersch, the 38-location brewery restaurant, revamped its menu earlier this year, it was all about pumping up flavor and quality. “We had to make sure our 23 new items offered a big pow of flavor,” says corporate chef Bill Heckler.  “That’s what our guests are looking for.”

To start, several new flatbreads replaced the pizzas that had been on the menu “forever,” providing a better opportunity to showcase flavorful ingredients. Heckler describes the Steak and Shiitake Flatbread as a favorite example. The bread is brushed with roasted garlic oil and then a fresh herb blend is rubbed on top. Next, marinated, grilled flat iron steak is layered on, along with shiitake mushrooms cooked in a fish sauce-hoisin blend. “In combination, these ingredients deliver a big punch of umami,” says the chef.

To build layers of flavor in a new Korean BBQ Pork Chops entrée, Heckler first brines the chops for 24 hours then brushes them with a soy-chili glaze before cooking them with marinated shiitake mushrooms. The final touch is a soy-butter sauce that imparts a touch of miso flavor.

Layers of flavor are built into the flatbreads and chops, but Gordon Biersch’s new Baja Tacos let guests do their own flavor layering. “The idea is to choose a protein, then customize the taco with layers of toppings,” Heckler explains. The fish, steak and pulled pork fillings are all marinated before cooking to intensify the flavor. Diners can add charred tomato salsa, Mexican crema, and cotija cheese to taste.

“This menu gives us the opportunity to bring in about 20 new ingredients and try different flavor-enhancing techniques, including grilling and charring,” says Heckler. “We’re not simply re-engineering the same old flavors; our goal is to increase the intensity of each item.”

Upscale

Alison Eighteen
New York City
A “clean flavor profile” is what Roxanne Spruance, executive chef at Alison Eighteen is after as she “coaxes honest flavors” from seasonal ingredients. “What’s the point of getting all this beautiful, flavorful food if you’re just going to cover it up or mute it?” she asks, referring to her carefully sourced produce, chickens, meats and cheeses. “I want to taste everything that’s listed with the dish on the menu.”

Spruance shops the Union Square Greenmarket three blocks away several times a week, and some of the farmers are now growing custom crops for her. The restaurant purchases pork from Flying Pigs; the animals are fed apples and chestnuts, infusing the meat with flavor and tenderness. Her lamb also is fed apples and she buys La Belle Rouge chickens, a type bred for flavor.

The chef layers on more flavor with the cooking techniques she favors. A state-of-the-art rotisserie is a focal point at Alison Eighteen; for the restaurant’s signature Spit-Roasted Chicken, she’s using smaller 20-ounce poussins, first soaking them overnight in a salt-sugar-water brine, then air drying for at least 12 hours to assure the crispest skin. “You can’t put something wet on the rotisserie, it won’t caramelize well,” Spruance says. She pipes a corn-seasoned mayonnaise mixture under the skin for another layer of flavor, and serves a charred succotash on the side. Later this month, she’ll pipe in a mustard-tarragon mixture and add a side of earthy, seasonal mushrooms.

“When creating flavor profiles, I start with an ingredient. If I see amazing chanterelles coming in, I say to myself ‘How can I best use these? Sauté? Braise? Glaze?’ Menu development is an organic process for me,” Spruance explains.

Her kitchen always has a stockpile of housemade pickles and condiments on hand, too, prepared when ramps, tomatoes and other short-lived crops are at their peak. “We pickle like crazy, and these items can add a welcome acid component to a dish all year long. We even pickle mustard seeds.”

Fast casual

GrilliT
Miami, Fla.-based
When the first GrilliT opened in 2011, the menu looked like the “United Nations,” recalls Chairman and CEO Ghazi Hajj. “We started narrowing it down soon afterwards, moving toward a Latin-Caribbean flavor focus.” Given the concept’s Miami roots, that focus made more sense, but the menu items also had to fit into GrilliT’s healthy image. With shifts in purchasing and preparation, the four-unit chain is gradually reaching this goal.

Signature sauces are the cornerstone of GrilliT’s menu—all are made fresh daily in house and are low in fat. GrilliT Salsa, a spicy blend of tomatoes and peppers, and citrusy Garlic-Cilantro are the two most popular. “Customers like to mix these and create their own flavors,” Hajj reports. In fact, the concept is all about personalization, he adds. For GrilliT’s custom bowls, guests choose a foundation (rice or noodles), add a protein, then choose a sauce and topping.

When it comes to the protein choice, chicken is the biggest seller. Boneless white and dark meat is marinated for 24 hours in a citrus-based liquid, then cooked on the grill for maximum flavor and minimum fat. Hajj partnered with a local Tampa, Fla. supplier to perfect the marinade. Through his produce distributor, he also taps into the local grower network as much as possible.

“We’ve currently changed over about 10 percent of the menu to a Latin-Caribbean focus,” says Hajj.

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