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Meet the chef Q&A: Matt Harding

A bustling bar makes a restaurant exciting to patronize in the late afternoon or early evening, opines Matt Harding, corporate executive chef of Columbus, Ohio-based Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, operator of more than 100 polished-casual restaurants. That’s why the company’s Bravo Cucina Italiana, Brio Tuscan Grille and Bon Vie Bistro concepts boost off-hours business with Bar Menus of fun, shareable, affordable items.

The Bar Menu at Brio, for example, invites you to “get your mix from $4 to $6” with items such as the provolone-topped Brio Burger and Black Pepper Shrimp with Romano cheese-crusted eggplant. At Bon Vie, Nut Crusted Chicken Sliders entice with a crispy almond coating.

Almonds, in fact, bring their versatility, flavor, texture and healthful image to limited-time offerings and salads as well as Bar Menu items, Harding notes. Currently in test is an antipasti plate with the nuance and crunch of roasted, flavored almonds accenting Italian meats and cheeses. 

Harding shares his perspective on the benefits of small plates.

What is the rationale for the Bar Menu?
The idea is to generate energy and excitement between 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. When guests arrive early in the evening and see people enjoying themselves, it is very stimulating. There is nothing worse than going into a restaurant and finding the place empty. You wonder, is it because the weather is bad, or is it the food?

How do customers make the Bar Menu into an occasion?
You will see four people at the bar order four to six plates of food and a bottle of wine, and have a great experience. Even if they never set foot in the dining room, I view it as gaining another visit. Actually, those are two very different experiences. You can choose to get dressed up and have great service in the dining room, or just meet a couple of friends at the bar for a few quick pops and plates before the movies.

Mention some ways you have used almonds on your menus.
Breading trout or tilapia or chicken scaloppini with almonds gives a really beautiful nuttiness and an incredibly cool texture. It is very satiating in a way that other kinds of breading are not. If I wanted to sell a piece of fish, I could crust it with almonds and sell the daylights out of it every night.

How are the almonds handled on the antipasti plate?
We cook the almonds in a hot sauté pan with a little extra-virgin olive oil and color them in the oven. We finish them off with rosemary leaves, chili flakes and a few garlic slivers. They add great flavor and texture to the antipasti plate along with prosciutto, sliced mozzarella and Calabrese sausage.

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