The newest star to rock the fast-casual segment is poke. To power growth, around a dozen concepts are betting on the popularity of bowls of raw fish cubes customized with ingredient add-ons and sauces. But full-service restaurants have the opportunity to take poke bowls to the next level, truly showcasing the fish instead of masking its flavor with a lot of extraneous ingredients, said Gerry Ludwig, corporate consulting chef at Gordon Food Service, during his session on street-level culinary trends.
Couple of the year: Toast + vegetables
The toast trend hasn’t peaked yet, but the wild success of avocado toast has prompted forward-thinking restaurants to create other vegetable toppers for toast. Ludwig pointed to beet toast at Son of a Butcher in Chicago, toast topped with roasted squash at Publican in Chicago and persimmon toast at Tilda in Brooklyn, New York.
That’s no baloney
First there was Italian salumi and French charcuterie. Now pedestrian bologna is showing up in restaurants. During an educational session, trend analyst Nancy Kruse showcased a fried bologna sub menued at the Penn Station chain and a bologna stack sandwich at upscale steakhouse Marcel.
Renewed U.S. ties with Cuba are spurring chefs to explore Cuban cuisine beyond the ubiquitous Cuban sandwich, said Kruse. Havana 1957, a new full-service chain out of South Florida, offers a menu that combines Cuban-American items with retro dishes from Havana’s glory days in the 1950s. Shrimp-stuffed green plantains and traditional roast chicken with Cuban gravy and black beans share the menu with modern takes on bar bites and Cuban cocktails.
Fat and sugar are our friends?
Animal fats used to be the villains in the drive for healthy eating, but lately the road has made a sharp turn. Lard, tallow, butter and bacon are currently sought-after cooking and flavoring mediums, said Kruse. Now, it’s sugar’s turn. Food manufacturers are switching from corn syrup to pure cane sugar, with one company even promoting a product made with “certified fair trade sugar.”
Squash is the next Brussels sprout
Kale and Brussels sprouts have been vegetable darlings for a few years—now it’s squash’s turn, said Ludwig. Chefs are experimenting with hard-shelled squashes, such as delicata, buttercup and heirloom varieties, straying away from the usual sweet preparations. Squash carpaccio—thinly sliced winter squash caramelized with a butane torch—is featured at Santina in New York City, while Ampersand Wine Bar in Chicago offers an appetizer board of roasted squash with a mound of ‘nduja (whipped Italian salami).
Jackfruit: The other white meat?
Green jackfruit mimics pulled pork better than anything, Ludwig told attendees. He calls the giant fruit “pulled pork for vegans,” and restaurants are beginning to recognize its versatility and nutritive value—the seeds are a good source of protein and minerals. Jumping on the trend is vegan restaurant eLOVate Kitchen in Santa Monica, Calif., which features jackfruit tacos.
Veganism aside, the time has never been better to romance vegetables to flexitarians, said Kruse. Restaurants are getting it, moving the vegetable section to the center of the menu and often eliminating the side dish category altogether. Chefs are roasting, charring and grilling vegetables, then enhancing umami by flavoring them with small amounts of chorizo, pancetta, anchovies and sauces to appeal to nonvegetarians looking for exciting veg-centric dishes.
On the show floor, 2,200 exhibitors touted innovations in equipment and food and drink items. Although many reflected trends that we have reported on before, some revved them up with fresh ideas, like these three:
- Jams, jellies and chutneys in flavors such as passion fruit, ginger and guava. While housemade condiments still are trending, these ready-made products make it easy to add global interest to menu items and jump on the saucing trend.
- Well-designed water filtration machines to fit into small front-of-house spaces, offering both still and sparkling choices made from tap water. Operators are filling bottles branded with restaurant logos with the water and upselling it for around $2 a guest or $8 for the table. House-bottled water is more sustainable and less costly to both guest and restaurant.
- Cold-brew coffee is the “it” beverage of 2016. Several new bottled products debuted, and exhibitors demonstrated special cold-brew equipment and mixed the caffeinated beverage into fancy drinks.