Chains often look at chef-driven independent restaurants for ideas and inspiration, but few operators have the time to crisscross the country and visit hundreds of concepts. Technomic does the work every quarter, tracking what’s happening on menus through its Independent Insights report. Analysts examine more than 50 menus from indies around the U.S., ranging from food trucks to fine-dining destinations. Here are four emerging trends to watch, gathered from Technomic’s most recent report.
1. Revamped Bolognese sauce
In step with the rise in plant-forward items, chefs are making over traditional meat-based dishes with healthier spins. Restaurants are now serving vegetable and seafood versions of Bolognese sauce, a classic Italian ragu typically made with beef and/or pork. The Treehouse in Nashville offers black pasta with squid Bolognese, while abcV in New York City menus a mushroom-walnut Bolognese.
2. New twists on charcuterie boards
Indies are also swapping in alternate proteins for the cured pork products usually featured as charcuterie. Seafood charcuterie boards are on the appetizer menu at Fisk & Co. in Chicago and Roe in Portland, Ore. At the latter, the chef sends out cold-smoked “ham” made with marlin arranged with butter-poached scallops, confit potato, Meyer lemon and rosemary clam cream. At Locality Kitchen and Bar in Fort Collins, Colo., customers can order house-cured and smoked lamb accompanied by a lamb “ham” dip, cheddar cheese, whole-grain mustard aioli and lamb jus.
3. Cheese stretches into new territory
To appeal to more sophisticated palates, restaurants are exploring different countries to discover regional cheeses. Consumers familiar with mozzarella and burrata can now find Italian stracciatella on menus. This cheese is produced from buffalo milk using a stretching and shredding technique. The result is a rich, buttery textured cheese that adapts well to many applications. At Old Rose in New York City, stracciatella appears in an old favorite, meatballs with tomato sauce, while Brothers and Sisters in Washington, D.C., offers it with black garlic—the cheese provides a mellow counterpoint to that fermented ingredient.
4. Sweet on Mexico
Piloncillo is an unrefined cane sugar commonly used by Mexican cooks. Also known as panela and chancaca, piloncillo has a smoky, caramel flavor similar to brown sugar but is slightly stronger. While desserts and drinks are popular uses for the sweetener, chefs are experimenting with savory applications, too. The Charter Oak in St. Helena, Calif., offers piloncillo bacon, while Once in Las Vegas does a crispy chicken and sweet potato beignet with fig chancaca sauce.