How shrinking protein is reconfiguring the plate

Smaller portions of meat go a long way as chefs make room for more vegetables.
steak potatoes vegetables on plate

For years, nutritionists have been advocating the vegcentric entree as a healthier, more sustainable way to eat, and restaurants finally are starting to listen. No doubt high meat prices and greater access to local produce also are playing a part as vegetables slowly take up more real estate on the plate and protein portions shrink. But how do customers feel about the change?

In a presentation during the Culinary Institute of America’s Menus of Change conference in June, Chicago researcher Datassential shared findings from a survey conducted earlier in 2015. Operators are leading the way in reducing the portion size of animal proteins, reported Datassential, and in 45 percent of the cases, patrons are responding favorably. The typical cutback is from 8 ounces to 6 for beef and 7 ounces to 5 for pork. However, smaller meat portions have negative value implications for restaurant customers, so communication is key, said Datassential. Calling a dish with less meat a “new” recipe or menu item seems to drive acceptance, the survey found.

Changing the ratio

Bravo! Italian Kitchen set out to deliver value with smaller meat portions through its Lighter Side of Rome menu. “We had to make those entrees filling while staying under 595 calories,” says Corporate Executive Chef Brian Harvey. “Since protein has the most calories, we increased the vegetables and amped up their flavor through grilling, caramelizing, roasting, vinaigrettes and glazes.” One of the best-sellers on the Lighter Side menu is named 5-ounce Filet Bravo!, a boneless steak with sweet potatoes, roasted peppers, asparagus, spinach, zucchini and pesto vinaigrette.

Based on its wide acceptance, Harvey introduced Steak Diavolo this fall on the regular menu. Since counting calories was not the goal, he upped the portion size to 6 ounces (still less than the 8– to 14–ounce meat portions in other entrees), used sirloin instead of filet and didn’t draw attention to the serving size in the name of the item. Mushrooms, zucchini, red peppers and crispy potatoes fill out the plate. “Building an interesting foundation for the protein satisfies our guests,” says Harvey.

The beef-veggie proportions also satisfy the bottom line. “Beef prices continue to be the highest of any protein,” says Harvey. “But the sirloin provides a better cost to both the guest and operator.” The Steak Diavolo, which sells for $18.99, comes in at 27 percent food cost, while the Filet Bravo! computes to 42 percent food cost and sells for $21.

Dana Point, Calif.-based Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern has four steak items on its menu—all of  which are top 10-sellers at its three locations. Most popular at lunch is the Grilled Santa Fe Caesar Salad with flat iron steak ($18), for which guests pay an upcharge of $6 over the $12 meatless version. “Skirt steak used to be the bargain in beef cuts,” says managing partner David Wilhelm. “But when the price went up, I changed to a preportioned 10-ounce flat iron.” For the salad, the flat iron is cut in half, and each guest gets 5 ounces of meat, sliced and fanned out into what looks like an ample portion. Food cost is 25 percent, says Wilhelm.

Another best-seller at polished-casual Jimmy’s is beef stroganoff made with the trim from the dinner menu’s $38 filet medallions. “We cook the beef pieces in a demi-glace with mustard, mushrooms and brandy, toss it with pappardelle and menu the dish for $24,” says Wilhelm.

Beyond beef

Lamb prices have proven even more stubborn than beef. Yet, in the same way, operators are finding that vegetables and grains can help stretch more economical cuts into value-conscious entrees customers embrace.

At Insalata’s in San Anselmo,  Calif., this mix suits the nature of the menu, says chef-owner Heidi Krahling, whose cooking is inspired by the cuisines of the Mediterranean region. For example, Insalata’s Autumnal Lamb Stew with Red Kuri Squash and Almonds employs lamb shoulder—an underutilized cut, says Krahling—which is braised in a Moroccan-spiced liquid. Then the dish is rounded out with roasted squash, chickpeas and almonds. There’s about 6 ounces of meat in each serving, creating an entree that is filling without being too rich, she says.

The popularity and versatility of the stew has turned it into a menu signature that Krahling switches up as the seasons change. In winter, she’ll add leeks and wild mushrooms, and in spring, artichokes, peas and other seasonal vegetables. “My food costs average 28 percent and the soulfulness of the stew delivers good value and satisfaction to my guests,” she says. 

Meat price outlook

While meat prices have been climbing recently, there’s good news ahead. In its September meat and livestock forecast, the USDA’s Economic Research Service predicted that the price and supply of beef and pork show signs of  improving. “Cattle prices are starting to drop—if only by 1/2 percent—and larger supplies are coming on line,” says ERS analyst Mildred Haley. “Hog prices in the fourth quarter are 31 percent lower than same time last year and are likely to fall 6 percent more early in 2016.” Lamb is averaging about the same as for the second half of 2014. 

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