OPINIONFood

Menu trends that went to the max at the National Restaurant Show

The annual event is the place to showcase new ingredients, flavors and formats, and this year’s array didn’t disappoint.
tasting at booth
Tasting the food and drinks at exhibitors' booths reveals the flavors, ingredients and formats that are trending now or coming next. | Photo by Kimberly Kaczmarek.

Will the sweet-heat trend start to cool down? Have plant-based meats gone out to pasture?

The annual National Restaurant Show, which ended this week in Chicago, is the place to find the answers to those questions—and see what’s next. I walked through aisles and aisles of exhibits and attended a multitude of educational sessions and tastings both in and outside of McCormick Place to bring you the top menu trends I spotted.

There was a flood of beverages at the Show, with energy drinks, fruity lemonades, alcohol-free sparklers, boba, coffee, tea and many other types of liquid refreshment. But I was looking for new beverage flavors, and cardamom bubbled to the top.

lassi

Tractor, a boutique beverage brand that is showing up in the fast-casual space, offered a Mandarin Cardamom soft drink with a touch of turmeric, and at the California Milk Advisory Board’s pavilion, samples of Cardamom Mango Lassi were handed out. The aromatic spice is typically used in baking and Indian cuisine, but it added pleasing exotic notes to those drinks.

Fermentation not only preserves food, it intensifies umami—that elusive savory fifth taste. At its booth at the Show, Waring introduced Planit POD, a new fermentation system designed to ferment and pasteurize plant-based proteins such as tempeh and koji in 24 hours. Chef Jeremy Umansky prepared chickpea tempeh and a Middle Eastern spiced meat mix, both of which exploded with flavor through mold-based fermentation, which forms a crisp, intensely flavorful crust on the proteins as well.

fermenter

Caviar has long been a delicacy targeted to high-end restaurants, but it’s not cost-effective or sustainable for most operators. This year, several products appeared that can be caviar stand-ins—at least when it comes to presentation and texture. Chile Pepper Flavor Pearls, one of the FABI award winners for food and drink innovation, are caviar-sized with a natural liquid center made of red bell and chile peppers. They make an eye-catching garnish and release a delicious burst of flavor when eaten.

Caviaroli are tiny Arbequina olive oil pearls that produce the same effect with a more neutral flavor. I also tried finger lime caviar, a product from Australia imported by a company called Mad Honey. The pearls are found inside the fruit and available frozen. These also pop in the mouth for the “caviar effect” and make an impressive pastel-colored garnish.

But for those craving a briny, more caviar-like flavor, dulse flakes are a viable swap. Ocean’s Balance blends dulse flakes and lemon zest into butter that tastes and looks close to real caviar.

dulse

That dulse butter would make a great spread on pinsa, a Roman-style flatbread that is having its moment as a next-gen pizza crust. The one I tried was gluten-free and hand-stretched and stayed really crispy even when piled with cheese and veggies. Supposedly, it’s healthier and easier to digest than regular pizza dough, which is a good thing when you’re stuffing your face with samples from dozens of exhibitors in the space of a few hours.

pinsa

Beverages laced with THC are legal to sell and serve in a number of states, so exhibitors were ready to graduate operators from CBD to a more potent cannabis derivative. I tried what amounted to a thimble-full of CannaSpritz from Flora Hemp Spirits. It contains only 3 mg of THC, but I’m a lightweight and felt a little buzz. The best part of the drink is that it actually had a pleasant flavor profile—effervescent and dry with very little sweetness and subtle floral notes.  

canna spritz

The guacamole bar set up by Avocados from Mexico was a team favorite at RB, but I especially loved the guac extensions created by Chef Nate Weir of Modern Market, who headed up the demos on Monday. First, he mashed up fresh avocado with tomatillo salsa for his base, then added hops—the same ingredient that goes into beer—for some bitterness.  This version of guacamole added complex flavor to a fish taco.

shrimp

For the second demo, Weir blended tamarind into the avocado to add sweet-sour tropical notes. He rounded that out with roasted mushrooms, tomatillo salsa and a little chili crunch and served it with glazed, grilled shrimp. His goal—to show how guacamole doesn’t have to be pigeonholed into Mexican or Latin cuisine. It worked for me.

The zero-waste trend was the impetus for a new spirit called Wheyward Wheyskey, produced from upcycled whey left over from cheesemaking. It’s a product promoted by the California dairy industry, which served the spirit in a cocktail resembling an espresso martini topped with a scoop of Double Rainbow vanilla ice cream. Reminded me of a slightly boozy affogato—decadent and delicious.

whey

To see some tasting action, check out this video showing these products and others at this year’s National Restaurant Show.

And have no fear—hot honey and plant-based proteins are not going away anytime soon. But one of these trends may just be the next big thing.

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