Tilapia Heats Up American Menus

Tilapia is a hot species, and Americans are eating it up! Last year, it was number six on the National Fisheries Institute's "Top 10 Species Consumed" list. According to Mintel Menu Insights, tilapia has grown 10.6% on restaurant menus since last June. Domestic production and imports of tilapia continue to expand, making it more readily available in both restaurants and supermarkets. Popular tilapia varieties on restaurant menus nationwide include Costa Rica Tilapia, Ecuador Pearl Tilapia, Caribbean Tilapia and Key West Tilapia.

Tilapia, also known as St. Peter's Fish, Hawaiian sunfish and Nile Perch, has a sweet and firm-textured flesh suitable for dry and moist heat cooking methods. Top preparations for tilapia on restaurant menus are filet, grilled, sautéed, broiled, blackened, fried, roasted-in-a-bag, pan-seared, baked and crusted.

Due to the fish's nutritional composition, many restaurants, such as Red Lobster and T.G.I. Friday's, include tilapia on their “Light Menus.” Iguana Mia also uses tilapia as a substitute for skirt steak in Pescado Asado.

Tilapia's menu adaptability also could be advancing its popularity. It is used in sandwiches such as Ruby Tuesday's Killer Fish Burger, as well as in tacos and burritos (Iguana Mia and Houlihan's). Other unique uses for tilapia are panini sandwiches (Johnny Carino's), as well as in fish and chips at Dave and Buster's. At this rate, tilapia may become as versatile as chicken!


An heirloom plant is one with its own history and story, passed down through generations, and the trend of incorporating heirloom vegetables onto restaurant menus has been growing in popularity. Mintel's Menu Insights recorded the appearance of heirloom tomatoes in June 2004 on the menus of independent fine dining restaurants Anzu, Chaya and Farralon. Since that time, there has been an incredible 64% growth of the popular heirloom vegetables and fruits on fine dining and casual restaurant menus.

Top heirloom tomato varieties on restaurant menus include heirloom tomato (the most popular), purple Cherokee tomato, marble-striped tomato, peach tree farms heirloom tomato and heirloom green tomatoes. Other heirloom vegetables and fruits found on menus include squash, potato, plum, lemon cucumber and apple. These are being used in such dishes as tomato salads, pasta, burgers, bisque, gazpacho soup and pizza.

A Sweetly Spicy Pair

Sweet and spicy, two opposite flavors, meld together to create a perfect flavor balance and striking sensory experience. Chocolate and chile achieve the ideal marriage of sweet and spicy, and Mintel Menu Insights has noted a 13% increase of chilies in desserts. The most popular chilies being paired with chocolate are chipotle, jalapeño and habanero pepper.

On family/midscale restaurant menus, 64% of dessert menu items offer a sweet and spicy combination. Family/midscale restaurant Acapulco Mexican Restaurant offers Molten Chocolate Cake, a warm chocolate cake with a soft, creamy center, paired with French vanilla ice cream, chipotle-chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Fine-dining restaurants also marry chocolate and chile with established desserts.

More than 36% of dessert menu items on fine-dining restaurant menus offer a chocolate-chile combination. Fine dining restaurants Aureole NY, Janos Restaurant and Mesa Grill offer intricate combinations of chocolate and chile. Aureole NY presents Crème Brûlée en Parade, finished with chocolate chipotle, Robiola cheese and classic vanilla. Janos Restaurant creates a sophisticated Dark Chocolate Jalapeño Ice Cream Sundae, and pastry chef Vicki Wells of Mesa Grill-Las Vegas dedicates the majority of her menu to the sweet and spicy experience.

'Poor Man's Pudding' No More!

Bread pudding, first known as a "poor man's pudding," is finding its way onto restaurant menus across the country. This old-fashioned dessert began its climb to popularity in England during the 13th century and is maintaining its charm into the 21st century, steadily increasing its appearance on restaurant menus by over 9% since June 2004. Bread pudding variations have been found on over 45% of fine dining, 32% of casual, and 27% of family/ midscale menus, fetching an average price of $5.70.

At one time, bread puddings were made from stale, soaked bread. These days, bread pudding is comprised of como, baba, brioche, egg, French, pannetone or sourdough breads. These savory and sweet breads are enhanced with a variety of flavors, including chocolate, apple, wild mushroom, piña colada and caramel.

Magnolia Grill creates a “dark chocolate bread pudding with brandied white chocolate creme anglaise.” Casual restaurant Bahama Breeze offers a “Homemade Piña Colada Bread Pudding with pineapple and coconut and served warm with rich coconut-rum sauce.” The Coyote Café is moving bread pudding off the traditional dessert menu with its appetizer variations Shrimp and Chorizo Bread Pudding, and Wild Mushroom and Pasilla Bread Pudding.

Although many restaurants are serving elegant 21st-century variations of bread pudding, popular casual restaurants such as Applebee's and Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen are staying within traditional boundaries. These restaurants may choose to serve traditional varieties to evoke the spirit of comfort and familiarity, occasionally lost in large menus full of contemporary items.

MOOOVE Over Cows ...

The buffalo is stampeding its way onto more restaurant menus! Buffalo meat has made a significant (28%) increase on menus since June 2004, a popularity possibly attributable to its flavor and nutritional value. Some of the most popular menu items using buffalo include meatloaf, fajitas, chili, steaks and sausage. Even the sophisticated Rainbow Room in Manhattan is getting in on the trend—it sells twice as many buffalo burgers as hamburgers.

Buffalo is non-gamey, flavorful meat with a tender texture, and a sweeter, richer flavor than beef. An excellent red meat source, it is low in fat and high in protein. A 3oz serving contains 84 calories, a little more than 1g of fat, less than 1g of saturated fat, 39mg of cholesterol and over 17g of protein (according to the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, based upon 3oz of “game meat, buffalo, water, raw”).

Buffalo milk is a Neapolitan tradition, usually made from whole buffalo milk. Solids of buffalo milk are ideal for processing into dairy products and are especially suitable for mozzarella because of the stringy texture produced. Mintel's Menu Insights has discovered Buffalo Mozzarella in Italian, steakhouse, pizza, traditional American, fusion, seafood and Japanese restaurants, primarily in caprese salads, margherita pizza, cheese tarts, bruschetta, paired with prosciutto or mixed with pasta.

Italian chef Mario Bartolli from Babbo Ristorante in New York pairs the Neapolitan tradition with heirloom tomatoes and eggplant. Chaya, a contemporary Japanese/French Bistro, serves an Italian dish of “Risotto Strudel” with vegetable, Buffalo Mozzarella with tomato coulis and garden leaves.

Information in this column is from Mintel's Menu Insights, a key resource for analyzing trends in the restaurant industry. For more information, call: 312-932-0400, visit: www.menuinsights.com or e-mail: menu@menu.com.