The industry is seeing a new spin on old, traditional favorites. The Mediterranean cuisines of Italy and Greece have been widely popular in the restaurant industry. Today, this cuisine is becoming more universal through the use of authentic ingredients and presentation of unique menu item offerings. Newer ethnic cuisines, such as Island and Thai, are experiencing growth in the restaurant industry due to their authentic and exotic flavors.
Mediterranean Cuisine--Italian, Greek and MoroccanMenus are teaching the Italian language of food with the use of authentic and regional Italian dishes and ingredients. Restaurant menus have seen a steady growth in the use of authentic Italian ingredients such as fresh mozzarella, prosciutto and figs. Fresh mozzarella gained popularity in Caprese salads, pizza, sandwiches and pasta. According to Mintel Menu Insights, Caprese menu items had a 5% increase on restaurant menus since June 2004. Caprese menu items, popular among all dining types, offer the fresh natural flavor of creamy fresh mozzarella, partnered with fresh tomatoes and basil. Romano's Macaroni Grill added the taste of the Italian region of Campagna with the addition of buffalo mozzarella to the restaurant's menus. It offers Mozzarella alla Caprese, featuring imported buffalo mozzarella, vine-ripened tomatoes, basil and balsamic vinaigrette.
Prosciutto adds a taste of northern Italy to menus. Parma, a northern city in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, is famous for its Prosciutto di Parma. Prosciutto di Parma, along with other varieties of prosciutto, including duck and lamb prosciutto, has made a strong impression on U.S. Italian dining. Prosciutto provides an additional saltiness to pizzas, ravioli filling or it can be wrapped around a sweet slice of cantaloupe.
This menu flavor addition has assisted in the introduction of saltimbocca. In Italian, saltimbocca literally means “it jumps in the mouth.” Saltimbocca traditionally is prepared with veal and prosciutto rolled together and cooked with sage. Restaurants have adjusted the recipe to include chicken, pork and lobster. Cincinnati's Sturkey's offers Lobster saltimbocca made with prosciutto di Parma, sage and cannellini beans.
Figs have been around since the beginning of time. According to Mintel Menu Insights, figs have seen a 20% increase on restaurant menus in 2005. Top chefs deserve credit for using the southern Italian ingredient in extraordinary ways. Chef Alfred Portale of New York's Gotham Bar and Grill serves Seared Foie Gras with a warm black mission fig tart, apple fennel puree, and aged sherry vinegar caramel. Chef Monica Pope of Houston's T'afia serves her signature cheesecake, appropriately named “Monica's Best Cheesecake,” with a walnut crust, Medjool date, and fig puree.
The Mediterranean category also captured a spot on standard American menus with the popular Greek salad. According to Mintel Menu Insights, the Greek salad is one of the top 10 salads offered on restaurant menus across all dining types. Ingredients from the salads have transferred to more mainstream fare, including pizza, omelets, sandwiches and wraps. Elements of feta cheese, tomato, cucumber, lettuce, kalamata olives, and red onion are key flavors that can be found in many Greek menu offerings.
Authentic Greek dishes such as spanakopita, dolma and sweet baklava surfaced on more mainstream restaurant menus in late 2005. Huntington, N.Y.'s 34-New Street serves spanakopita--extra-large traditional triangles of phyllo dough, filled with spinach, feta, and fresh herbs, served with a yogurt-dill sauce and a Greek side salad. Malek's Pizza (Springfield, Va.) serves dolma--cabbage leaves stuffed with ground beef, rice and herbs, topped with a home-style tomato sauce served with basmati rice and mixed vegetables. Miami Subs (Westbury, N.Y.) has added baklava, a Greek pastry made with honey, walnuts and phyllo dough, to its menu.
Island Cuisine--Cuban, Puerto Rican, Jamaican and HawaiianCuban, Puerto Rican, Jamaican and Hawaiian influences can be seen in restaurant Island cuisine. Due to the diverse multicultural influences in these areas, Island regions provide unique and layered cultural food experiences. These regions have strong influences from surrounding countries in Central and South America, Europe and Asia.
Cuban cuisine influences incorporate a fusion of Caribbean and Spanish cuisine, a result of the Spanish invasion in the early 16th century. Popular Cuban staples in the U.S. are black beans and rice and fried plantains. American restaurants recognize the Cuban traditions and serve traditional cultural dishes. Bahama Breeze (Orlando, Fla.) offers a traditional bowl of homemade Cuban Black Bean Soup, served with yellow rice. Kelly's Cajun Grill (Coral Gables, Fla.) offers sweet plantains as an optional side with several of its menu items. Plantains experienced an increase of close to 10% on restaurant menus throughout 2005, per Mintel Menu Insights.
The most popular Cuban menu item currently on restaurant menus is the Cuban sandwich. Traditionally, the Cuban sandwich is a combination of buttered Cuban bread, dill pickles, roast pork, ham and Swiss cheese, all layered and pressed until the bread is toasted and the cheese is melted. What makes this sandwich authentically Cuban is the preparation of the roast pork, giving it a garlic citrus flavor. Shari's (Red Bluff, Calif.) serves a Cuban sandwich with pulled pork, smoked deli ham, and Swiss cheese with a cool dill pickle center, lightly steamed in a warm, crisp ciabatta bread. Restaurants from quick service to fine dining have added a Cuban sandwich to the menu in late 2005. Restaurants include Cousin's Subs (Menomonee Falls, Wis.), Jacksonville, Fla.'s Larry's Giant Subs, Spago Las Vegas, Damon's in Schaumburg, Ill., and Oakwood Bistro of Kalamazoo, Mich.
Puerto Rican cuisine is mildly reminiscent of its Spanish roots, and also has Amerindian and African influences. A common authentic Puerto Rican ingredient on restaurant menus is sofrito. In Puerto Rico, sofrito (a sauce of tomatoes, roasted peppers, onions and herbs, richly colored with annatto seed) is a condiment-like sauce used in many ways. New York's New World Grill serves pan-seared halibut with warm sofrito, grilled polenta, sautéed spinach and wild mushrooms. In Chicago, Salpicon recently added sopa de chicharos to its menu, an English pea soup garnished with avocados, serranos and sofrito.
Hawaiian-inspired cuisine resembles food of other island cultures, Polynesia and cuisine specific to Asian countries. It has a unique flair to it and has rapidly crossed over into traditional American menus. A slice of the Hawaiian Islands can be enjoyed in the U.S. by visiting a local pizzeria or deli. Popular Hawaiian-inspired dishes on the menu are Hawaiian pizza, Hawaiian wraps, Hawaiian chicken, ahi tuna and Hawaiian-inspired BBQ ribs.
Hawaiian concept restaurants are introducing authentic Hawaiian cuisine to the mainland American palate. L&L Barbecue in Champaign, Ill., first was opened on the island of Honolulu. In 1976, Eddie Flores, Jr., and Kwock Yum Kam concocted plate lunches that captivated the flavor of the islands. The restaurant is now serving authentic Hawaiian fare on both the West and East coasts. The most popular dish on L&L Barbecue's menu is saimin, a native Hawaiian dish that bears Asian influence. Saimin is a soup dish of soft wheat egg noodles served in hot dashi, a stock from Japanese bonito fish or shrimp. Developed during Hawaii's plantation era and inspired by Asian noodle soups, saimin can be enjoyed with beef, chicken, shrimp or Spam at L&L Barbecue.
Roy's in Newport Beach, Calif., is the creation of chef Roy Yamaguchi, based on his childhood memories of the feelings and flavors of Hawaii. Yamaguchi invented what he refers to as “Hawaiian Fusion” cuisine. One of his classic dishes is Roasted Macadamia Nut Mahi Mahi with lobster butter sauce. Yamaguchi stays on track in identifying Hawaiian cuisine, while incorporating other popular flavors and trends of Western Europe and Asia.
ThaiThai cuisine has been developing over the years in accordance with the outside influences from western cultures. It has had a steady increase in 2005, according to Mintel Menu Insights. One of the first dishes to introduce Thai cuisine to the general mainstream casual menu is the popular Thai Pizza. It is one of the original pizzas on the California Pizza Kitchen menu, whose Thai Pizza combines pieces of chicken breast marinated in a spicy peanut-ginger and sesame sauce, mozzarella cheese, green onions, bean sprouts, julienne carrots, cilantro and roasted peanuts. California Pizza Kitchen combines two traditional Thai flavors--salty and sweet--into its Thai creation.
More traditional restaurants are now serving Thai lettuce wraps, pad Thai and curry. Lettuce wraps, usually constructed by the customer and eaten with the hands, offer a light and exotic touch to appetizer menus. A steady presence on restaurant menus, they are open to varied ingredient combinations. Popular fillings for lettuce wraps include chicken, water chestnuts, shrimps, bamboo shoots and black mushroom. Authentic Thai ingredients, including coconut, cilantro, tamarind and chiles, are an increasing presence on the restaurant menu.
Pad Thai literally means Thai-style frying, and it is a dish of stir-fried rice noodles with eggs, fish sauce, tamarind juice, red chili pepper, plus any combination of bean sprouts, shrimp, chicken or tofu, garnished with crushed peanuts and cilantro. It usually is served with a piece of lime, the juice of which can be added along with the usual Thai condiments. Pad Thai is the most popular Thai dish served on restaurant menus, according to Mintel Menu Insights. The Cheesecake Factory serves a very authentic version of the Thai dish, incorporating all of the traditional ingredients, such as tamarind and lime.
Curry also is used in traditional Thai dishes, providing authentic flavoring and spice. The major ingredients of Thai curry are fresh herbs. A simple Thai curry paste consists of dried chilies, shallots and shrimp paste. More complex curries include garlic, galanga, coriander roots, lemongrass, kaffir lime peel and peppercorns.
Thai curry increased steadily on restaurant menus in 2005. According to Mintel Menu Insights, the most popular curry varieties on menus included regular curry, green curry, yellow curry, Panang curry and red curry.
Fine dining restaurants such as The Ryland Inn (Whitehouse, N.J.) and Oysters (Corona del Mar, Calif.) serve traditional Thai curry dishes on their menus. The Ryland Inn serves beef tenderloin with green curry, coconut, kaffir lime and steamed rice. Oysters serves a Thai fusion dish of Red Curry Marinated New Zealand Lamb Trio, with roasted sunchokes, sautéed spinach, garlic comfit and Thai basil gnocchi.
Mintel Menu Insights, a part of Mintel International Group, is a key resource for analyzing trends in the U.S. restaurant industry. The database tracks menu trends and innovations from the 350 largest chain restaurants and 150 independent restaurants, also featuring the nation's top 50 chefs. Trends are reported quarterly, offering insight into pricing, menu items, ingredients, preparations and entirely new menus. For more information, visit www.menuinsights.com or contact Mintel International at 312-932-0600.