Drinking Dessert

The specialty beverage category is booming. To provide variety and instill a sense of creativity on their menus, bartenders are taking cues from dessert menus. Dessert-inspired cocktails—“sippable desserts”—are a way for restaurants to expand their cocktail menus, because they allow consumers to enjoy the flavors of dessert before, during or after a meal without feeling overly full or overindulgent. According to Mintel Menu Insights, some popular dessert flavors found in cocktails are vanilla, raspberry, chocolate, banana and coconut.

Casual dining operators are creating sippable desserts to emulate popular cakes, pies and childhood favorite desserts. T.G.I. Friday’s liquefies the decadent Black Forest Cake with Chambord liqueur, Hiram Walker Dark, Creme de Cacao, vodka, hot chocolate and whipped cream. The American Café turns the classic American apple pie into a martini by combining Absolut vodka and Apple Pucker in a graham cracker-rimmed glass. Even the Sno Cone receives a grown-up makeover on the cocktail menu: Claim Jumper serves a Sno Cone cocktail made with Malibu rum, Smirnoff Raspberry Twist, Bols Blue Curacao, pineapple juice and Di Saronno Amaretto.

Soup Gets Fruity

Soup is going gourmet. A Mintel report on soup finds that consumers have increased their interest in more gourmet soup varieties, attributed to increased exposure to new flavors through ethnic restaurants, TV cooking shows, international travel and the growing diversity of the U.S. population.

Once reserved for chilled appetizer and dessert soups, fruit is one ingredient turning up soup’s gourmet quotient. Due to the versatility and popularity of many fruit flavors on other parts of the menu, such as salsa and sauces, fine dining and fast-casual restaurants are showcasing more fruit in hot soups. The Putney Inn puts a new spin on the baked apple by serving a Baked Five Apple Soup with Grafton Village smoked cheddar and an apple fan. Au Bon Pain has added a Red Lentil and Mango Stew to its soup rotation.

While hot fruit soups are gaining popularity, chilled fruit soups have not fallen by the wayside. Fine dining restaurants continue to showcase local ingredients and new flavor combinations through chilled dessert and appetizer fruit soups. Janos Restaurant uses locally harvested honeydew and cantaloupe for their San Xavier Co-Op Chilled Melon and Ginger Soup. Scented with sweet ginger and agave nectar, it is served with melting mango and mint syrup. Clio Restaurant serves a chilled soup appetizer of Cucumber and Yogurt Soup with gulf shrimp, radishes, caviar and oxalis.

Fragrant Fennel

Fennel is quickly becoming one of the most versatile ingredients on the restaurant menu. The anise flavor of fennel complements menu items with beef, pork, squash, beets and seafood. Furthermore, restaurants are not wasting any part of the fragrant vegetable. According to Mintel Menu Insights, fast-casual, casual and fine dining restaurants are utilizing the fennel bulb, fennel pollen and fennel seeds in both unique and traditional dishes. Rialto Restaurant uses fennel pollen in Grilled Salmon Gratin with fiddleheads, bacon and leeks. Maggiano’s Little Italy includes fennel in its Italian Pot Roast made with tender-braised beef slow cooked in a rich red wine sauce, garnished with garlic mashed potatoes, carrots, fennel, peas, caramelized onions and button mushrooms.

The preparations of fennel also are unlimited. Popular preparations include caramelized, braised, roasted, pureed and grilled. Braising fennel is becoming quite popular in fine dining restaurants, which are braising fennel with flavors of saffron, red wine and citrus. Rialto Restaurant also creates a Juniper Brined Pork Loin with fried bacon bundles and citrus-braised fennel. Spago Las Vegas serves saffron-braised fennel, grilled calamari, shrimp, Jonah crab and salsa verde in the Skate Wing “Aqua Pazza.”

Aye, There's the Rub

Any barbecue expert will say the secret to great barbecue is in the rub. Rubs are infused into dishes to create vibrant flavors. Casual, family midscale and fine dining restaurants are experimenting with rubs in barbecue and non-barbecue dishes. According to Mintel Menu Insights, popular sweet and spicy ingredients—including brown sugar, chili pepper, cumin, ancho chili and adobo pepper—are being used in traditional barbecue dishes. O’Charley’s rubs its Signature Baby Back Ribs with brown sugar and spices. Chili’s Bar and Grill created Memphis Dry-Rub Ribs, grilled with a Memphis-style dry rub of spices and herbs and served with a tangy Dijon BBQ sauce, for the recent promotional menu “Baby Back Road Trip.”

Rubs also are moving beyond traditional barbecue. Unique rubs are being incorporated in other dishes beyond the grill to provide a flavorful experience. The flavors of fennel, chocolate, pumpkin seed, citrus and coriander are transforming the rub. Beacon Restaurant and Bar serves a Roasted Suckling Pig with a grilled apples and bitter chocolate rub, as well as a Roasted Rib Eye with a citrus rub and grilled tomato and onion.