Vinaigrettes have developed past the introductory flavor stages of raspberry and balsamic to become a popular flavor component of menu items. According to Mintel Menu Insights, vinaigrettes increased 4% over last year. Vinaigrette’s popularity is conceivably attributed to unconventional flavor/ingredient combinations, cuisine type adaptability and light taste. The minimalist approach to vinaigrette makes it a light, flavorful alternative to heavy sauces or creamy salad dressings. Leading vinaigrette flavors include balsamic, raspberry, red wine, Italian and lemon. However, the emerging flavors of tamarind, yuzu, tangerine, cranberry and banana are providing an innovative taste twist on restaurant menus. Houlihan’s serves an Ahi Tuna Salad with seared rare tuna, Napa cabbage, cilantro, bananas and cashews tossed in house-made banana-ginger vinaigrette.

Fine dining restaurants are experimenting with oils of vinaigrettes. Oils used in vinaigrettes include lemon, mint, truffle, pecan and walnut. Along with distinct oils, fine dining restaurants also are experimenting with wine. Prevalent wines used in vinaigrettes involve Burgundy, Chardonnay, Chianti, Red, Rice, Pinot Noir, Port, Zinfandel and Champagne. Olives (Charleston, Mass.) serves a flavor-packed Spice Market Lamb with caramelized potatoes, charged feta cloud, ginger glazed carrots, chervil and mint oil vinaigrette. Giovanni’s (Beachwood, Ohio) offers grilled portobello mushrooms on mesclin greens with port vinaigrette.

Chiles: Chipotle and Beyond!

The chipotle pepper has proven that its spicy, smoky flavor appeals to the mass restaurateur. According to Mintel Menu Insights, the chipotle pepper recently experienced an impressive 15% growth on restaurant menus. It has been reduced, pureed and roasted, used as a flavor component of sauces and vinaigrettes, and paired with the sweet flavors of blackberry and pineapple. Undeniably, the chipotle pepper made a significant impression on the restaurant menu.

The popularity of the chipotle pepper has paved the way for expansion of chile diversity on menus. According to Mintel Menu Insights, prevalent chiles on the menu include green, serrano, hot wax, ancho and pasilla chiles. Emerging chiles include morita, cascabel, arbol, guajilla and New Mexico red chile peppers. These Mexican chile varieties are introducing different levels of flavor and heat to menu items. Chef Rick Bayless of Chicago’s Frontera Grill makes his extensive knowledge of chile peppers come to life with his signature Callos de Hacha en Salsa de Elote Verde dish. The meal includes serrano-marinated New England sea scallops in a sauce of Three Sisters sweet corn and roasted poblanos, presented with green herb rice, chiles toreados and grilled calabacitas. El Torito serves Pescado Yucatan—sautéed fresh fish with vegetables, capers, grilled chile guerito and green olives in a savory white wine chicken broth, garnished with a spicy habañero-onion salsa. This dish is served with black beans, white rice, fried plantains and warm tortillas.

Pesto Sauce Breaks With Tradition

Pesto has heightened its profile across American restaurant menus, beyond the traditional pasta realm. According to Mintel Menu Insights, dishes incorporating pesto increased by 8% on restaurant menus last year. Today, pesto is found more frequently in pizzas and sandwiches. In addition, this rich sauce is finding a new flavor range beyond the traditional Italian flavors of olive oil, garlic, pine nuts and cheese. Varieties that include sun-dried tomato, walnut, sage, cilantro, mushroom, arugula and red pepper are also surfacing.

Remarkably, pesto has become the second most popular pizza sauce. California Pizza Kitchen serves a wild mushroom pizza with cremini, shiitake, portabella and white mushrooms, fontina and Mozzarella cheeses with a wild mushroom walnut pesto. Pesto also has been adapted into a sandwich-spread favorite. Camille’s Sidewalk Cafe (Tulsa, Okla.) combines two pesto varieties in the restaurant’s Club Med Sandwich: herb-garlic tortilla, grilled chicken breast, red onions, roasted red peppers, mozzarella, basil pesto, spinach and sun-dried tomato pesto.

Pesto’s bright, simple flavors also have converted it into a cross-cultural favorite. Pesto varieties can be found in Mexican, Cajun and Greek cuisines. Tamayo (Denver) serves quesadilla de camarones, crispy flour tortillas with adobo marinated shrimp, manchego and oaxaca cheese, and cilantro pesto. Girod’s Bistro (New Orleans) serves Louisiana Pesto Pasta Salad, a mixture of fresh Louisiana shellfish with cucumber, peppers, red onion and basil pesto blended with penne pasta topped with crispy andouille and toasted pecans. Rocky’s (Birmingham, Ala.) offers a Garden Delight Sandwich that combines lettuce, tomato, banana and red peppers, red onions, portabella mushrooms, oil, vinegar, pesto and feta cheese for a Greek favorite.

Everyone Loves a Value…Menu

Value menus provide quick service restaurant (QSR) customers with a variety of menu items and snacking options at an affordable price. The QSR value menus also are designed to appeal to a medley of consumers. Many QSR value menus include popular sandwiches, healthy alternatives, desserts and beverages. McDonald’s offers two varieties of the restaurant’s “Dollar Menu.” Customizable by market, the “Dollar Menu” can be found during the breakfast meal, and changes mid-day to reflect lunch and dinner menu preferences. McDonald’s allows customers to select from a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, fruit and yogurt parfait or two hot apple pies for only $1 each.

Wendy’s value menu is one of the most extensive value menus in the QSR market. For $.99 to $1.29 per menu item, consumers can enjoy an inexpensive meal. Wendy’s expanded the restaurant’s value menu to include a $.99 Junior BBQ Cheeseburger and a $.99 chicken sandwich. Consumers now can select from new value menu favorites or order a Wendy’s classic Jr. Cheeseburger, small chili or baked potato with sour cream and chives.

Taco Bell took a distinct spin on the restaurant’s value menu. The Taco Bell value menu campaign is based on the concept of getting full without the expense—appropriately titled “Get Full on Value.” Taco Bell, a division of Yum! Brands, has also developed the restaurant’s value menu to include a half-pound cheesy bean and rice burrito. Other value menu items include the half-pound beef combo burrito, half-pound beef and potato burrito, double-decker taco and cheesy fiesta potatoes.

While KFC does not offer a full value meal, the restaurant acknowledged the necessity for a low-cost, portable menu item on the restaurant’s menu. It introduced the KFC Snacker in 2005, with the concept of getting more for your money. Recently, the restaurant expanded this line by launching the KFC Buffalo Snacker in February 2006.

Thai Pizza Anyone?

Whether Mexican, Mediterranean, Island or Asian, complex and exotic food flavors are making an immense statement in the most unusual category: pizza. This American favorite easily adapts to the addition of innovative cultural flavor enhancements. According to Mintel Menu Insights, popular cuisines influencing a newer generation of pizza are Mexican/ Southwestern, Greek and Thai. Emerging cuisines include Jamaican, Moroccan and Middle Eastern. Family/mid-scale restaurants lead the way in offering ethnic pizza menu choices. Approximately 40% of ethnic pizzas are found on family/mid-scale menus, followed by casual, QSR, fast casual and fine dining restaurants, respectively.

Mellow Mushroom (Atlanta) serves Jerk Chicken Pizza with Chicken, pineapple and spices from the Caribbean which make this a hot and spicy treat. Trio Bistro (Cincinnati) presents the restaurant’s Mexican pizza, a dish that is topped with grilled blackened chicken, refried beans, salsa, jack and cheddar cheeses; guacamole and sour cream are served on the side. Z Pizza (Newport Beach, Calif.) and Me-and-Ed’s (Fresno, Calif.) introduced consumers to authentic Moroccan and Thai flavors. Z Pizza serves Moroccan Pizza with pesto, roasted eggplant, feta cheese and pine nuts. Me-and-Ed’s offers Curried Chicken pizza with an array of authentic Thai flavors. The signature Curried Chicken pizza is topped with pineapple curry sauce, spicy chicken, red peppers, banana peppers, onions, raisins and coconut. The additional flavor is rounded out with fresh cilantro.

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 or contact Mintel International at 312-932-0600.