Too Much Salt!
Too much, too little, just right...salt makes or breaks the dish. Salt’s most recognized role is making foods more flavorful. However, like trans-fat and calorie posting, salt is a new nutrition target, because ingesting excess amounts can lead to high blood pressure, strokes and cardiovascular disease. The American Medical Association is calling for a 50% reduction in the amount of sodium in processed and restaurant meals, and it is also asking the Food and Drug Administration to improve sodium labels in an effort to help consumers lower their salt intake.

As restaurants explore salt reduction in their food, Denny’s is rolling out a number of reformulations that will lower sodium content in several menu items. Denny’s is introducing new hash browns with 25% less salt, and it has also reduced the salt content in its cheese sauce and shrimp skewers by 20 and 25%, respectively. The restaurant will offer sausage options with less salt for breakfast, too. Denny’s has gone further by eliminating high-sodium items from its children’s menu, replacing them with more healthful items, such as fruits and vegetables.

In addition to Denny’s, companies including Burger King, Yum! Brands and Au Bon Pain have introduced lower sodium menu options. Burger King reduced the sodium in its Kids’ Meals to no more than 600mg each; Yum! Brands began serving lower sodium items in its stores outside of the U.S.; and Au Bon Pain began testing a series of reduced-sodium foods that will roll out in 2009.

Take Comfort
Restaurants will make comfort food new by using slow-cooking techniques. According to Mintel Menu Insights, slow-baked, slow-grilled, braised and poached will become the new “it” preparation methods, as chefs find ways to provide maximum flavor at an affordable cost.

Slow-cooking is also an excellent way to deeply infuse flavor into food. Braising and poaching liquids are countless. Slow-cooking is a way to save the operator a bit of money, because less expensive cuts of meat can be used. Slow-cooking techniques transform food into naturally flavorful, fork-tender delicacies. The Coyote Café offers “Slooooow” Syrah Braised Prime Beef Short Ribs with red pepper risotto, grilled endive and cognac pepper glaze.

Some restaurants across dining types have recognized the power suggesting comfort within their menu descriptions. The description sets the scene for the meal and, to some extent, the entire dining experience. Uno Chicago Grill describes its Chicken Milanese as: “This is comfort food of the highest order, based on a cooking style that celebrates the most perfect of human activities--gathering together with friends and family to share a meal of indescribable flavor and delight. Breaded and baked, the dish is then topped with a salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, red onions, kalamata olives and balsamic vinaigrette.” It warms the diner up, before he or she even tastes it.

Eat Your Vegetables
Eating vegetables has become easier, as restaurants are increasingly incorporating vegetables into desserts. According to Mintel Menu Insights, the top typical vegetable flavors in desserts include pumpkin, carrot, sweet potato and rhubarb. Some unexpected vegetables appearing in desserts are beets, chili peppers, corn, cucumber, tomatoes and fennel.

Although there are expected vegetables (like carrots) on the dessert menu, the menu items including these vegetables are anything but traditional. Opera offers Spiced Ginger Carrot Cake with cream cheese frosting, carrot sorbet, candied ginger and carrots. Blue Ginger Restaurant incorporates Kabocha squash, also known as Japanese pumpkin, into its Warm Spice Kabocha Doughnuts with maple ice cream, ginger snap crumble and pomegranate-quince puree.

Other vegetables, including beets, chili peppers, corn, tomatoes and fennel, are also incorporated in unique ways on the menu. Aureole NY features a refreshing Thai Basil Panna Cotta with white nectarinegazpacho, yellow watermelon and cucumber foam.

However, the uniqueness of a vegetable flavor on a dessert menu can turn up the volume on a traditional dessert. Chipotle pepper is the most common chili pepper found on the dessert menu. It is classically paired, Mexican-style, with chocolate. Acapulco Mexican restaurant puts a spicy twist on a traditional Molten Chocolate Cake: a warm, chocolate cake with a soft, creamy center. It is served with French vanilla ice cream, chipotle-chocolate sauce and whipped cream. pf