On the National Menu -- February 2010

Ring in the Old
The down economy has taken a toll on virtually every aspect of consumers’ lives, but its impact on the foodservice industry has been particularly hard. As the restaurant industry recovers from a tumultuous 2009, some definite trends for 2010 are already being seen, according to research firm Mintel. The unifying theme is a renewed focus on quality.

A significant difference from the past year’s focus on cost and “how-low-can-you-go” value deals, this is good news for restaurant patrons. Use of “high-quality ingredients, classic flavor combinations and authentic, old-fashioned preparations,” according to Maria Caranfa, of Mintel, seems to mark the coming year.

One trend is toward classically simple fare, where industry watchers can expect an emphasis on simple ingredients and preparations, and classic food combinations, such as the currently hot “better-burger” movement, which can be seen at Five Guys Inc., Smashburger and The Counter. Nothing says simple like a burger, fries and a shake.

As consumers cut back on restaurant visits, another hot trend is dining out, while staying home. Many brands are branching out to include online ordering or making inroads in retail sales. Restaurants’ branded names, such as Wolfgang Puck, T.G.I. Friday’s and Jamba Juice, are crowding grocery shelves. In addition, uses of iPhone, Palm Pre and Blackberry mobile-ordering platforms are more prevalent, with Pizza Hut recently claiming its smart-phone application resulted in $1 million in sales this past year.

Two other ideas are more geographic in nature: the trends toward “restaurant-grown” foods and regional ethnic cuisines. Mintel notes restaurateurs are “digging deeper” and featuring staple foods of specific regions, such as Italian chain Il Fornaio, which has integrated the tour of different regional cuisines into its popular Festa Regionale. Many menus are also loaded with so-called “rustic” foods, made from locally sourced ingredients and sometimes picked from on-site restaurant gardens.

Lastly, the year 2009 saw a trend toward healthier menus, but 2010 will see a sharp increase in “good-for-you” food and drinks. Tomorrow’s healthy menus will feature inherently nutritious items--those with fiber, omega-3s, vitamins and antioxidants--that also deliver on flavor.  

Stick to It
Menus that combine unlikely dessert pairings have been all the rage this past year, and, like snow in Chicago, there are no signs of it stopping. The Chicago Tribune (December 30, 2009) wrote of a mango-and-rice dish, originating in Thailand, which exemplifies this trend beautifully.

A ripe mango half, accompanied by steamed, sticky rice, enriched by coconut cream: the dessert is simple, yet decadently different. Sesame seeds sprinkled over the sauce and the occasional addition of a decorative banana leaf make this easy-to-make treat both upscale and affordable.

Nectarines or peaches, or sweet pineapple or a poached pear, can be used in place of the mangos. Although relatively simple to prepare, sticky rice must be soaked at least 12 hours before steaming, so plenty of planning time is needed.

Another “sticky” dessert reported in the Tribune is one which proves that, sometimes, it is not “all in a name.” The English dish, known as sticky toffee pudding, is neither particularly sticky, nor does it contain toffee. In traditional British manner, the “pudding” is actually a small cake, studded with dates and covered in a rich butterscotch sauce.pf