Cover Story » Current Issue » Vol. 23

The Restaurant Issue: Food Trends

By Christine R. Walsh, Lynn N. Capri, and Josh Lyford

jx7240826cjpg-9550403fa5f2e1f1-copyEach year, there are trends in dining ~ just like those in fashion, technology, films, etc. ~ that are a  logical progression from the year before ~ like when we saw tapas become popular at a few select specialty restaurants before the trend caught on like wildfire the following year and seemed to be on everyone’s menu.  Then there are the trends that come out of left field, like when blood sausage became a much sought-after main course for a [blessedly!] brief time (I blame Andrew Zimmern and his bizarre fascination with bizarre foods for that one!).  Now, not all trends reach us here in Central MA ~ some are born and die, just flashes in the pan, in NY or LA or overseas (lots of trends come out of Japan each year), and some reach us slightly modified , but others do, and we’re going to introduce you to some of each, from the weird and obscure (wait ‘til you read about corn fungus and edible dirt) to the yummy, like Mexican sandwiches called cemitas, to the technology that’s changing the whole concept of how we go out to eat.     And since we’re most interested in the trends that will be shaping our own dining experiences here in Worcester County over the next year, we’ve called on the experts ~ local restaurant owners and chefs ~ to hear what they have to say about what’s headed to our plates next.


“FREE FROM” Gluten-free menus will crop up everywhere this year.  Look for more gluten-replacing starches on menus: quinoa , chickpeas, grits. Lactose-free items will be showing up more and more as well. Sodium, MSG, and high-frustose corn syrup are targets, too, and lots of chain restaurants will be advertising that their food is free of, or only contains the barest trace of, those nasties.  Paula McCarthy, executive chef of Amici Trattoria in Shrewsbury, by no means jumps on every dining trend that crosses her path, but does embrace a select few, including the move towards gluten free food.

amicilogoPaula understands the importance of staying on top of the culinary game.  She’s constantly on the hunt for fresh, innovative ways to satisfy all of her customers.  She travels, studies, and explores each exciting avenue she can find.

“A lot of the things that we’re trying to do include introducing people to more regions of Italy than they are typically exposed to,” McCarthy explains when discussing her menu.  “And I’ve been presenting the food of Emilia Romagna, Piedmont and really getting into it.  Italy is a huge country with a lot of diverse cuisine.  I’m having so much fun studying it and incorporating it into Amici’s dishes.”

The restaurant is an intimate setting, but don’t let the cozy atmosphere, charming ambiance and menu chock full of favorites lull you into thinking that this dining spot isn’t cutting edge.gb-dining-couple-copy

“We are trendsetting in that we are introducing these lesser known foods from the ever popular Italian peninsula,” McCarthy says.  She is also paying close attention to the changing diets and dietary needs of her clientele.

“A lot of people are getting away from refined white flour products,” she notes.  “I create a lot of specials that have little or no refined carbohydrates in them.   In fact, there are a number of items on my specials tonight that have themes other than pasta. We have about nine risottos on the menu and I frequently run other ones as specials.  And polenta and gnocchi are available too.  It’s not all about spaghetti and penne.”

McCarthy has also created an entirely gluten-free menu at Amici’s sister restaurant, The Steakhouse, and has just introduced a similar menu at Amici.

“We have gluten-free pasta available,” she says, “And right now, we’re experimenting with rice pasta as well as some other new products that I’ll be taste testing.  Some of the products out there that I’m testing are good, but some of it’s really nasty.  I want to serve my customers only the best and I think we’ve found some really wonderful options.”

McCarthy is happy to see that some of the once-trendy, “sillier cocktails” are being erased from restaurant menus and the more classic cocktails ~ well-made Manhattans and Sidecars, the classic craft cocktails ~ are taking center stage.

Finally, when it comes to technology, Amici Trattoria is utilizing Open Table and having great success with it.  “I’m known as low-tech girl,” McCarthy laughs.  “But I know that Open Table is a huge asset for us.”

For more information, stop by www.amicitrattoria.com/Homepage.htm.

CAFÉ CUISINE AND CULTURE It’s like a little bit of continental Europe…America will experience a resurgence of café cuisine and culture as an extension of the “smart casual” shift in fine dining of the past three years. The smart casual movement provided consumers with great quality fine food in a casual dining environment that was more approachable and comfortable but didn’t tip too far to the casual side.
JAPANESE STEAKHOUSES In today’s food trends, Japanese steakhouses (and sushi bars) are on the rise. The art that goes with the cooking is the attraction factor. The food is cooked right before your very eyes with a creative display of flames.
We got a chance to talk with John McHugh, co-owner of the new Hirosaki Prime Steakhouse on Worcester’s Grafton Street, and ask him about his take on the Japanese steakhouse trend.

Why do you think the trend of Japanese steakhouse is really taking off here in Worcester County ~ with yours at the forefront? Well, that’s simple ~ It’s not just taking off in Worcester County, it’s taking off everywhere because it’s new, healthy, and ~ at least if you’re eating here at Hirosaki Prime ~ it’s delicious!

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What is your definition of a Japanese steak house? Our definition of a Japanese steakhouse is a unique dining experience. Entrees are skillfully prepared and presented with great flair by one of our master teppan-yaki chefs, artfully created following the ancient customs of Japan.

What makes your restaurant stand out from the rest? For us, it’s more than just one element.  For instance, we have a chic design/decor plan/layout that promotes the most stimulating ambiance. Also, we have amazing chefs who masterfully prepare your entree right before your eyes to ensure great entertainment that will enhance your dining experience. We also use all prime meat [think Kobe!], which I’ve never heard of any Japanese steakhouse doing ~ and for that matter I don’t think anywhere in Worcester County offers as much prime selection as we do; pretty much all of our competitors use only “select” or “choice” meat.  Last but not least, we provide 5 star service ~ and a restaurant is only as good as its service.

Today’s menus in Japanese steakhouses are already influenced by other Asian cuisines. Some have even incorporated western flavor into their recipes, but majority of these restaurants still stick to their culture, giving you a variety of dishes from which to choose.

Visit www.hirosakiprime.com for more about the restaurant, which also encourages you to use Open Table to make your reservations!

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A SANDWICH BY ANY OTHER NAME Look for more regional American and ethnic sandwiches where ingredients like eggplant parm, fontina, yellow squash, pickled jalapenos, bbq potato chips, braised lamb, peanut butter, mint jelly and pappadam can all live happily under the roof of a single sandwich. Porchetta is a filling to watch, especially when it’s combined with chipotle aioli, ham, gruyere, and pickles ~ even chains like Panera are embracing the not-your-average-sandwich trend and adding ethnic ingredients to traditional American sandwiches to create some really delicious flavor profiles.

ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES “’Mad-Men’ style retro cocktails, high-cachet gin and bourbon, craft beers and punch (including sangria)” will maintain their popularity, and rum ~ with a seemingly endless variety when it comes to style, region, etc. ~ will continue to shape the landscape of cocktails in the coming year. Also, we’ll get to try more pre-mixed cocktails that riff on nostalgia-based drinks, punches made for adults (look for goji and acai super fruit flavors, so we can feel good about drinking them), and “healthy” cocktails sweetened with alternative sweeteners like agave syrup, cane sugar and Stevia.

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If you’ve been a wine drinker long enough, you’ve probably noticed wines breaking the 14, 15, even 16 percent level of alcohol, when just two decades ago the average was more like 13 percent. This trend will do a sort of split, with some wines going even higher in alcohol content and some winemakers caving in to wine lovers’ complaints that these “bodybuilder wines” are clumsy and unbalanced, difficult to drink with dinner and incapable of aging well in the cellar.

Latin-inspired cocktails will be gaining popularity across the country, too. The Nuevo Latino culinary culture has become mainstream and new cocktails are simply a natural extension.

Start taking a close look at beverage menus and you may start noticing an interesting ingredient in cocktails ~ beer!  With all the unique flavor profiles of craft beers to choose from ~ from Black Lager to Flemish Red to Milk Stout ~ bartenders have started using beer instead of soda to add new life to their creations.  It makes perfect sense, since the same things that make a beer unique make a cocktail unique: sweetness, bitterness, acidity, sourness, and ~ most importantly ~ originality and depth of flavor.

Paul Barber, owner of Shrewsbury Street’s hot spot The Flying Rhino, weighed in on the return of classic drinks as well as many of the other trends he’s bringing to the Rhino’s clientele.

Barber is all about keeping his restaurant’s menu fresh, interesting and utterly delicious.  Never one to be caught snoozing, Barber seeks out the best in local produce to serve to his diners.

“We work closely with Paquette Farms up in Shrewsbury and get our local ingredients from there.  They even grow things for us,” Barber says.  “They’re growing lemongrass for us this summer.  Now you can’t really grow lemongrass up here, but he’s doing it!  We have a great relationship where we shoot menu ideas back and forth and discuss what we can grow and how we can incorporate it into our dishes.”

Apart from staying local, Barber and The Flying Rhino are following the trend ~ or lifestyle choice ~ of staying healthy.
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“I feel that people are really starting to listen to the nutritional information that’s out there,” he says.  “I‘ve done some work with the American Heart Association.  When they did a walk event down Shrewsbury Street, we ran a heart healthy theme menu.  There was a different special every day and it sold great.  We’ve since kept that idea and about three to four days a week, we have a special from the heart healthy menu.”

Barber says that he’s noticed people paying more attention to portion sizes as well.  “The whole idea of ‘super large’ that and ‘super size’ this is going by the wayside.”  Barber says.  “It’s just not good for you to eat all that food.”

On the alcoholic beverage side of the restaurant biz, Barber admits to being old school when it comes to cocktails and he loves the fact that so many of the classic cocktails are returning.  But Barber remains Zen about it.  He knows that his favorite drinks are in style now, but who knows what next month may bring.

“I think it’s all cyclical,” he says.  “Comes in ebbs and flows.  Now it seems like the old school cocktails are coming back.  That’s fine with me.  I’m getting tired of having so many flavored vodkas on the bar!  That being said, there are some people who still like the sweet.  We have a watermelon mojito that people love.  The trends go back and forth.”

At The Flying Rhino, they are now exploring social networking tools like Facebook.  But Barber says that they have yet to use deal sites such as Groupon.com.

“I’d rather maintain the value of our food with a good menu instead of trying to keep up with the coupon clippers who are just looking for a good deal,” Barber says. “It’s a hard decision to make because things like Groupon are really popular right now.  But growing up, when I was a dishwasher, they started those two-for-one specials and I saw a lot of restaurants go down because there were too many of those specials going out. “

For more information, go to www.flyingrhinocafe.com.

HYPER-LOCAL
Buying from local business has been increasing in popularity over the past few years. Some restaurants are taking local to an even further level ~ they are growing their own products and doing their own butchering. You just can’t beat on-site slaughter for freshness!

farm-market1BETTER NUTRITION If you’ve watched any of the episodes of Jaime Oliver’s “Food Revolution”, (http://abc.go.com/shows/jamie-olivers-food-revolution) you’ve seen him trying to up the health quotient of elementary school cafeterias’ meals and show restaurants and fast-food chains that they can indeed stay in business after exchanging some of their less-healthful menu items for healthier ones that are just as delicious.  Jaime might be the celebrity face attached to the Better Nutrition movement, but he is certainly not alone in stressing the importance of good nutrition ~ and doing something about it.  Many different news sites are discussing 2012 being a landmark year for healthier food trends ~ for schools but also for fast food chains and restaurants.

Worcester’s own Smokestack Urban Barbecue, for example, has brought BBQ from the South right to us and General Manager Kevin Scopetski wants people to know that the delicious does not have to equal unhealthy.

At the Smokestack Urban Barbecue, Scopetski should be able to kick back, take it easy and not worry about staying on top of various restaurant trends.  Since this dining location is one of the very few BBQ joints in Central MA, that could make it trendsetting enough.  Still, Scopetski is consistently making certain that the delicious Smokestack comfort food meets and exceeds all dining expectations ~ and is happy to admit that he incorporates the “healthy eating” trend into his preparations.

According to the BBQ guru, the Southern states have always enjoyed the lip-smacking ribs and spicy, sweet chicken and over the years, the trend has made its way up to the North.  New York City embraced the glorious grilling a few years ago, says Scopetski, and now it’s coming home to Massachusetts.

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“We get a lot of people coming in here, telling us that they’re really happy they don’t have to drive for an hour to find this kind of food,” he says.

The general manager has been in the business long enough to see some of the food/alcohol trends go up in flames.  Right now, he feels that tapas style meals are falling out of favor with the diners.

“A few years ago, the big things was tapas ~ small appetizers that everyone could share.  That was big 2-3 years ago and I see that kind of fading out now.  It seems like comfort good is making a comeback.”

A trend that is here to stay (we hope!) is a push for healthy meals that include local ingredients.  Scopetski is first to admit that the Smokestack serves mouth-watering comfort food ~ and comfort food isn’t always diet-friendly, but theirs is superb.

“Everything we do is all made in house.  It’s all homemade food,” he says.  “We buy from local butcher shops and a lot of our produce does come from the Worcester area.  At the end of the day, we just want people to smile and enjoy the meal and feel good because the restaurant they’re at supports their community.”

Smokestack recently signed a contract with UrbanSpoon.com and now people will be able to make reservations online when they get a hankering for a hunk of BBQ.

For more info, go to www.bbqstack.com.

DINING GOES HIGH TECH Where should you go for dinner?  Do you need reservations? Want to place your order before you get there? Want to find some great deals? Does the restaurant’s have a decent wine list? There’s an app for [all] that!

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If you and your friends or loved ones can’t agree on where to have dinner, let UrbanSpoon choose for you.  Shake your phone and the app suggests restaurants in your area.  Make a game and say whatever it chooses is where you go, no matter what.  Then the only one who’ll get blamed if not everyone enjoys the meal is the app!ot-copy

OpenTable
With OpenTable for Android you can make free, instant, and confirmed restaurant reservations at more than 15,000 OpenTable-enabled restaurants in the US, Canada, and the UK. Plus, OpenTable members earn valuable Dining Rewards Points redeemable for Dining Checks good at any OpenTable restaurant.

How does it work? Specify your dining date, desired time and party size to view available tables at nearby restaurants ~ listed by proximity or plotted on an interactive map.

Mike Covino, owner of Niche Hospitality, is one of the forces that propels Worcester’s restaurant scene forward, always introducing new and unique ideas.  As the owner of The Citizen, Mezcal and Bocado, Covino doesn’t think of himself as trendy, instead simply saying that staying current on movements within the dining world is an absolute must.  He was one of the first restaurant owners in the city to use Open Table, and we got to talk to him about that technology ~ and about which current trends he has carefully chosen to incorporate into his businesses.

“We’re not trying to be trendy,” Covino says.  “To hop on the trend just for the sake of hopping on a trend is not what our approach is.  We try to stay true to what our concept is and if there are trends that fit…we’ll explore them.”

When a diner heads to The Citizen, located at 1 Exchange Street in Worcester, he is actually arriving at 3 different dining destinations.   There’s The Citizen, which is a wine, cheese, and chocolate bar, there’s The People’s Kitchen, the full service restaurant above The Citizen, and   there’s Still and Stir, which is the cocktail bar.

“At The Citizen, we’re always buying the best…We do a lot of gourmet comfort food and our goal is to use our local ingredients and the best ingredients and put them into amazing dishes like our American Chop Suey, our fried chicken.”

Niche_Return-Bird_Poster_Ver2.aiDespite not riding the trend train (and perhaps even staying a step ahead of it), Covino acknowledges that it does exist; while he appreciates some elements, others he’s more than happy to see disappear as quickly as they appeared.

“I’m not sorry to see some stuff on the beverage side of things go,” Covino says.  “The artificially-flavored syrups, the sticky sweet flavorings are really starting to go because of the advances in mixology. Having 30 flavored vodkas on the back of your bar is a thing of the past and I’m glad that’s gone.”

Covino believes there is a real interest in returning to a balanced cocktail ~ and in some cases that means using liqueurs or spirits that might have been around for a number of years but have been under-utilized.

“Our bartenders are very serious.  They understand the flavors, the need for balance, and do a lot of continuing education to expand their knowledge. They’re coming back with classic cocktails, made with the proper ratios, and there’s a real process to create a flavor profile ~ whether its picking their own bitters or making their own syrups from natural fruits instead of some sickly sweet mixture.”Pulse_Niche_FullPage_Functions_Ad.ai

In terms of technology, Covino has embraced Open Table, saying that his restaurants receive many reservations through the site and that it’s a terrifically powerful tool.  He’s slow to warm up to Groupon, however.

“I do think that Groupon can devalue the menu a little bit for restaurants. With Groupon, they send the offer to 100,000 people who are loyal to Groupon and are waiting for the next deal to drop. I think Groupon is an awesome idea for some things, but from a restaurateur’s perspective, I think it devalues the brand.  Giving discounts to my loyal followers is a good thing that works for me.”

For more on all the Niche Hospitality locations, please visit www.1nichexchange.com/citizen-wine-bar.php

iPad Wine Lists
The New York Times found one particular restaurant’s wine sales increased 11% just two weeks after they rolled out their wine list on the iPad.

7 Apps for Frugal Foodies
If you want to get a good deal on your next dinner out, never mind the print out coupons ~ just bring your phone.

Savvy restaurants have turned to a variety of social networking, coupon and geo-tagging phone apps, offering visitors equipped with smart phones specials and free food. All it takes is a few taps on the phone screen. No fancy smartphone? There are low-tech options, too, which let potential diners opt in to receive offers via text message.

While the apps below are a great starting point (check them out online to see which ones best fit your dining/financial needs!), don’t forget to check out your favorite restaurants directly, as more and more will have their own apps, helping them stand out from competitors and keep customers loyal.

•    Facebook
•    Foursquare
•    LuxCode
•    Scvngr
•    Groupon
•    Twitter
•    YWaiter
•    Living Social
•    Yelp Check-ins


THE COOLEST (and arguably geekiest) NEW TREND:  MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY (aka Culinology, aka the application of scientific principles to the understanding and improvement of small scale food preparation)test_tubes1

The fields of culinary arts and culinary science had a baby, and its name is Molecular Gastronomy. Many famous restaurants now have cooking and food laboratories on their premises, while universities and colleges around the country are beginning to offer degrees in culinology (a degree program that blends food science ~ the study of the chemical composition of food and food ingredients, their physical, biological and biochemical properties, and the interaction of food constituents with each other and their environment ~ and technology with culinary art).

If you’re like me and watch every episode of “Top Chef,” you already knew that this trend was going to be BIG. And you have to admit that it’s pretty cool, what with all that liquid nitrogen, emulsifiers, infrared spectrometer nuclear magnetic resonance machines (for real!), syringes and 24 carat gold and all the weird combinations (fried calamari with cantaloupe, anyone?) of flavors and textures ~ some never created before under any circumstances ~ that result.

Want to see some of this wizardry in action?  Tune into “Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen” on the Syfy Channel and check out www.syfy.com/marcelsquantumkitchen.  And if you want to find out even more cool stuff about the science of cooking, take a look at these sites:  www.exploratorium.edu/cooking (The Accidental Scientist’s Science of Cooking) and http://khymos.org.

Read about more trends that are or may soon be making their way across the US ~ like New Cuts of Meat, Night Markets, Chefs on the Move, Seafood with Integrity, Bicycle Cafes, Food Trucks, and even Test Tube Burgers, plus some buzzwords that you’ll be hearing a lot in the coming year in the extended cover story at www.thevitalitymag.com.

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