STRANGE BUT TRUE

Off-the-wall takes on the menu can drive sales

There’s no playing it safe anymore. Like the design of a restaurant, consumers want food that excites them in a way that’s unexpected or unusual, and prompts a double-take. When that happens, the item has social media muscle, driving engagement thanks to FOMO, and it makes consumers want to try the “next best thing.”

The spectrum for odd is wide, varied and subjective, making it suitable for any restaurant. Just be sure that the end result always tastes good and that it’s not weird for weird’s sake, these operators say.

BEAN JELLO IN RED CHILI SAUCE


These chilled white noodles with the consistency of gelatin are a popular dish that originated in northern Sichuan during the late Qing Dynasty. At Z & Y Restaurant in San Francisco, executive chef Lijun Han prepares the tender noodles by stirring dissolved green bean or pea starch quickly in simmering water until the paste becomes transparent. Sweet potato starch also can be used as a substitute. Once the concoction sets in the refrigerator for several hours, thin noodles are cut and tossed in a chili- and sesame oil-based sauce, which can be easily adjusted to taste, including for milder palates. As a final garnish, he adds crushed peanuts for a sweet crunch.

“This dish is more popular with Chinese guests than American guests,” Han says. “And it’s especially popular during warmer summer months. This is a more fragrant spicy, so it’s not as spicy as many Sichuan dishes.” The noodles can last for up to a week in the refrigerator; you’ll just want to rinse with warm, then cool water to rehydrate them and restore the tender texture. Han says the plain gluten-free noodles are a great foundation for a number of flavors, so you can get creative with any special housemade sauces – even sweet flavors.

FOIE GRAS DIPPIN’ DOTS

At Jattö, in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, chef Henry Hané uses a squeeze bottle and liquid nitrogen to turn foie gras into nostalgic Dippin’ Dots, served as a shareable appetizer with mango and papaya. “I wanted to create a fun and nostalgic take on the typical foie gras terrine,” Hané says. “Typically, when working with liquid nitrogen, heavy, fat-based ingredients lend themselves very well to being frozen and not losing any of their flavor profile characteristics.” The dish has quickly become one of their bestsellers, and is most commonly posted on social media.

TARTARE CIGARS

Sometimes you don’t need a new recipe, but just a new presentation to refresh a menu. Reimagine a tired tartare as a tartare cigar by rolling it in feuille de brick pastry or phyllo dough for a playful but sophisticated finger food. At The Green Room in Burbank, California, rolled brick pastry is filled with steak tartare with a dollop of caviar on the end to resemble cigars. The dish is served in a crystal ashtray with burnt onion ash and a smoke-filled cigar box for tableside pomp. Similarly, the tuna cigars at Crustacean in Beverly Hills are also presented in a smoky cigar box. This easily shareable version of tartare ensures diners get the perfect ratio of tuna to crispy brick pastry in each bite.

PINK FRIES

Serving a familiar food in a bright and unexpected hue is sure to turn heads across the dining room. Much like Starbucks famous “pink drink,” one of the most popular sides at Spark in Oklahoma City is simply called “pink fries.” The eye-catching pile of crinkle-cut fries is piled high with Parmesan cheese, fresh parsley and Spark’s pink sauce, made by folding beet purée into a scratch-made aioli for a sweet and earthy condiment with a garlicky punch.

“Guests are more curious about our pink fries than anything else on the menu,” says Kyle Toland, director of operations. “They are a ‘must-try’ item to see what all the hype is about. People order them for the first time for an Instagram post, then keep coming back for more.” To keep up with demand, Spark makes batches of their pink sauce daily to top the fries piping hot from the fryer.

DEEP-DISH TOASTED BLACK SESAME BASQUE CHEESECAKE BROWNIE

Chef/owner Jessie Smith takes a rebellious approach to her desserts at St. Beatrix in Portland, Oregon, with whimsical and exuberant twists on classic pastries. For this double-decker, gluten-free cheesecake brownie, she layers black sesame-flavored Basque cheesecake on top of a fudgy brownie. “It’s a relatable but exciting pastry,” she says. “Definitely for somebody who likes bold, rich flavors. Black sesame and chocolate both share nutty, roasty depth, and texturally the fudgy brownie is nicely complemented by the lighter, fluffier and creamier cheesecake.”

Plus, Smith says, this is a forgiving recipe and an extremely simple traybake that can easily be frozen. “Typically, this brownie would cook a lot quicker and baked at this temperature, would burn,” she says. “But the layer of cheesecake on top protects the heat exposure from reaching the brownie too much. There’s also a lot of room for thickness variance and dish variance in size and cutting of a traybake, so it’s a flexible product.”

WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT WHAT YOU GET (BUT IN A GOOD WAY)

Pastry chef Cedric Grolet has inspired countless peers with his hyper-realistic fruit desserts – lemons, apples, figs and strawberries – that are carefully composed entremets with layers of praline, mousse and cake, all encased in a glossy chocolate shell or glaze.

The optical illusion is known as trompe-l’œil in the art world – trick of the eye. Grolet’s Instagram stories, @cedricgrolet, and reels show how he assembles these vivid creations, and chefs in North America are learning from the Parisian pastry master. At Ariete in Miami, chef Michael Beltran serves an “orange” inspired by Florida citrus made of chicken mousse and duck sour orange pâté, served over crumbly sweet chocolate dirt with a loaf of white bread for spreading. The crowning glory at Park Hyatt Toronto’s modern afternoon tea service is a glossy larger-than-life cherry that encapsulates the flavors of black forest cake in each bite: chocolate sponge cake, whipped cream and a macerated cherry center, finished with a chocolate stem.