A. Elizabeth Sloan

“Garlic wok seared,” “apple-wood smoked,” “red wine braised” and “goat cheese encrusted” are just some of the mouth-watering flavors conjured up by menu descriptors emanating from cooking techniques—one of today’s hottest restaurant trends.

Today, it is not uncommon for a single ingredient to be marinated, smoked, and seared, all in one dish. At the same time, cooking techniques are becoming more theatrical, with cedar planks, brick oven rotisseries, flaming skewers, clay pots, and cooking in parchment gaining in popularity.

According to the Chain Menu Account Survey (CAMS), grilled was again the preparation method most frequently mentioned on restaurant menus last year, with twice as many mentions as fried, which ranked second. Smoked, toasted, and sautéed also gained in menu frequency. Strong, bold, Latin-inspired flavors and greater utilization of heartier spices, herbs, and chilies have given grilling a new lease on life. While the current trend to street foods—which relies heavily on grilling and trendy ethnic ingredients as well as a “healthy” connotation—will keep grilling strong, other cooking techniques are receiving culinary attention:

Low and Slow. Not all trendy techniques are about high heat. In the upscale market, braised and slow cooking now appear on menus with sophistication and style. Slow-roasting, braising, stewing, and poaching allow chefs to explore less-expensive and underutilized cuts as well as to maintain moisture in ingredients with a low fat content. With the increasing demand for comfort foods, and few at-home cooks taking the time to make slow-roasted fare, it’s no wonder that several slow-roasted meats appeared among the largest sales gainers in Restaurant & Institution’s 2001 Menu Census Survey. Similarly, the National Cattleman’s Association reported that roast beef and prime rib were up 6.5% last year.

Poaching, the lower-temperature, gentler, and less-time-demanding relative of braising, is also getting attention. Although the technique involves cooking in seasoned liquid, some chefs are using fat. Accompanied by luscious sauces and flavorful sides, pot roast, beef stew, beef bourguignon, marinated veal and lamb shanks, beer-braised short ribs, Shepherd’s pie, and slow-cooked meaty sandwiches such as brisket and pulled pork are becoming top-selling menu staples. Pan roasting—which begins on the stove to brown and then finishes in the oven—is also moving center stage.

The latest trend in the popular “smoke” category, is plank cooking. Although it has been around for centuries, with Native Americans often using the technique to cook fish, contemporary chefs are using the simple technique to prepare chicken, beef tenderloin, pork chops, fish fillets, and even cheeses. Cedar is the most popular wood for plank cooking, though other woods such as cherry, apple, oak maple, and hickory also work well.

A New Generation. While rotisseries have long been a mainstay of chicken establishments and family-style restaurants, a new generation of bigger, more elaborate wood-burning and gas-heated units are giving the time-honored technique renewed attention. Meats spit-roasted over eucalyptus wood, roast suckling pig, French-roasted (no sauce) baby back ribs, soft, succulent roasted ducks, and other fatty birds are becoming trendy additions. Brazilian-style churrascarias, which prepare whole prime ribs, ribeyes, and sirloin roasts, pork loins, and even legs of lamb on sword-like spits in a rotisserie, are growing in popularity. Fattier cuts are cooked above lean cuts so that the dripping fat bastes the meat below. Servers then offer meat to guests directly from the spit.

Foods presented in a cooking vessel are also a growing trend. Operators bring roasts and poultry to the table in clay pots, with stews in steaming terrines, or offer fare in cast iron skillets or sizzling sauté pans. Foams are becoming more visible in higher-end restaurants. Examples range from garlic foam on meats, soup, or fish to marshmallow foam on chocolate cake. Espuma is a new term for forcing compressed air into something that is mostly liquid so that it becomes foam. Fricassee is another term gaining attention. While defined differently in France, it is a dish of meat, usually chicken, that has been sautéed in butter, which browns the meat before stewing with vegetables.

Barbecue. Of the Big 4 flavors, barbecue and Caesar show slight declines in menu mentions, according to CAMS, while buffalo and Cajun continue to increase. However, barbecue continues to grow in nontraditional menu applications—less than half of barbecue sauce mentions are part of traditional entrees.

Interestingly, several of the large restaurant chains known for trying to take barbecue off the back roads are now concentrating on selling grilled foods and expanding their menus beyond smoked meats. Once famous for ribs, Tony Roma’s, the nation’s largest restaurant chain serving barbecue, is in the middle of repositioning its concept into Tony Roma’s Rib Grill.

Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends & Solutions, Inc.
Escondido, Calif.