Fine Dining Familiarity
By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor
Classic entrees with a gourmet touch are among the most popular items at white-tablecloth restaurants.
There is a time for grabbing a burger at a drive-through restaurant and a time for eating at a casual, family-friendly restaurant. However, there are other times when consumers want to find a place with white tablecloths, a full wine selection and a menu that doesn’t feature a kids’ section. The upscale, fine-dining segment of the foodservice industry is not showing any signs of weakness, as diners continue to look for a high-end night out.
Brian Enyart, managing chef of the Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago, says that while some people may be eating out less because of economic concerns, “for people who are looking to go out and eat good food, that’s already billed as part of their disposable income. The foodies who are going to fine-dining restaurants are going to do it regardless. I myself am one of those, where going out to eat is a priority of mine.”
Naturally, consumers who are willing to spend upward of $40 for an entrée are going to expect high-quality food when they’re eating out. Franklin Becker, executive chef at the Patina Group’s Brasserie restaurant, located in New York City, adds that consumers still prefer the same flavors that have always satisfied them, but they are increasing their knowledge of the food they are eating. For example, the Mediterranean sea bass at his restaurant is simply prepared, with lemon, extra virgin olive oil and other seasonings. “It’s all about the quality and technique of cooking, and the consumer appreciates that. Now with the Top Chef movement and every other television show that celebrates our field, people are becoming more and more aware and wanting to know where the fish was caught, the coast of Greece or the coast of Spain. They actually ask our waiters those questions.”
Enyart says that diners like being playfully challenged. “I’ve been noticing more in the fine-dining world, the seriousness of it is downplayed a little. It’s still very refined cuisine, and people are doing some very cool techniques, but it’s not as staunch as it was before.” He points out fine-dining takes on things such as fried chicken and donuts, as examples.
Enyart says that his restaurants added grass-fed beef, supplied by Tallgrass Beef, about six months ago, and the acceptance has been overwhelming. Frontera Grill has been known for its corn-fed Ribeye, but it wanted to put grass-fed beef on the menu to see what would happen. “We ran both at the same time, a corn-fed Ribeye and a grass-fed Ribeye at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, and the grass-fed Ribeye has surpassed the corn-fed Ribeye in sales — on some days almost double.” And those sales are with the grass-fed Ribeye costing more than the corn-fed version.
The two types of beef have different tastes, and Enyart has had to alter the preparation methods to accommodate for that difference. “In Frontera Grill, when we grill it, we grill it a little bit less than we would the corn-fed meat, because it has less fat in it. We bolster that with a little extra heat to the dish to make it more interesting, because it doesn’t have that developed fat flavor,” he says. At Topolobampo, the grass-fed Ribeye is smoked.
Similarly, the restaurants have been serving all-natural chicken for some time. While the chicken dishes are very popular, some guests have occasionally complained that the chicken tastes too much like chicken. “The flavor is much deeper and has more of a poultry flavor instead of that blank, white flavor that we’ve been accustomed too,” Enyart says. “We had to re-familiarize ourselves with what food was intended to taste like.”
Becker is also an advocate of natural and organic products. “The world will be much healthier if we got rid of all the ‘toxic foods’ and ate pure, sustainable product,” he says. “For me it’s become a way of life, and I think customers, especially with the increases of autism and diabetes out there, people are much more conscious about what they put in their bodies than they were five years ago.”
One of the things that Brasserie has done on its menu is to add descriptors to some of its protein entrees. Its pork loin isn’t just pork loin; it is called Berkshire pork loin. The pan roasted lamb is from Colorado. “It triggers to them that we’re carrying a quality product,” Becker explains. “[They ask] ‘Why are they mentioning Giannone chicken? It’s got to be good.’ Then when they find out it’s hormone-and antibiotic-free and it’s air-chilled, then they go and have that chicken and experience a great product.”
Becker says that he is expecting taste trends from Eastern Europe begin to influence the industry, followed by Latin America and Africa. “I think you’re going to see in upscale restaurants more pickling. I think you’re going to see a greater usage of ingredients such as sour cream, that add depth to a dish,” he says. “It’s a very comforting cuisine, and people are really going in that direction now.”
Being a managing chef of two leading Chicago Mexican restaurants, Enyart freely admits his bias in saying that Latin flavors are at the cutting edge of the culinary world. “One of the reasons why is that we’ve got such a wide array of flavors and tastes. It’s not as singular as some European-style cuisine.” He adds that Asian flavors are popular, as diners are familiar enough with that cuisine that they’ll take a chance on an Asian-inspired entrée. “You can interweave Asian ingredients through fine-dining cuisine and have it always seem exotic and worth the extra money.
“That’s the Catch-22 of ethnic cuisine in the fine-dining world,” he adds. “You’ve got to have enough familiarity that they’ll order it but enough exoticness to make it worth the while.”