Bar snacks and appetizers continue to evolve and change with Americans’ quest for more flavor. One of the most fertile arenas for new directions is borrowing from both established and emerging ethnic cuisines. Ethnic items are a great way for operators to add spice—figuratively and literally—to bar offerings.
Although the definition of ethnic food itself continues to progress, adaptions of these offerings at the bar are valuable in a number of ways to operators. Approaches vary, and often modifications are necessary for wider customer appeal. Many operators have found success in the ethnic formula, and they are on the hunt for the next hot ethnic food.
Quick, what’s ethnic? Although it may seem straightforward, the definition of ethnic food is a slippery and changeable one. “Many foods lose their ethnic connotations over time,” says Jeffrey Pilcher, Ph.D. and professor at the Department of History at the Twin Cities-based University of Minnesota, who specializes in the role of food and drink in history.
Now considered as American as baseball, frankfurters and hamburgers came out of German emigrant communities, he points out. Other Americanized foods include pizza and chili, and more are becoming assimilated with time. “For example, Mexican burritos have become the ubiquitous non-ethnic wraps on many different restaurant menus,” adds Pilcher.
When the Vancouver, British Columbia-based Earls casual-dining company turned to ethnic dishes to change up the menu nearly 30 years ago, one of the first experiments was with then-unfamiliar Italian food. Now the 64-unit chain, with restaurants in the Western U.S. as well as Canada, counts Latin and Asian accents among its starters’ menu. Earls’ bar food includes Edamame (soy beans) steamed and tossed with sea salt, priced at $6, Grilled Shrimp Tacos, with lime-avocado cream dipping sauce, $8.50, and Ginger Pork Potstickers, served with citrus Ponzu sauce and drizzled with Japanese mustard, on offer for $8.50.
Whatever the definition, there’s no question that ethnic influences are huge. The Chicago-based research firm Mintel pegged ethnic food sales in the U.S. at $2.2 billion last year. Dominating the category are Mexican and other Hispanic foods, which are “so mainstream they’re hardly considered ethnic anymore,” according to the Ethnic Foods Report, which was published in September 2009. Driving interest in ethnic food are new product introductions, the popularity of TV cooking shows and international travel, according to the Mintel report.
Putting ethnic accents on menus can give operators an advantage as they can offer flavors that competitors aren’t. “Our intention was to serve something different that no other restaurants in the area were serving,” says Kevin Settles, owner of Bardenay, a three-unit chain of distillery restaurants, based in Boise, Idaho.
Some of Bardenay’s small plates include Seared Rare Peppered Ahi Tuna, with wasabi-soy dipping sauce, priced at $11.95; Mediterranean plate, composed of baba gahanoush and olive and sun-dried tomato tapenade with pita, $9.95; and Satays marinated in red curry with a hoisin-peanut dipping sauce for $6.95. “When we started doing them 10 years ago, even the simplest things were unusual,” recalls Settles. “No other restaurant around Boise was doing skewers. Same thing with hummus. You didn’t see seared Ahi on menus then; now everybody’s got it.”
Successful ethnic-accented dishes make for ideal bar snacks and appetizers. Their spiciness cries out for a thirst-quenching drink and they offer a tasty platform to show off the chef’s inventiveness and entice customers to sit down to dinner.
“My bar menu does help sell more drinks,” agrees Anita Jaisinghani, co-owner of Indika in Houston. Her restaurant serves “progressive” Indian cuisine using local ingredients, with selections like Pani Poori, wheat puffs and black beans, with a tamarind-cumin-mint broth and Dahi Poori, wheat puffs with black beans, potatoes and sprouts, yogurt and chutneys, priced at $9 each.“We actually seldom get people who come to the bar only to drink,” she explains, “most come to eat and drink.”
“We developed spicy appetizers that we thought would taste good with a variety of cocktails because we have such a strong cocktail focus. And these work well,” says Settles at Bardenay.
Often the best pairing with ethnic foods is an ethnic beverage. “Our Peruvian Pisco Sour, priced at $8, works well with a lot of the tapas on our bar menu,” says Maureen Hautaniemi, general manager at The Savant Project, a Latin-Asian fusion restaurant, in Boston. The cocktail’s citrus flavor cuts through the unctuousness of Three Cheese Empanadas with pickled jalapeños, priced at $8.50, and also quenches the spicy heat. The house-made, lychee-infused gin in the Frenching An Asian cocktail, priced at $9, features tropical fruit that complements the Asian starters. “I think the spices in the food always need to balance with something sweet, which is why many of our cocktails match well,” says Jaisinghani. The list includes innovative concoctions such as the Jaipur, made with Campari, lychee and Tito’s Vodka; and the Kama Sutra, made with passion fruit, Beefeater Gin and cranberry juice, both priced at $10 each.
“Ethnic foods are an incubator, providing ideas for new menu items, an easy way to add variety and spice things up a bit,” says Professor Pilcher. “It’s easier for companies to borrow a dish then come up with something entirely new.”
“Our restaurant offers Latin-Asian fusion cuisine [from several countries]. That gives our chef a lot more to work with in terms of flavors,” says Hautaniemi. The Savant Project’s menu features a dozen ethnic-themed small plates, including Spanish Fried Rice at $7 and Tuna Sashimi in a wasabi vinaigrette, priced at $9.50.
Ethnic or not, many chefs find that bar snacks are a good way keep food costs down through cross utilization of ingredients. “Appetizers are a great way to use up trim,” points out Settles, who says Bardenay’s satays use beef and chicken trim. Thai-spiced Salmon Cakes served with green curry vinaigrette and Asian vegetable slaw, priced at $8.95, is new. “One reason we put the item on the menu is because we sell a tremendous amount of salmon and have a lot of scrap,” explains Settles.
Another kind of cross-utilization came about when Hautaniemi had a pile of pumpkin innards during a Jack-o-Lantern carving promotion. She roasted the seeds, tossed them with salt and gave Pepitas away as a Mexican-style snack.
“Wings are on the bar menu because I buy whole chickens and want to use the whole bird,” explains Jaisinghani. These are not your standard buffalo wings; Jaisinghani rubs the grilled wings with tamarind and chili and serves them with a yogurt sauce for $9. Also on Indika’s new menu, Muscovy duck livers for $10, gets a fusion treatment with fig chutney. One of the most popular and unusual starters is a Baby Goat Burger for $14, served on a house-made bun with beet Raita, grilled onions, Chèvre cheese and sweet potato fries.
Tamarind and goat meat may not be familiar to most Americans, but the reason these items work on Indika’s menu is that in the guise of wings and burgers they are familiar bar fare with a twist. Similarly, The Savant Project offers two variations on the familiar slider burgers: Beef Sliders with ginger, cilantro and cucumber for $9.50, and Tuna Sliders with jalapeños, sesame and taro chip at $10.
“Our Spicy Asian Plum-Glazed Wings for $7.95, use Thai spices because that positions them as more upscale than traditional hot wings,” says Settles of Bardenay’s twist. “But, if we went way out with some exotic ethnic foods it might not go over well.”
Sometimes the ethnicity factor has to be scaled back to appeal to mainstream customers. It’s often more of a tweak than a twist. When Earls introduced sushi a few years ago, for example, it used smoked fish in the rolls. “Rather than raw fish that people might be afraid of,” says chef Hirji, “the sushi was still authentic but more approachable.” Currently on the starters menu, Dynamite Shrimp Rolls for $8.50 that feature tempura cooked shrimp.
Merchandising ethnic bar snacks usually involves borrowing foreign terminology in something of a name game. Mezze, a Middle Eastern term for appetizers, is often used, as is tapas, the Spanish term for small plates. The Savant Project labels its bar food under the “Tapas” rubric and goes so far as to explain the term on the menu. “I’m doing street food, but a version that would appeal to a crowd,” says Jaisinghani about the positioning of her bar menu. The Lentil and Spinach Burger, for $12, is something one would find in Mumbai, she says. And Bread Pakora stuffed with chutney, cucumber, cheese and tomatoes, for $9, is classic Indian street fare.
What does the future hold?
Looking for that competitive edge, many restaurateurs are asking: where are the emerging ethnic cuisines? Look at countries whose cuisines are already popular and customers are familiar with, but pick out regions there that haven’t been tapped, suggests Professor Pilcher. Oaxaca and Puebla in Mexico, for example, or Shanghai or Fukien in China.
In the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2010,” the professional chefs surveyed predicted the next hot ethnic cuisines will come from Africa/Maghreb or North Africa, Latin/South America and Southeast Asia. Get out your globe and start developing the next wave of ethnic bar snacks.
“We’re always looking for bold flavors,” says Earls’ chef Hirji, “which are so addictive that when customers taste them, they say, ‘Wow, I would go back for that.’ ”