More customers are seeing seafood as a healthier choice, a good value and a nostalgic summertime favorite all in one.
Consider these seafood menu items, all great catches for a dining operation near you: Lobster in a martini glass, chilled and layered with guacamole, red onions and bacon. Low country shrimp and grits with the richest of flavors. Pan-seared tuna in filo dough that looks like a work of art. Simply prepared New England broiled cod, kid-friendly and healthful.
Creative, Upscale Seafood Concept
The starting point for Eurest Dining Services' innovative “Lobster 4 Ways” station program was the traditional lobster roll, an East Coast icon that has been getting quite a lot of foodie love as of late.
From that initial idea came three months of testing, tasting and strategizing on the concept, with the goal of several playful dishes that were somewhat interactive with the customers, says Daniel Wisel, divisional chef, Eurest Dining Services.
Wisel, another chef and a marketing manager from Eurest considered plate appeal, station set-up and the generation of buzz for the new station.
Each of the ‘ways’ the lobster is served offer flexibility for the different demographic mix of many accounts in seven states on the East Coast Wisel works with, such as Liberty Mutual, the CVS global headquarters, Microsoft and more.
Each lobster dish begins with a lightly poached hard shell Maine lobster. The event, initially slated for once every few months, is scheduled more often in the summer, when lobster prices are good, Wisel says.
The first choice hits the broadest section of customers; “white collar, gray collar and blue collar” workers all love the classic Lobster Rolls, which strongly evoke memories of summers spent at the shore, getting sunburned and stopping at a roadside shack after the beach, Wisel says.
With this iconic dish, the key is minimalism in dressing the lobster — letting the sweet, succulent meat speak for itself. (see chart, p. 28, for all four ways).
The buzz for the Lobster 4 Ways event comes by way of elegant point-of-sale signage at the café's entrance one week prior to the scheduled event. E-mail blasts are deployed prior to the event and signs are also posted at coffee stations and employee bulletin boards.
The heirloom tomatoes and super fresh produce is emphasized in promotions, Wisel says. He calls the event an example of “focused innovation.”
“It's great to be innovative, but focused innovation is what rings the register, and this rings the register really hard,” he says. “We normally serve around 70 or 80 of these. It brings a good profit. The price point is set a little bit higher, but $8 is a great deal for lobster. The customers see the value. They know they would pay $20 for this in a restaurant.”
Causing a Feeding Frenzy
Shrimp & Grits is one of the most beloved seafood dishes of the Southeast…comfort food that's truly down-home.
At the University of Richmond, VA, the creamy, satisfying dish — spiked with Andouille sausage — has become one of Chef Glenn Pruden, CEC's signature dishes. (see recipe at right).
Pruden made his version of shrimp and grits at the 2010 UMass Chefs Culinary Conference. The Andouille sausage provides fat for cooking plus a distinctive flavor, and the whole delicious dish gets a great background flavor from caramelized onions and then a bright dash of fresh parsley seals the deal, all served over tender grits.
“What makes it so darn good? The stone ground grits I use are the best. And I use a rich homemade chicken stock, good Parmesan cheese and heavy cream. It's key to remember to not overcook the shrimp, as well,” Pruden says.
“A chef from Charleston, SC, told me my shrimp and grits were better than his,” Pruden boasts. “They were also the talk of the Mid Atlantic NACUFS Conference, where I did an Asian version: Pho Shrimp & Grits.”
Seasonality and Sustainability
The Wright, the fine-dining venue inside the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, is named for famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and just as you would expect, the design is breathtaking.
Lobster 4 Ways
| Lobster #1: Lobster-Roll Inspired: just a touch of mayonnaise, a bit of lemon juice and possibly whichever fresh herbs each account may have on hand that day. It's served on a roll and accompanied by a festive slaw red cabbage slaw. Colorful heirloom tomatoes are often found on the plate as well, if available. |
Lobster #2: Ceviche: chilled lobster briefly marinaded in blood orange or lime juice, served in martini glasses with guacamole and overflowing with fresh cilantro, finely chopped red onion, bacon, tomatillo salsa, grape tomatoes and/or actual grapes.
Lobster #3: Sushi. This is a very popular station and also contains a riot of colorful fresh vegetables rolled into the sticky rice with the poached lobster.
Lobster #4: Action station that “bring the chef out into the dining room to provide an exciting, interactive atmosphere,” Wisel says. The chef creates Lobster Pad Thai with all the traditional flavors, or Lobster Chow Fun with thick noodles.
The modern look of the dining area features a curving wall of walnut illuminated by colorful ‘horizons’ of fiber-optics done by a British artist, blue-leather banquettes and a white bar clad in metalwork in the 1,600-sq. ft. space, accessible through the museum's rotunda and also with an entrance at 88 th and 5 th Avenue.
Popular with museum visitors, the restaurant also attracts customers from the neighborhood (especially at Sunday brunch), and for staff having the occasional upscale business lunch.
The menu, developed by Executive Chef Rodolfo Contreras, holds its own among the gorgeous surroundings.
“We're very big on presentation,” says Aaron Breitman, director, Restaurant Associates, the Wright.
The plates have visual impact — such as the yellowfin tuna appetizer: pan-seared tuna in a filo dough, artfully arranged in a ‘garden’ of local vegetables and herbs with toasted pine nuts and a sesame aioli.
Breitman describes the menu as ‘American seasonal.’
“American seasonal means that throughout the year, we make subtle changes — not wholesale overhauls — to the menu that reflect the seasons,” Breitman says, describing a mid-spring transition of a pan-seared King salmon dish that is served with asparagus and ramps when those items sprout up at local farms. On a prix fixe menu that appeals to value-conscious tourists especially, seared diver scallops and shrimp are served with a piquillo pepper sauce, a lighter sauce that's well-suited to summer.
Seafood items that regularly appear on the menu are salmon and tuna, and although not locally caught, they are sourced locally, Breitman says. His company pays attention to the changing lists of which species are better for the planet at any given time.
Sustainability is a big initiative for many foodservice management companies, including Restaurant Associates.
“Our choices of seafood are guided by the Environmental Defense Fund, in terms of the best seafood to be using,” Breitman says.
(For more information on sustainable seafood, visit the Environmental Defense Fund's Eco-Best Fish Seafood Selector at www.edf.org for “Eco-Best,” “Eco-Okay,” and “Eco-Worst” lists of seafood, or the Seafood Watch page at www.montereybayaquarium.org)
Breitman has noticed more and more customers asking about the sustainability of the seafood on the menu, and being “much more well-educated about types of seafood than even five years ago. They know about snapper and black cod…not just lobster, shrimp and scallops,” he says.
Sushi continues to move aggressively into the mainstream, he adds, with “people seeking out sushi much more so than even five years ago.”
“It's not unusual to see a 12 year old ordering sashimi.”
Who Says Kids Won't Eat Fish?
While New York City kids are ordering sushi at The Wright, their counterparts elsewhere in the country are also disproving the old rule that: “Kids won't eat fish — unless it's fish sticks.”
That's the notion Brendan Ryan set out to disprove when he started work as director of foodservice at the Framingham (MA) School District.
According to Ryan, the genius of his kid-pleasing fish dish, broiled cod, is in the simplicity.
He takes a 60 qt. mixing bowl of bread crumbs, canola oil and garlic powder for a crunchy, garlicky crumb topping, which sometimes gets a little extra zing from onion powder and paprika.
Then, he sprays sheet pans with a little bit of oil and a tiny bit of water to keep the cod from drying out and roasts the fish.
“We did a lot of tastings and went out into the cafeteria a lot,” Ryan says.
The recipe met with success, and Ryan says he is proud to share some “comfort food from New England” with the students. The cod is often served at lunch with potatoes and steamed corn.
“I consider it a victory to get them to eat something that's not shaped like stars or cartoon characters,” Ryan says. “This is real New England comfort food.”