This article first appeared in the 1 September 2005 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com
Appetizers set the tone for a meal and convey an operation's personality. A pleasing mix of expected and surprising starters tells guests they made a wise dining choice.
At midscale restaurants, predictable choices frequently consist of nachos, quesadillas and chicken wings. The challenge is to brand these familiar appetizers with a concept's distinctive flavors. Chili's Grill & Bar's Boneless Shanghai Wings glaze chicken breast strips with ginger-citrus sauce and add wasabi-infused ranch dressing for dipping while The Cheesecake Factory combines chicken strips and Buffalo-style sauce in crisp wrappers.
At fine-dining operations, seafood and shellfish are commonplace on appetizer menus. Shrimp cocktail remains a best-selling starter at steakhouses, though frequently embellished. Delmonico Steakhouse in Las Vegas, for example, offers citrus-boiled-shrimp cocktail with shaved cucumber, red onion and vodka-infused cocktail sauce.
Seviche, fresh raw fish or shellfish "cooked" in citrus juice, is gaining in popularity. The Four Seasons in New York City prepares seviche of diver scallops, lobster and shrimp. At Frontera Grill in Chicago, Chef-owner Rick Bayless' Mexican version layers lime-marinated shrimp, jicama infused with cilantro and green chiles, honey mango and caramelized avocado.
The globalization of appetizers at nonethnic operations is evident in the pot stickers served at T.G.I. Friday's and Southwestern Spring Rolls on the menu at Ruby Tuesday. Even Washington, D.C.'s Old Ebbitt Grill, opened in 1856, now invites guests to start their meals with Seared-Tuna "Martini" with Asian slaw and wasabi crème fraîche.
On the Menu
First courses are playgrounds for kitchen creativity. Among the trends and preparations on menus now:
Upscale Cheese Bites
Fried beer-battered Brie with jam. -Old Ebbitt Grill, Washington, D.C.
Black grouper seviche with rum, crushed lime, tropical fruit, red-pepper vinaigrette and sweet-potato tuiles. -Commander's Palace, New Orleans
Chicken wings tossed in sweet-and-hot ginger sauce. -Ruby Tuesday, multiple locations
Crispy breaded chicken breast topped with sweet-and-spicy ginger-citrus sauce and sesame seeds then served with spicy-cool wasabi-ranch dipping sauce. -Chili's Grill & Bar, multiple locations
Herb-seared carpaccio and tartare of ahi tuna with chipotle sour cream and mango-soy sauce. -The Manor Restaurant, West Orange, N.J.
According to the R&I's 2005 Menu Census, these popular starters are the most commonly menued appetizers or entrees: