Despite having been targeted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for unsubstantiated health claims, pomegranates have soared in popularity over the past decade.
Even with the negative press earlier this year — which focused on one company’s assertions that pomegranate juice could help prevent or cure cancer and diabetes — the “Chinese apple,” as it was once commonly known, may soon become even more popular with chefs.
A recently introduced variety of pomegranate contains smaller, softer and more edible white inner pits inside the arils, the jewel-like red seeds. However, current availability of the new fruit, called the Angel Red pomegranate, is limited, and chefs are buying it as rapidly as it comes in.
“I’ll use it as much as I can get it,” said chef Joseph Gillard of Napa Valley Grille in Westwood, Calif. “They are pretty highly sought after.”
Comparing Angel Reds with traditional pomegranates, Gillard called the new variation “much more tolerable.” Besides being more palatable, Angel Reds also are juicier because of the smaller pits, Gillard said.
He added that the Angel Reds are a bit smaller than traditional pomegranates — between the size of a baseball and softball. The price tag is higher, though; they cost about $3 each, compared with $1.75 for regular ones at the same farmers market.
Currently, he is including the Angel Red arils in an $11 salad with heirloom greens, cider vinaigrette, a breaded and fried egg, and pork. Gillard fries confited pork belly lardons and coats them with a pomegranate glaze of reduced juice with shallots, garlic, agave and thyme.
And while the new variety was just introduced earlier this fall at Napa Valley Grille, Gillard said customers’ initial reactions have been favorable. Diners enjoyed the edible pits, but if they didn’t like fruit with seeds of any kind, they tended to avoid the salad, he said.
Since seeds are not a problem in the juice, it’s no surprise that pomegranates took off as an ingredient in drinks. At the same time, large restaurant companies can rely on an adequate supply since the juice is readily available in large quantities.
Ruby Tuesday features pomegranate juice in a tea for $2.99, and POM Sake Martini is on the $5 Premium Cocktails, All Day, Every Day menu at the 650-unit concept based in Maryville, Tenn.
At restaurant Zed451 in Chicago, a vanilla-scented pomegranate mojito sells for $8. The libation includes vanilla simple syrup, a touch of pomegranate juice, mint, lime and rum.
For $17, guests at the Pierre Hotel’s Le Caprice bar in New York are offered a tasting of three martinis served in shot glasses during the pre-theater meal period. They can pick from a list of seasonally changing beverages like a fall Pomegranate Martini made with pomegranate liqueur shaken with citrus vodka and lemon juice.
Also in New York, the four-unit Nanoosh, which is known for its hummus, sells organic pomegranate iced tea for $2.50. Hummus and pomegranate work well together not just for their contrasting textures, but also because of their shared Middle Eastern roots.
While it is also known as a Chinese apple, the pomegranate is believed to have originated in or around Persia, although the exact origins are unconfirmed, Elizabeth Schneider wrote in her “Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables.”
These days, pomegranate is no stranger to restaurant kitchens. In Huntsville, Ala., at Cotton Row Restaurant, chef James Boyce offers a $2 pomegranate iced tea and three pomegranate adult beverages, including Shake Your Pom Poms, $11, featuring pomegranate vodka, liqueur and nectar. On his food menu, Boyce offers a fall salad of watercress and pomegranate with Scottish salmon and almonds for $14.
At Mercadito in New York, chef Patricio Sandoval dresses up a $9.50 guacamole with pomegranate seeds. The dip includes tomatillo pico de gallo, queso fresco and habanero.
And the Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy’s chain rolled out a line of salads that includes Apple Pecan Chicken with pomegranate vinaigrette. Besides sounding fancy, pomegranate vinaigrette lends a healthful image to the salad, which has a suggested retail price of $5.99.
Taking healthful eating to new heights, the two-unit Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop in the Los Angeles area offers an Antioxidant Orchard Salad with a house-made pomegranate whole-grain mustard vinaigrette for $10.
Contact Pam Parseghian at [email protected]  .