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Restaurateurs feel their oats with new twists on old standby


Oatmeal, though a breakfast mainstay, too often serves as a mere backdrop for the ingredients that accompany it. But restaurants are exploring different methods of preparation as well as utilizing different varieties of oatmeal in a bid to provide choices for customers looking for something healthful as well as different.

Oatmeal is "a traditional dish that's getting a real nice shot in the arm," said Lowell Petri, vice president of marketing for Mimis Cafe, a family-dining concept owned by Bob Evans Farms Inc. "It's such a healthy food, and it reminds you of the good old days and growing up."

Mimis has around 115 units in 20 states, and Petri pointed out that oatmeal is one of the only items to sell consistently at all locations.

"It was more a senior type of food, because older customers tended to order it, but as of late, because of the positive health publicity it's gotten, it's gained some customers," Petri says about the appeal of oatmeal, of which Mimis sells 100 bowls a week on average.

Mimis Old Fashioned Buckeye Oatmeal uses rolled oats, which are less processed compared with instant oatmeal. It's also chewier and takes a longer time to cook than instant or quick oatmeal.

With oatmeal, the main differentiation between varieties usually comes down to how much cutting and processing the whole oats, or oat groats, go through. Instant oatmeal involves whole oats that have been pre-cooked and processed into thin flakes. This type of oatmeal requires only the addition of hot water. Quick-cooking oats, meanwhile, are comprised of thin flakes that cook in a few minutes.

Cooked in boiling water, oatmeal can be made in large batches before being served up in a bowl with accompanying ramekins of such condiments as brown sugar granola and raisins, followed by a side of milk. With a price tag of $3.49, "real" oatmeal is a high-value item for Mimis.

Petri adds, "It fits our image. We're comfort food. For breakfast we compete against other family-style restaurants, but most of them serve instant oatmeal, while we serve the real thing."

Café Flora in Seattle specializes in creating vegetarian and vegan fare but serves a mixed clientele that also includes non-vegetarians as well as diners with dietary concerns. The Irish Oatmeal, at $5.50, is a part of the brunch menu. It's served with dried fruit, walnuts and brown sugar and easily can tempt the palates of the wide range of diners in the restaurant simply by varying the milk choice.

"We cook it with water, because we have a lot of people who can't do dairy," said Café Flora's chef, Janine Doran. "We make it pretty simple and offer it with whatever kind of milk, soy, rice, nonfat or whole milk, and we offer brown sugar with it with dried fruit and walnuts on it as well, so the customers can dress it up how they like it."

Irish oatmeal is just one of the many names used to refer to steel-cut oats, which also may be called Scotch or Scottish oatmeal, pinhead oatmeal or coarse-cut oatmeal. This variety of oatmeal is made from whole oats that have been simply chopped into small pieces, and it provides an even more different texture than rolled oats while taking longer to cook as well.

"There's a different texture. It's heartier. It's more of a whole food and less-processed," Doran says.

David Viviano, chef de cuisine at The Grill at The Ritz-Carlton inDearborn,Mich., says a dish of Irish oats has a little more texture to it and that customers do notice the difference.

Aside from offering standard steel-cut oats, The Grill takes oatmeal in a bowl to a different dimension with its Irish Oatmeal Brulee, $9. In the Brulee, steel-cut oats are steeped with a little bit of vanilla, sugar, milk and water. The breakfast offering gets its brulee top from the traditional method of taking a flame to brown sugar sprinkled on top and is served with fresh berries.

The Highland Grill inSt. Paul,Minn., provides quick-cook oats with brown sugar and cream, but it also offers its own twist on oatmeal with its grilled steel-cut oats, $7.95.

Highland Grill's steel-cut oats are cooked with a little bit of sugar and cinnamon until they're thick, "like polenta or grits," then is spread in a pan to set up. After the cooked oats firm up, the sheet of oats is cut into triangles, which then are baked to order and served with a fruit compote made from red wine, sugar and dried fruits.

"It's more unique, and steel-cut oats have a different flavor — a bit nuttier, more full and interesting," says Kevin Wencel, executive chef for Highland Grill.

"Steel-cut oats are a bit more expensive, and the one we use is organic as well, and that adds a few cents." Wencel explains, adding that nevertheless, the more toothsome oat and presentation is in demand as something "more interesting" and provides variety.

Jim Grafwallner, president of Heinemann's restaurant, a family-owned chain with five locations in the greaterMilwaukeearea, also stressed the necessity for variety by offering warm oatmeal as well as baked oatmeal and a chilled oatmeal offering known as the Energy Breakfast. "We found that by offering a variety with the baked oatmeal, the Energy Breakfast and things like that, people like it not only because it's healthy but also because it tastes good, and that's key."

Heinemann's Baked Oatmeal, $4.79, consists of rolled oats that are cooked at the restaurants' main commissary and then made into a paste with vanilla, brown sugar, cinnamon and egg. The oatmeal then is baked in sheets and delivered to the different restaurant locations, where it's cut and heated to serve with brown sugar and choice of milk. Raisins are optional.

The Energy Breakfast, $5.29, is made with raw oats that are mixed with applesauce and fresh orange juice and yogurt and allowed to sit for at least 24 hours. It's topped with homemade granola and fruit.

Grafwallner added that while marketwise, selling other breakfast items would mean more profit than an order of baked oatmeal, "We're a little different and unique. Customers expect certain things, and they know it's a family owned business and they expect healthy, quality items. You like to separate yourself from your competition."

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