Texture is trending. While chefs in both chain and independent restaurants chase the next big flavor craze and often respond in tandem, adding texture to a dish can offer an operator a powerful point of differentiation.
Chain chefs are all about texture, and their typical approach is additive, as with the signature Farmhouse Salad at Saladworks that benefits from the inclusion of glazed pecans, or McAlister’s Deli’s limited-time Jalapeño Turkey Crunch Sandwich that was crowned with jalapeño kettle chips. Independent chefs toss on toppings as well, but many also rely on more sophisticated techniques to provide textural enhancement, and at this moment, it seems that any ingredient that isn’t nailed down is being puffed up.
Asian Influences. Rice looms large across Asian cuisines, of course, and puffed rice, popular as a snack or breakfast food throughout much of the continent, is popping up all over here. Passerotto is typical of many Chicago restaurant mashups: Its name is Italian, its menu Korean and its location a northside Swedish neighborhood. Dishes draw on the chef’s Korean heritage with small plates like sweet potato with smoked tofu and puffed rice furikake. In Louisville, Ky., Milkwood’s menu is an amalgam of Korean fare with Southern inflections; the appetizer bill of fare has featured grilled kabayaki eel with puffed rice, smoked coconut and green apple-ginger zest. Bhel puri is a popular Indian street snack; and the tasty interpretation at Chai Pani, which has locations in Asheville, N.C., and Atlanta mixes puffed rice, flour crisps, crunchy chickpea noodles, roasted chickpeas, cilantro and onions into a totally tasty mélange, with a side of chutney.
Salads are topped with puffed stuff, too. The spicy tuna salad with puffed rice, nori, black radish and garlic flowers at Plan Check Kitchen + Bar in Los Angeles is one example, and the Thai Chop Chop Salad with rice puffs, peanuts and green apple at The Peached Tortilla in Austin, Texas, is another. At Alma Cocina in downtown Atlanta, Persian Cucumber Salad is served with blistered shishito peppers, kale, napa cabbage, cotija cheese, puffed rice, grape tomatoes and charred cucumber vinaigrette.
Alternative Approaches. Chefs are making puff pieces out of more than just rice. At Tiny Lou’s, the super-hot French-American brasserie in Atlanta, the menu gives the classics fashionable tweaks. The beef tartare gets unexpected texture from lighter-than-air puffed beef tendon, while a recent amuse-bouche comprised an ethereal puffed beet topped with shirred black truffle and paddlefish roe. Both are winning combinations of craveability, crunchability and contemporary style.
In New York City, Timna restaurant touts its “Feast in the Middle East” menu and delivers with Bedouin Chicken and Cauliflower that's cooked sous-vide, then flash-fried and served with artichokes, dried grapes, puffed lentils and curry-infused yogurt. C. Ellet’s, a new-age steakhouse in suburban Atlanta, offered a side dish of roasted carrots with puffed sorghum, while Veritas in Columbus, Ohio, presented Thai curry-style beef shoulder with puffed farro, which a local reviewed noted “hinted of caramel corn.”
In Chicago, Imperial Lamian extends the reach of its dining-room operation with grab-and-go snacks like wontons and pumpkin puffs. A brunch special at Tusk in Portland, Ore., this past summer included puffed wild rice, while B.S. Tacqueria in Los Angeles garnered good reviews for its Duritos, puffed wheat crackers with chile-lime and habanero hot sauce that accompany the restaurant’s creative cocktails.
Puffed Quinoa. The protein-packed Peruvian product is giving puffed rice a real run for its money, and in the puffed format the tiny grain is less likely to get stuck in teeth — a bugaboo for some diners. Timna’s current menu includes Lamb Shish Barak with puffed quinoa, pine nuts and tzatziki, and Flora Street Cafe in Dallas proffers steelhead trout ceviche with spicy radish, puffed quinoa and adobo verde. Helping diners to start their day right, Cafe Patachou in Indianapolis presents skillet toasted pumpkin bread with puffed quinoa and maple-whipped mascarpone.
Sweet Spots. Not all menu applications of puffed products are strictly savory. At trendy Sugarbloom Bakery in Los Angeles, the multi-culti Horchata Morning Bun starts with croissant dough and ends with a cinnamon glazed-condensed milk ganache and a topping of puffed rice. The quinoa-wheatberry salad at Cafe Flora combined sweet and savory textures with puffed mango and Manchego chicharrones. Similarly, Dessert Peaches at Chicago’s Heritage House Restaurant and Caviar Bar were finished with blue cheese and candied puffed quinoa. At the other end of the menu, Heritage House’s brunch offers brioche French toast that marries apple butter with roasted pears, spruce maple syrup and puffed quinoa.
Nancy Kruse, President of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of Linked In’s Top 100 Influencers in the US, she blogs regularly on food-related subjects on the LinkedIn website.