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Restaurants get menu inspiration from child’s play

Nursery rhymes and childhood treats are at the heart of these trending dishes

Battle-hardened restaurateurs have long contended with the divergent demands of American diners for exotic and adventurous foods on one hand, and familiar and reassuring dishes on the other. Patrons race headlong into the 21st-century global pantry with their embrace of Korean gochujang and Vietnamese bánh mì, at the same time that they enjoy fare that would be right at home in an 18th-century kitchen.

Porridge.  A few years back, the nursery-rhyme staple, which is made of starchy grains boiled in milk or water, began popping up in some unlikely places, appearing as an entrée or side dish at trendy independents around the country. Atlanta’s lauded Staplehouse stepped up with sunflower seed porridge, and Edmund’s Oast in Charleston, S.C., jumped in with a porridge of Carolina Gold rice and heritage chicken, which scored bonus points for using an heirloom regional grain. Destroyer in Culver City, Calif., specializes in plant-centric cuisine and offers rice porridge with caramelized broccoli, puffed rice and burnt onion.

Other restaurateurs have gone the more conventional breakfast route with their porridge, albeit with unconventional ingredients. Milktooth in Indianapolis proffers ancient grains porridge with coconut milk, plum jam, hemp seeds and pistachios, while Sqirl in Los Angeles features Kokuho Rose brown rice porridge with toasted hazelnuts.

Porridge is not just the province of the independent restaurant: Breakfast-and-brunch chain First Watch experimented with pumpkin porridge last fall.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Curds and whey. Other chefs are also taking their inspiration from Mother Goose, as with the unexpected Buttermilk Curds and Whey, served with orange, radish and fennel, that made the menu at Local Provisions in Asheville, N.C. In Minneapolis, Nordic specialist Upton 43 foregoes the whey and creates a dessert made of elderflower ice, buttermilk curd, fresh berries and herbs. Cheese curds may not have the same storied past, but they are definitely popular as snacks or appetizers on contemporary menus, as with Gordon Biersch’s cheese curds made from white cheddar and tossed with candied bacon.

Pudding. While pudding may refer to either a sweet or savory dish, modern American usage invariably indicates a sweet dessert, which in the U.S. is a milk-based confection beloved by legions of kids, who ate it as an after-school treat as frozen pops or in cups. Lately it has received a new, more adult lease on life. Table & Main in suburban Atlanta has served a Southern-inflected sorghum toffee pudding with bourbon toffee sauce and buttermilk ice cream. At Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill in Las Vegas, sticky toffee pudding is the signature dessert, served with almond brittle and sweet cream ice cream. First Watch moved out of the box with this winter’s sweet-and-crunchy A.M. Superfoods Bowl that consisted of coconut milk-chia seed pudding topped with bananas, berries, blackberry preserves and granola. And Main Street Social, a gastropub near Park City, Utah, goes farther back in time with posset, a pudding based on a medieval British milk drink. Main Street Social’s version is made with orange and cranberry and accompanied by spiced cookies.


Photo: Beatrix

More kid stuff. Pop Tarts, of course, are of much more recent vintage; the familiar toaster pastries were introduced in the 1960s. Despite their relative youth, they are being reinvented on hipster menus like Johnny’s Grill in Chicago, where homemade varieties have included Strawberry-Goat Cheese and Apple-Rhubarb, and at four-unit Tom’s Urban, based in Denver, where the bill of fare features a rotating menu of Urban Pop Tarts.

S’mores, beloved by legions of campers and backyard do-it-yourselfers, have provided inspiration to New York City operators like OatMeals, where dishes are based on the eponymous grain and include s’mores made with chocolate chips, marshmallows, mini Graham crackers and a chocolate-syrup drizzle. Dominique Ansel Bakery offers frozen s’mores on a stick, and s’mores macarons have popped up at Macaron Parlour, also in New York.

Atlantans like to kid around, too, with specialties like s’mores doughnuts, a staple at popular Sublime Doughnuts. Other Atlanta operators also embrace their inner child, as with Foundation Social Eatery’s FSE “Twix” dessert made from shortbread cookie, caramel crémeaux, toffee crunch and chocolate soup, and Seed Kitchen and Bar’s Adult Root Beer Float, made with rum, absinthe, root liqueur and ice cream.

Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of LinkedIn’s Top 100 Influencers in the U.S., she blogs regularly on food-related subjects on the LinkedIn website.

Contact Nancy Kruse at [email protected]

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