While smoking sections in restaurants are largely being extinguished, the smoking sections of menus are smoldering hot.
The 138-unit Hard Rock Café in its spring menu revamp has expanded its “smokehouse” menu section, and experts see a wide number of smoky items on casual-dining menus segment-wide. The Orlando, Fla.-based chain has added such items as:
• Shang Hi Smokehouse Sandwich with Asian 5-spice barbecue sauce, homemade Asian-style pickled cucumbers and a sriracha mayonnaise drizzle
• South Carolina Smokehouse Sandwich with mustard barbecue sauce, slaw and cayenne onions
• Texan Smokehouse Sandwich with chipotle and hickory barbecue sauce, Cheddar cheese, crispy jalapenos and crunchy onions
• Smokehouse Chop Salad with mixed field greens, diced smoked chicken, spicy bacon and pecans, cheddar cheese, pico de gallo, avocado and a smoky citrus vinaigrette
Trend-watcher Nancy Kruse, president of the Atlanta-based Kruse Company consultancy, highlighted the trend during a presentation at the National Restaurant Association show earlier this month. “I think the advantages of adding smoked items to the menu are actually twofold: First, most important, is the flavor enhancement it provides," she explained further on Monday. "Consumers like smoky flavors, and the use of smoke has spread from conventional uses with, say, bacon and ham to unconventional uses in cocktails and even smoked ice. I suspect that on some very primitive level our palates simply respond to the taste of smoked foods.
“But second, and of growing importance, is the halo of culinary expertise that smoking provides,” Kruse said. “Consumers can barbeque at home, but smoking suggests a level of true culinary know-how.”
Hard Rock executive chef Jason Gronlund expanded on that sentiment. “When you talk about our smoked pork, you are talking about a lot of hours of commitment there," he explained in an interview. "I think that’s why some people would rather go out for it versus taking the time themselves. It is a commitment of time and love when you are doing a pork butt or a brisket or something like that.”
Smoking meats can take seven to 12 hours, Gronlund said. Hard Rock Café's kitchens added oak-wood smokers in 2006. “We do everything on them,” Gronlund said. “We do half chickens, our ribs, our wings, chicken thighs. They are all done in-house.”
Gronlund said the Hard Rock’s items are smoked “more on the subtle side” as "a subtle background note."
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Kruse said she is more often seeing the term “smokehouse” on menus, and that adds a layer of appeal to the consumer. “It strongly suggests authenticity, connects with Southern comfort and conjures an image of an artisanal approach to prep,” she said. “I think we'll see more of it in the future.”
The smoked items on Hard Rock’s new menu, which will be sold through 2013, also help the cafes emphasizes their scratch-cooking philosophy, Gronlund said.
“We do everything in the back of the house from scratch. This menu allows us to communicate that,” he said. “It allows us to live and breathe that through the entire menu. There are not a lot of restaurants our size that are peeling avocados every morning to make fresh guacamole and making fresh pico de gallo every morning.”
Beyond the smokehouse additions, new items on the Hard Rock menu include:
• Cajun Shrimp and Poached Pear Salad with crumbled goat cheese, seasoned bacon, pear segments, spicy pecans and grilled shrimp.
• Goat Cheese Chicken Salad Sandwich with poached chicken, celery and green onions in a citrus-mayo dressing with Dijon mustard and dill on a hoagie roll topped with greens, dried cranberries and goat cheese crumbles.
• Shock Top Battered Fish and Chips with fish fried in a Belgian-style wheat beer, citrus and coriander batter and served with fries, a citrus-spiked tartar sauce and coleslaw.
• Mojito Yogurt with Seasonal Fresh Fruit that uses Greek yogurt with fresh lime and mint served over seasonal fruit in a margarita glass.
Hard Rock Café is also testing in 10 cafes what it refers to as “a localization concept,” Gronlund said, “where the cafés have submitted recipes and we have either tweaked them or accepted and approved them. So the café has some autonomy over part of the menu to add flavors that are indigenous to the area.”
For example, the San Francisco Hard Rock has clam chowder and the Tennessee restaurants are doing “low-country” style dishes.
“This gives them a point of difference,” Gronlund said. “This localization applies to food as well as if they have, say, a big game in town. They can take that part of the menu and do all appetizers to boost the sales because people are coming in to watch the game. If there’s a 5K or 10K run going on, they can go to healthier items or things like pasta that are carb-driven. It gives every café a little different feel," he said.
Gronlund added, "Every café will have a core menu. We’re in the process of defining what that core menu will have and what we want to have localized.” Once the information is in the database, he said, the process is fairly easy to add and remove menu items.
Hard Rock International, which is owned by Seminole Hard Rock Entertainment Inc., has 174 venues in 53 countries, including hotels and casinos.