A Bitter Victory
Surveying menu data from restaurants across the country from 2013 through 2014, the numbers make one thing clear: Bitter will make its mark as a key menu trend this year. Customers are demanding more of the bitter flavors typically present in vegetables such as cauliflower, collards, kale, and Brussels sprouts as well as India pale ales and bitter tinctures in cocktails. Some chefs attribute the uptick in bitter to consumers seeking a balance in their palates, while other experts say it’s a throwback flavor experiencing a revival.
Mary Chapman, senior director at Technomic, says the incidence of the word bitter on restaurant menus increased 13 percent from 2013 to 2014. In particular, the word kale saw a 47 percent boost while IPAs jumped 31 percent over the same period of time.
Chapman says consumers have an undeniable interest in extreme flavors, and bitter is the latest incarnation of that trend.
Anthony Meidenbauer attributes the decrease in processed foods as a reason for the increase in the popularity of bitter veggies like kale. Meidenbauer is the corporate executive chef and director of culinary operations for Block 16 Hospitality Group, which operates nine Las Vegas restaurants and a food truck.
“As the movement toward eating farm-fresh items and things that are less-processed grows, the bitter flavor profile is becoming more accepted in the American diet,” he says.
He’s also noticed that his customers are more willing to try a dish that has a bitter component, and they usually love the results. “Often the flavors are something maybe guests haven’t tried before, and it gives them a pleasant surprise.”
Executive Chef Ryan Tate of the farm-to-table restaurant Blenheim in New York City is one of many chefs who recommends opening a meal with a bitter dish. “The bitter taste stimulates the palate and makes you want to keep eating,” he explains.
On his menu, he uses leek tops that have been burned, creating a sharp, savory flavor, and pairs it with rich braised beef short ribs. It may sound like an odd combination, but Chef Tate says the two components work together harmoniously, and that is what he aims to achieve when including bitter flavors. “You want the dish to end up balanced,” he says. “There’s nothing on the menu that is intended to be bitter; it’s all about balance.”
Blenheim’s mustard greens salad, for instance, has a bitter base, but evens out the palate with smoked Blue cheese, apples, and smoked trout, offsetting the flavors.
Applying char or ash to vegetables like Brussels sprouts or scallions is an easy tactic for chefs to test bitter flavor profiles on their menus, Chef Tate says.
At Blenheim, he uses charred Brussels sprouts as an accent to the Blenheim Farm pork on the dinner menu, which is also paired with a smoky flavor in the onions and balanced by apples and sorghum.
Another method to begin testing bitter in the kitchen is to use vinegar. Chef Meidenbauer recommends restaurants use vinegars in savory dishes to brighten the flavors of the dish; vinegars and sharper tastes, he says, are increasingly becoming central flavor profiles of the plate.
Nora Furst, bar manager at Argentinian steakhouse Lolinda in San Francisco, has noticed customers not only want bitter flavors on their plate, they also want a bitter component in their drink. “People are coming in now and saying, ‘I don’t want anything sweet; I want something dry,’” she says. “It’s something that has been happening here in San Francisco for a while.”
In restaurants and bars across the country, the trend can be seen in libations such as the Negroni, based in Campari, a liqueur also experiencing a revival during the bitter craze. Even classics such as the Old Fashioned and Sazarec are gaining new fans thanks to their use of flavor-forward bitters.
The cocktail list at Lolinda accordingly incorporates bitters in most of its cocktails. A popular dry cocktail is the 50/50 Martini, which melds navy-strength gin and French vermouth with orange bitters and a lemon peel.
Then there’s Lolinda’s Juan Rosado, a combination of smoky Mezcal with the fruity Calvados, lime, and grenadine, mixed with flavor-enhancing vanilla and, finally, bitters. The combination of savory, smoky, and saccharine in the cocktail hits a sweet spot that doesn’t go too far toward any one basic taste—which is exactly what Furst strives for. She says the cocktail list is all about creating balance and even a smooth start to a meal.
One reason the desire for bitter may be increasing, Furst says, is that when bitter is incorporated into a cocktail, it acts as an aperitif or an appetite stimulant—echoing Chef Tate’s assertion that bitter is a smart suggestion to begin the dining experience.
“I think it’s almost like a rebellion or reaction to sweet shots and drinks,” Furst says, explaining that the bitter trend is “an evolution of the bar scene” from the ’60s and ’70s when sweet cocktails, such as the Tom Collins, were popular.
Now, mixers such as Fernet Branca, an amaro with a medicinal taste that Furst describes as “brash,” have a following and are seen more in bars. “I think we’re coming back to liking balanced things and getting further away from things that are just sweet.”
“People with more mature palates are more into it,” says Chef Tate of bitter flavors, adding, “You don’t sell dandelion salads to teenagers.”