Modern menus highlight seafood variety, global flavors

Published on
December 27, 2019

Chefs, restaurateurs, and consumers are constantly on the lookout for new and exciting culinary adventures. And when it comes to seafood, there are methods by which these desires are being satisfied – as well as untapped opportunities, according according to research released by Technomic.

According to the research firm, 71 percent of consumers eat seafood at least once a month. Of these, 51 percent indicate they would like to see a greater variety of seafood dishes on restaurant menus. Based on these dynamics, seafood continues to gain recognition as a healthful alternative to chicken, beef, and pork, and is appearing on menus in both familiar and more innovative configurations.

In order to satisfy consumer demand for more engaging culinary experiences, operators need to recognize the wide variety of finfish and shellfish species available and the applications that work best for each, Technomic's research suggests. In response, chefs will be better positioned to swap out more well-known seafoods such as salmon with alternative varieties such as redfish, monkfish, barramundi, and bronzino, all of which are gaining favor. Chefs who are already utilizing a wider variety of species are transforming familiar dishes such as tacos and bowls into something considerably more exciting and exotic, providing new opportunities for customer experimentation.

“Introducing new seafood varieties in a familiar format gives the dish added novelty for consumers and a competitive advantage for operators," Mark DiDomenico, the director for client solutions at research firm Datassenntial, told SeafoodSource.

“If you think about tacos, you can prepare the seafood in a variety of ways, grilling, frying, etcetera, for an easy-to-execute dish. With the introduction of seemingly exotic seafood, the taco is transformed into an appealing item with a healthier perception than tacos made with other proteins,” DiDomenico added.

Restaurateurs are also finding small-plate configurations and appetizers that introduce new species better accepted by patrons; they provide an opportunity for exploration and trial at the table without the higher price and commitment that main dishes represent.

“While small plates at the dinner table are one way to introduce unfamiliar or underutilized species, we continue to see opportunities for seafood innovation at the bar,” Lizzy Freier, managing editor at Technomic, told SeafoodSource. “Dishes such as seafood nachos and fish sliders that feature new and different seafoods can become strong performers on happy hour and snack menus.”

In situations where operators are reluctant to abandon popular seafood preferences, but want to give patrons the impression of greater choice, they have become more specific in the way they identify what’s being served. In the case of wild salmon, it is now being called out on menus as either king, sockeye, or coho. Menus are also making distinctions between regional and seasonal varieties. When it comes to crab, popular menu designations include blue crab, snow crab, king crab, and – in some cases – soft-shell crab.

While expanding the menu with greater selection helps restaurateurs take advantage of the “healthy halo” associated with seafood, consumers remain poorly informed about seafood in general, Freier pointed out.

“Seafood traceability has become important at the point of sale. With proper guidance, restaurateurs can train their staff to become better storytellers – helping patrons understand responsibly raised seafood, the difference between ‘farm-raised’ and ‘wild-farmed,’ and explain the steps the restaurant takes when sourcing sustainable seafood,” Freier said.

There is also a growing interest in global flavors, ethnic cuisine, and street foods at the foodservice level – especially those with Mediterranean influences. There has been a noticeable spike in demand for octopus, squid (primarily prepared as calamari), sardines, anchovies, and caviar. For restaurateurs already considering an expanded list of small-plate or snack offerings on their menus, these options are quite versatile and offer wonderful opportunities for culinary creativity, trends surveyors noted.

According to the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, 47 percent of Generation Z (individuals born after 1997) believe multicultural cuisines such as Korean and Indian are the norm. As such, ethnic ingredients such as gochujang, Thai curry, harissa, piri piri, lemongrass, furikake, chimichurri, and yuzu are appearing more frequently on menus and would be well-accepted when applied to seafood presentations.

For restaurateurs serving breakfast, lunch, and mid-day snacks, especially those catering to  younger patrons, providing a new take on seafood can be as simple as taking recipes that currently feature chicken, beef, or pork and modifying them in a manner that features seafood or seafood-based toppings and sauces.

With the end-of-year festivities coming up, there are added opportunities for seafood to bring new vitality and culinary innovation to holiday dining, according to Bluzette Carline, the director of corporate marketing for Beaver Street Fisheries.

“Year-end holidays call for special indulgences. Diners will frequently splurge on higher-end seafood options that they may not choose during the year,” Carline said.

For many operators, this means they will add a few more dishes to their menu, either as appetizers or main dishes, that feature more luxurious (lobster, scallops, crab) and/or more exotic (octopus, calamari, crawfish) seafood configurations. In some cases, chefs find innovative and appealing ways to combine more than one of these seafoods into a single dish (i.e. shrimp- and crab-stuffed flounder, or grilled cod with lobster sauce).

While statistics may indicate that seafood sales in restaurants are flat today, that trend is being combatted by more and more restaurants that are pursuing opportunities  to heighten the variety and healthful attributes of seafood.

Photo courtesy of Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

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