If you told Chef Edward Lee when he was a kid that one day, hip American bar guests would clamor for Korean kimchee (spicy pickled vegetables), he wouldn’t have believed you. “I would have said, ‘No way!’” laughs Lee, chef and owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky., who does a mean green tomato kimchee. “Back then, everybody was like, ‘How can you eat that? It’s so stinky and spicy!’” But clamor for kimchee they do. And also Peruvian anticuchos. And Venezuelan arepas. And Polish pierogi. In fact, your bar’s interest in ethnically inspired tastes is a top priority for adventurous palates. The hottest new bars either delve deeper into well-known world cuisines, contemporizing and redefining them, or introduce guests to lesser-known world foods in fun ways. Either way, globally inspired bar food distinguishes your business from the competition and, in the process, helps you gain faithful customers.
The ripple effect is everywhere. During happy hour, guests can go way beyond what they thought they knew about Mediterranean and order the Lebanese lamb ribs with strawberry and scallions a la plancha in a cumin/Aleppo pepper broth at ilili in New York City ($10). Or get the Armenian Luleh Kabob Sliders with caramelized onion, bacon, aioli and arugula ($8) at Neomeze in Pasadena, Calif. Or try the modern-Hellenic baby okra with sun-dried tomatoes, fresh coriander and semolina bread ($8) at Taxim in Chicago.
It’s not just Middle East fare that has guests salivating. The perception of Polish food as always-heavy is also getting an upgrade. The lighter, more creatively stuffed dumplings are the bar food of the moment at pan-European LOKal in Chicago where “Pierogis After Dark” is a late-night special feature. Chef Ian Flowers does about a dozen varieties of the half-moon pillows, including those filled with duck confit, BBQ braised pork, and sweet potato. He likes to pair the dishes with the Polish Zywiec beer, available on tap for $5.
This ethnic-exploration trend includes a proliferation of “street-food” restaurants such as Susan Feniger’s Street in Los Angeles. Feniger’s approach is to introduce patrons to easy-to-eat foods from all over the globe. The items on the menu are inspired by cuisines from Iceland to Singapore, Brazil to Syria and even more in between. Some of the best sellers at Street are the Tatsutage Fried Chicken from Japan ($15), which pairs well with Carl Ehrhard Rocken Riesling ($12), and Kaya Toast from Singapore (toast with coconut jam, served with a soft fried egg drenched in dark soy and white pepper; $11), which Feniger likes to pair with Ayinger Bräu-Weisse beer ($10).
At INC Street Food in Roswell, Ga., the inspiration is “authentic international” with a largely Latin spin. Popular bar bocaditos (“little dishes”) include the Salvadoran chicken pupusas — grilled white-corn masa stuffed with adobo-braised chicken and queso, served with Peruvian potato salad ($7.50). Street-style tacos also are very hot, and both are good matches for any number of INC’s vast selection of tequilas and mezcals, in 1-ounce pours, ranging in price from $3.50 to $16.
This conglomeration of tastes is the catalyst for a growing group of “freestyle Latino” restaurant/bars such as Chef Maximo Tejada’s Rayuela and Macondo restaurants in New York City. Spanish for “hopscotch,” Rayuela jumps all over Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Cuba, Columbia and Spain for ingredient and flavor combinations. Tejada tucks the unfamiliar (Uruguayan caviar or Peruvian Alpaca meat) in with the familiar in light-handed small plates. At Rayeula, Tejada says Jalea — a Peruvian seafood tempura of shrimp, scallop, calamari and octopus, with mango aji amarillo aioli, red onions and yucca fries ($12) — is one of the most popular items at the bar. He recommends pairing it with a glass of the Rias Baixas Albarino ‘09 Licia, Spain, or with a Tona beer imported from Nicaragua.
At Macondo, Tejada’s newer exploration of Latin street food, menus hone in on food platforms that are vehicles for a wide variety of Latin ingredients. Among them? Venezuelan arepas (corn cakes; $11-14), Spanish churros (sweet-filled crispy pastries; $6) and Mexican tacos ($10). At the bar, the Bocadillo de Chimichurri Chico (short ribs, peppers, manchego cheese, cabbage, onions; $11) is very popular and often is paired with a glass of Terrazas de los Andes ‘07 Mendoza, Argentina ($7 by the glass). Another oft-ordered item is the Calamares Crujientes (crispy calamari, rocotto-honey aioli; $9), which Tejada says goes great with the Maracuya + Vodka cocktail (passion fruit, Sobieski, Canton ginger liqueur, lime juice, jalapeno; $7.50).
The meaning of Mediterranean also has broadened. The term, which once suggested vague adherence to a menu of hummus, falafel and spit-roasted meats, now is highlighted by cuisine that is more creative and culture-specific. At ilili, Lebanese is the focus. Ilili means “tell me” in Lebanese, and executive chef/owner Philippe Massoud’s mission is to better-inform Americans’ experience of Lebanese food. “Lebanese cuisine has been so neglected, overlooked and underrepresented here,” says Massoud. Setting the record straight, items from ilili’s bar menu are scrupulously made fresh daily, right down to the garbanzo beans. Beautiful examples? Massoud’s bay scallops ceviche with smoked pomegranate ice ($9), and kibbeh beef dumplings with yogurt and aleppo pepper ($6). But ilili’s cheese rolls (Rkaykat bil Jibnet; $8) are most popular. “They’re our contribution to America’s long-standing love affair with mozzarella sticks,” says Massoud. Made with feta, kashkaval and mozzarella cheeses, the rolls are perfect with arak ($10 - $12 by the glass; $100 - $140 by the bottle). “It’s the quintessential best beverage pairing for Lebanese cuisine,” Massoud says. “It resets your palate between bites, and it’s a potent digestif.”
Meanwhile at Neomeze, fun Armenian items such as the Cheese Bouregs — wontons filled with feta, fontina and Jack cheeses plus mint garnish — and the Arayes (Armenian quesadillas) are stars on the bar menu, which draws from Armenian, Persian, Israeli, Lebanese, Greek, Moroccan and Turkish influences. One easy-to-prepare guest favorite at the bar is the Watermelon Neo: stacked watermelon and feta sticks in herbed olive oil ($10). General manager Marques likes to serve this dish with the restaurant’s $12 Summer Sky Martini — cucumber-infused Skyy vodka, strawberry purée and lemon juice.
New restaurants that stick with one country’s cuisine — but do it with a cutting-edge and contemporary style — include many iterations of the small-plate-focused, Japanese izakaya pub fare. Skipping items like fish guts, cartilage and skin that are popular in Japan, U.S. izakaya bars dial things down a bit for American palates. San Francisco’s Nombe — which just opened a snack bar for midnight noshers — includes items on its Late Night Bar Menu such as fried wild nori with lemon and togarashi ($5); Brussels sprouts with mint, carrot and togarashi ($5); and beignets with yuzu jam and crème fraiche ($7).
Also focused and fun: In Chicago, people line up at the bar for the Dutch version of a tequila shot, a Maatjesharing ($9), at Vincent, chef Joncarl Lachman’s just-opened Dutch-accented bistro. “You start with a piece of soused herring, follow that with a shot of Bols Genever and finish with our house-made dill pickles,” explains Lachman. “In the three weeks since we opened, we’ve been amazed at how popular this is!”
Meanwhile, venues that pull elements from wide-flung food cultures and put them together on one plate are referencing those cultures more creatively. At Belly Shack in Chicago, an Asian restaurant with Latin and Puerto Rican touches, which some have dubbed “Korican,” chef Bill Kim’s Boricua sandwich is a riff on the Puerto Rican jibarito plantain sandwich with Korean fillings for $9. Planks of fried plantain are spread with sweet sticky brown rice, Korean BBQ beef, Korean chili paste, curry mayo and bean sprouts.
The key to success with all this global inspiration? Make the unfamiliar more easily accessible by linking it to the familiar. “If you say, ‘Belgian food,’ the first thing everybody thinks about is waffles,” says Chef Bart Vandaele of Washington, D.C.’s Belga Café. “So using the waffle to take people in unexpected, delicious directions is a lot of fun.” Belga’s couscous waffle with foie grass, the cornbread waffle with pulled pork or the roasted tomato waffle with sour cream and smoked trout each illustrate his point.
For all the progress American restaurants have made with worldly menus, many chefs look forward to guiding guests further and deeper into ethnic explorations. Lebanese chef Massoud sums it up: “We’re taking baby steps right now. Once the American public is more familiar with how the food should taste when it’s fresh and authentic, then we’ll really be able to push the envelope.” But for now, let’s just get guests pushing their forks across the plate — and their money across the bar. NCB
Worldly Wings, Burgers & Dogs
For the easiest entry into ethnic flavor exploration, bar food basics like chicken wings, burgers and hot dogs are an open canvas. Rework the sauces and toppings, and presto-chango: You’ve got the world in a basket — or on a bun. Check out:
• Korean BBQ burger featuring American wagyu and braised short rib with kimchee ketchup, pickled vegetables and sesame krispies; available for $14 at Atlanta-based FLIP Burger Boutique
• Chicken Tikka Spiced Wings with chat masala, nectarine chutney and spicy mint chutney; $9 at Akasha in Culver City, Calif.
• Jumbo roaster wings with a honey, sambal and lime sauce; available for $11 at 51 Lincoln in Newton Highlands, Mass.
• The Belly Dog, topped with kimchee salsa and egg noodles at Belly Shack in Chicago; $8
• Bacon-wrapped Sonoran hot dog with cucumber coleslaw, black beans, queso and chili-lime mayo; available for $8.95 at INC Street Food in Roswell, Ga.