« August 2005 Table of Contents
Trend Watch: Seafood brings a touch of sophistication to bar menus
But to succeed, offerings must be tailored to the cliente
August 01, 2005
An adage among chefs specializing
in bar food goes, “if you fry it, they will buy it.” And, until fairly recently,
it spoke truthfully of the typical bar menu, which featured familiar items like
chicken wings, burgers, French fries and other deep-fried bar staples.
But among upscale bars that pride
themselves on sophistication, the menus are changing to reflect the times.
Featured are health-conscious options that take dietary restrictions into
account and gourmet possibilities that include an array of fish and shellfish.
If your bar menu is looking tired and you’ve wondered how to add new flair and
variety, seafood just might be the answer — provided you tailor the offerings
to your clientele.
It may take a little
experimentation before you master the formula for serving seafood in a bar
environment, but do it right, and your patrons will be happy.
That’s been the experience of Chef
James Olberg at AfterGlow Lounge in Vancouver, British Columbia, which was
recently ranked among the top 100 bars in the world by the Australia-based
Image Publishing Group. With 200 to 300 customers moving through the bar every
night, AfterGlow has no problem with beverage sales. The goal of the menu,
rather, is to send out the message that the food also is innovative and
Chef Olberg assembled a menu that
includes a variety of proteins in satay form, including seafood, which features
prominently on the menu.
“Seafood has a certain finesse
that’s hard to find in a protein,” says Olberg, who frequently scrutinizes his
menu for improvements and alters it up to four times a year. When fried
calamari proved a non-seller, it was zapped off the menu immediately.
The satay platter is one of
AfterGlow’s biggest sellers, a selection of poultry, lamb and seafood that is
easily shared. The satay options include “candied” salmon served on a stick for
easy, mess-free consumption, seven-spiced ahi tuna, fried oysters crusted with
citrus-Arborio crumbs, diver scallops with double-smoked bacon and black tiger
prawns in lemon-garlic butter. The lounge sells
12,000 satays monthly.
“We want to put things on the menu
that people can identify with, without freaking them out. So we try to take a
product and see how it can be different,” says Olberg.
That’s critical for a more upscale
kind of bar, agrees Executive Chef Alan Ashkinaze, who mans the upscale Aqua
fine-dining restaurant, the Aqua Lounge and other dining venues at the St.
Regis Monarch Beach Hotel in Dana Point, Calif. “An upscale bar needs to take
the classic bar food items and bring them to a new level,” he says.
Ashkinaze puts his spin on nachos
by serving them with Dungeness crabmeat, cheddar-jack cheese and fresh
jalapeño. His menu features a shellfish platter ($38), tartare of ahi tuna
($18), a smoked-salmon salad with black-olive toast ($18) and a caviar service
that starts at $85 for sevruga and escalates to $250 for “000” beluga sturgeon,
served with vodka or champagne. Despite its cost, that’s been a popular item,
particularly among newlyweds and couples, says Ashkinaze.
“I think seafood is the next step
up for a high-end bar, if you find the right components and have the right
terminology on your menu,” he says. “But I’m not talking fried cod or
catfish. I’m talking ceviche and
Not everyone agrees that seafood
and bar menus go together. The Kit Kat lounges, located in Chicago, Puerto
Vallarta and Malaysia, pride themselves on a menu that speaks of global fusion.
“Because of our three different locations, we’ve tried to take a little bit of
something from everywhere around the world,” says Edward Gisiger, co-owner of
The majority of Kit Kat’s food
items are finger foods, but with the exception of a sushi roll with imitation
crabmeat, seafood is conspicuously absent.
“We tried several times to put
something bite-sized on the menu in seafood, but there was nothing we could
come up with that would sell very well,” he explains. “Fish hasn’t really made
it to that level of sophistication yet.”
That depends on whom you ask.
“I think you can do anything with
barroom food, because food is changing, and people want to see creations,” says
Ashkinaze. “I could sell buffalo wings in this bar, but I wouldn’t unless I put my own spin on it.”
Adding your own personal style to a
dish can be dicey. On the one hand, you want to impress diners with the appeal
of innovation, but at the same time, you run the risk of scaring them by being
too avante garde.
“You have to be careful,” cautions
Ashkinaze. “I often run things on a tasting menu to see how people will react,
and if they’re ready for it.”
In designing your bar menu, it’s
critical that you take a good, long look at your customers, says Olberg.
“I always think to myself, ‘What do
I want to eat after a few beers?’ It’s important to get inside the customer’s
head. Our clientele is very rich, and the bar ambience at AfterGlow is like a
higher-end version of Cheers.”
Unlike AfterGlow, which is a trendy
bar located in Vancouver’s hip Yaletown neighborhood and serves its bar food
strictly at night, the Aqua Lounge has a different set of limitations. Because
of its resort location, Ashkinaze’s menu must satisfy hungry appetites at times
of the day when other restaurants at the venue are closed.
The lounge opens around 11:30 a.m.
and closes after midnight. As such,
the menu features a mixture of items, from small-plate-sharing dishes
like mini Dungeness crab cakes and ponzu-grilled baja prawns to more filling
dishes like an albacore-tuna-salad sandwich.
One of Ashkinaze’s most popular
menu items is the shellfish platter.
“People have fun with it because
they can share it. And, perhaps because they’re also relaxed and having a great
time, maybe it makes them drink more. So a platter like this is well suited to
bars,” he says.
“There’s bar food, and then there’s
bar food,” he adds. “This place is lounge food, and we have to be able to take
care of our guests at 11:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. or 11:30 p.m.
“I get a lot of people who are surprised at the
menu’s diversity and are happy with the versatility and choice on a relatively