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Trend Watch: Seafood brings a touch of sophistication to bar menus

But to succeed, offerings must be tailored to the cliente

"Candied" salmon on a stick and skewered tiger prawns are among the satays B.C. lounge AfterGlow offers as upscale finger food. - AfterGlow
Lauren Kramer
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 delicious.

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 wild-salmon cakes.”

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 lounge.

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 small menu.”

August 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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