For 15 years, my culinary R&D team has conducted annual on-site research trips to new restaurants in the three major trend-driving cities of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. While many of the nation’s smaller cities have burgeoning food scenes and sometimes achieve “best restaurant town” status on media lists, none offer the breadth and variety of new restaurant openings each year as do the “Big Three.” As with previous years, our list of potential restaurants exceeded 400, allowing us to select the top 120 based on a thorough study of each venue’s website. This year’s research included visits to 107 restaurants, where we tasted 1,197 dishes. As in past years’ research, the practice of tasting our way across the menus of these restaurants has enabled us to accurately track the evolution of foods and flavors, and to identify a number of innovative menu opportunities in their early stages.
La Vida ’Oca
Perhaps the most exciting discovery of our latest research was Brazilian tapioca pancakes, a traditional South American street food made with tapioca flour (dried and milled yuca root) filled with savory and sweet fillings.
New Yorkers are getting their first taste of this Brazilian treat, as three restaurants specializing in tapiocas have opened there in the past year. And while each uses the same basic technique for preparing the pancakes, clear menu differentiation was evident via a wide variety of flavor and ingredient combinations.
At its most basic, the pancake is prepared by combining tapioca flour and water. Rather than creating a liquid batter, however, the two are mixed into coarse granules, which are sifted into a hot pan using a wire strainer. When the granules hit the pan, they quickly coalesce, and, with a small amount of shaping using a pastry brush, form a pancake.
This technique might seem a bit strange at first, but it is actually quite straightforward and not terribly difficult to master. A total cook time of just a couple of minutes is also a plus.
The tapiocas served at Galeria are prepared using the basic flour and water mixture, then filled with authentic Brazilian ingredients, such as dried beef and requeijão cheese, and a sweet version featuring chocolate brigadeiro (bon bon-like delicacy) and fresh strawberries. More familiar profiles are showcased here, too, from a BLT to a smoked salmon and cream cheese version.
The first U.S. unit of Brazilian chain Market Ipanema broadens variety by infusing its base mixture with ingredients that add exciting flavors and eye-catching colors to the tapiocas. Its Chicken, Parmesan and Basil Pesto Tapioca features a pancake flavored with beet purée, producing a vibrant red shell. Spinach purée is used to similar effect in the bright green Avocado, Cashew Cream and Roasted Tomato Tapioca. And sweet tapiocas are filled with ingredients such as shaved coconut, banana and homemade jam, served in an attractive pink pancake infused with blackberry purée.
Restaurant Oca serves the most sophisticated tapiocas, with fillings such as Prosciutto di Parma with Dates and Mozzarella di Bufala, and Salmon with Cashew Nut Cream, Wasabi and Pepitas. And its Egg N’Oca, filled with scrambled eggs, dried tomato and basil, features a pancake that starts with shaved Parmesan in the pan, which creates a crunchy cheese crust on the outside of the tapioca.
MENU READY: Delicious and Healthy Handhelds
Restaurants that serve the Brazilian tapioca typically call it a crêpe, but we choose to call it a pancake, and for a specific reason. We believe the opportunity for the tapioca to reach mainstream popularity in the United States lies in its potential as a new and unique handheld.
However, if the tapioca is too thin, it has a tendency to crack and even break apart. So, during development in our test kitchens, we created a version that is marginally thicker, approaching that of a pancake, which greatly increased its ability to carry ingredients while retaining the basic look and texture of the original.
Do a two-step: To facilitate volume production, our development also included the creation of a two-step process for making the base mixture: The tapioca flour and water are mixed and sifted through a large-mesh wire strainer, which results in a coarse blend that needs an additional sift at preparation time. This mixture, however, can be refrigerated for several days so that it is always at the ready.
Prepare in advance: While the restaurants we visited strictly prepared their tapiocas to order, the pancakes created in our test kitchens were cooled and stored between layers of plastic film, enabling batch preparation. The pancakes simply need a quick heating in a pan at service time to re-crisp the exterior.
A fit for all segments: Ideally, the Brazilian tapioca may be marketed as a new and unique menu item. But it is also gluten-free, low in calories and fat-free, so it certainly would be at home in commercial operations featuring healthier fare, as well as the college and university and healthcare segments.
A single inventory add: The tapioca can also be a cost-effective menu addition from an inventory standpoint, as tapioca flour is the only ingredient needed to create the pancake. A host of variations may be ideated using items that are already in-house.