When Great Chefs Flop: Bloise, Hales, Ruiz, and Others Name Menu Hits & Misses

Categories: Interview
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Photo by Jackie Sayet
Chocolate soup is a big hit at Charlotte Bistro.
A restaurant menu is the blueprint for a chef's imagination, a compilation of creations assembled with the hope that ingredients and descriptions will prove popular with diners. Regardless of the type of restaurant -- from hot dogs to haute digs -- some menu items sell better than others. Great chefs come up with more hits than misses, but even they produce a dud from time to time.

We asked five chefs to name a dish that diners have embraced, and also inquired about their flops -- and why they think these items may have fallen flat. The chefs: Michael Bloise (Sushi Samba Dromo); Richard Hales (Sakaya Kitchen and a few really good food trucks); Philippe Ruiz (Palme d'Or); Elida Villarroel (Charlotte Bistro); and Cesar Zapata (Phuc Yea!).

Michael Bloise
Hit: Manchego-Stuffed Azuki Bean Acarajé with Miso-Tomato Jam

I have a few things on the menu that are selling like hotcakes. Makes me wonder why people don't just open up a HotCakes store. Acarajé are typically Brazilian black-eyed pea fritters stuffed with shrimp and onions and stuff, but I use the earthy azuki bean and a three-month Manchego cheese. They have a crispy texture like a falafel, but gooey cheese inside. Why do people like them so much? Three words: gooey cheese inside. Just sayin.

Flop: Braised Veal Cheek with Bing Cherry-Cola Reduction

I honestly can't recall having a total bomb. I usually do some test runs as specials before dishes make it on to the menu. That said, I've certainly learned lessons about 'Words not to use when selling specials (in South Florida).' That list would include, but not be limited to: caul fat, pig head, venison, veal cheeks.

Actually, a few years back I did a braised veal cheek dish with bing cherry-cola reduction. It was delicious! Really.I gave it a few weeks, but it didn't move well. I guess the clientele that frequented the restaurant I worked at wasn't ready for that yet.

Richard Hales
Hit: Sae Woo Crispy Shrimp, Coconut Rice, and Buttered Broccoli

It is a true mash-up of my style: Korean, Thai and French. The coconut rice is a real winner and the mix of sauces puts it over the top. Plus it covers all elements that make a good Asian dish: Hot, sour, spicy and sweet.

Flop: Ginger scallion noodles with grilled pork belly

One of my first menu items. I loved the dish, it was simple comfort food for me but the customer response was pure hate. Since it was noodles it would be the first thing a new customer ordered -- because it was familiar -- and as a result they said I sucked. That dish almost closed the doors of Sakaya Kitchen the first month.

Philippe Ruiz
Hit: Sauteed Jumbo Langoustine with Lobster Bisque Reduction & Mousseline Potato

It has the giant langoustine, with the head, on top of the potato mousseline in a rich bisque. The people love it. And the waiters love it too. That's the most important thing: If the waiters like the dish they suggest it and it sells well.

Flop: Poached Organic Egg Filet with Extra Virgin Olive Oil

I cook the egg with extra virgin Spanish olive oil, some vegetables, a little bit of garlic, jalapeño, tomato confit, everything poached slowly in the oven. We don't sell any. Not much, anyway. It's a shame. Maybe because it has an egg in it? I don't know.

Elida Villarroel
Hit: Crab risotto and Chocolate soup

The combination of upscale products such as truffle oil, king crab, and the flavor of the typical and popular Latin American cuisine -- which is sofrito with cumin aroma. This is what for me makes it a hit. Chocolate soup is another one that incorporates tradition -- Venezuelan chocolate and coffee. I think it is a hit because it has a grandmother's touch, with a subtle and reactionary vision of French cuisine.

Flop: Green olive soup

I adore this soup...it is all about aroma: fennel, leeks, basil, etc. And of course green olives. Maybe it is just that the name doesn't work?

Cesar Zapata
Hit: Caramelized Riblets and the Roasty Toasty Goodness, AKA Duck Confit

Diners have really latched on to this. The riblets are marinated for 48 hours (not days, as previously written) in a scallion-ginger mixture, cooked low and slow for 4 hours and then grilled and glazed with fish sauce caramel until they are charred and caramelized. It's a great contrast of soft, savory meat vs. crisp, sweet exterior. The duck is confit in a ton of spices including star anise and cinnamon and served with assorted pickles alongside lettuce leaves so that guests can create and season their own lettuce bundles. Both great successes on the floor.

Flop: Banh Cuon

It's a dish I didn't even come up with. The Banh Cuon is probably the most traditional of dishes and my personal favorite, but people just don't get it. It's a rice noodle roll seasoned with fresh herbs, dried shrimp, ground pork, woodear mushroom and nuoc cham. Normally eaten for breakfast in Vietnam, we serve it at night in order to offset the more modern interpretations; also most other Vietnamese places serve it too. People think the noodles are mushy, the dried shrimp in them are fishy, what else? They think it's a noodle bowl with broth even though it's clearly described on the menu and by the server. I'll quote Timon (Balloo) on this dish -- 'It's fire!' -- but people don't get it.

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