Appetizers and small plates are going prime time, as club and resort chefs serve up exciting gourmet mini-variations of familiar fare.
When is a corn dog no longer a corn dog? “When you take a cold-water lobster tail, roll it into a cylindrical shape, skewer it, then dip it in housemade batter and gently fry it,” answers Jason Zeller, Executive Chef at The Hamlet Country Club in Delray Beach, Fla., who serves this delicious variation of a classic American street food alongside a tangy mustard sauce to the club’s more than 250 members.
“They come out looking like corn dogs, but that’s where the similarity ends,” says Zeller. “People like them because they can relate to the playfulness of the dish.”
It’s kitsch, only elevated
SUMMING IT UP
Zeller isn’t the only one taking classic comfort foods in the small-plates category to the next level. Olivier Andreini, Executive Chef at The Merion Cricket Club (Haverford, Pa.); Jon Fink, Executive Chef at Round Hill Country Club (Alamo, Calif.); and Kristo Papa, Executive Chef at Glenmore Country Club (Keswick, Va.) are following suit with dishes such as lamb bruschetta, Kobe beef sliders and halibut tacos with a crunchy jicama slaw.
As they rewrite their first-course and small-plate menus, these top chefs are finding that by offering exciting twists on familiar fare, they can attract the gastronomically curious and diet-conscious who would much prefer to sample a progression of small dishes, rather than limit their tasting options to just one large main course.
Using Tapas to Turn Things Around
When Zeller came to The Hamlet CC last year, the dining situation was pretty dire.
“The club was in the middle of a $10 million renovation,” says Zeller. “As part of that, members wanted to revamp the dining program.”
Zeller had previously held a number of positions at high-profile Florida properties, including the Four Seasons in Palm Beach, Ibis Golf and Country Club in West Palm Beach, and The Surf Club in Miami Beach. So when the opportunity came to rebuild The Hamlet’s food-and-beverage program, he jumped at it.
He and his team started out by rewriting all of the club’s menus, expanding the standard repertoire of eight to ten entrees to more than 60 different dishes on three separate menus—one of which would ultimately have an enormous effect on the club’s overall F&B operation.
“We now change the menus every three months,” says Zeller. “We strive to stay seasonal and offer only the freshest ingredients.”
The Hamlet’s Orchid Grille serves lunch six days a week, with brunch on Sundays. For dinner, 360° West enchants with its four-star cuisine. And finally, the Bali Bar and Lounge offers a tapas bar menu during happy hours and dinner evenings.
“In the past, the bar area would only see traffic just before dinner on the weekends,” Zeller reports. “We wanted to make this space more attractive, so we created a menu featuring sixteen hot and cold tapas that gives members the opportunity to either piece together a few of the plates and make a meal out of that, or to graze on something before they have dinner.”
And graze they do. The menu was an instant success, and business in the bar has increased ten-fold, Zeller says.
“On weeknights, our younger members gather in the bar and order three or four small plates to share,” he adds. “Check averages are between $30 and $45, which is huge considering we were doing next to no business in there previously.
“And on weekends, our older members like to start their dining experience a little earlier by meeting in the bar before dinner, splitting a small plate, then going into the dining room for their salad, entrée and dessert courses.”
Reason Enough to Join
Dining at The Hamlet CC has become so popular, the club has created a new membership category around it. The Dining Club membership option now opens the facility to non-residents and gives them access to the newly renovated, 36,000-sq. ft. clubhouse and its private banquet rooms.
“By offering more variety, we’ve attracted new members,” reports Zeller. “We’ve taken on about 200 Dining Club memberships—and the tapas menu, because the dishes are shareable, trendy and affordable, gets a lot of the credit.”
The most popular tapas, he adds, are those that have the most visual interest, such as the peach and prosciutto flatbread served with gorgonzola, rosemary and asiago cheese, and the tropical shrimp martini, which is basically a cross between a shrimp cocktail and a salad. “We fill a martini glass with poached shrimp, mango-passion gelee, avocado mousse, and a horseradish-scented gazpacho, and top it with baby greens,” Zeller explains.
Merion Cricket Club’s Olivier Andreini, who will present a live cooking demonstration on “Serving Up the Best Hors d’Oeuvres and Appetizers” at C&RB’s upcoming Chef to Chef Conference, March 6-8 (register at www.CheftoChefConference.com) keeps busy changing, revising and dreaming up new hors d’oeuvres for his club’s 6,000 members every two months or so.
“Some of our members eat with us six nights a week,” he notes. “We’d be doing them a great disservice if we didn’t give them a lot of variety.” And what better way to deliver that variety than by dishing up a steady parade of small plates with big flavor.
“My members aren’t looking for anything too trendy,” says Andreini. “They want quality, they want flavor, and they want it at a fair price.”
Hovering at prices of between $8 and $12 each, Andreini strives to add his own signature twists to classic small plates, such as his savory feta cheesecake with walnuts and mushrooms; seasonal melon wrapped with prosciutto ham; and scallop ceviche in a toasted corn cup.
“Sliders are still very popular,” he adds. “My members love upscale comfort food, so we do a duck slider with a little garlic and sage that we put in a Mongolian marinade overnight. We serve it on a slider bun with a shiitake mushroom ketchup that is very earthy. It’s one of our most popular hors d’oeuvres.”
While he doesn’t look to get too gastronomically advanced by incorporating out-there food trends, Andreini does pay close attention to culinary techniques that have a useful application in his kitchen such as sous vide—slow, low-temperature water-bath cooking.
“One of the most popular first courses is our sous vide gala apple, served with baby beets, frisee salad, roasted hazelnuts and a honey vinaigrette,” he says. “We’re able to serve this and some of the other small plates in bigger portions, too, which helps to increase check averages and satisfy members.”
Appetizers and small plates are especially adaptable to other parts of the menu. And many chefs take advantage of this flexibility to use this meal part as a culinary playground for creating new, exciting signature dishes.
At Round Hill CC, Executive Chef Jon Fink recently rolled out a new small-plates menu featuring seared ahi tuna, Kobe beef sliders and crab cannelloni. “Offering a second tier of dining options has helped to generate a lot of business,” says Fink, who has been with the club for nearly a decade. “We now offer lower price points, smaller portions and more variety.”
While he was writing the new menu, Fink didn’t want to simply offer glorified finger foods. Instead, he wanted to create dishes that resonated with his more than 2,000 members—and decided that the best way to pinpoint what they wanted would be to simply ask them.
Traditionally on Thursday nights, Round Hill features a special menu. Fink uses this weekly opportunity to introduce new small-plates specials that, if successful, will find their way onto the next menu cycle. Some of the dishes that debut on Thursday night are expanded to entree size, while others are sometimes offered as a side instead.
“I always make sure to ask my members if they would order it again,” Fink says. “Fortunately, they don’t tend to lie to me.”
Making sure the dishes not only taste great, but also look pretty, is an important sales tool for Round Hill. “Presentation is key,” says Fink. “Dishes like the ahi tuna are self-garnishing because they have so much color—but for dishes such as the sauteed shrimp or crab canneloni, it’s important to make sure the plate doesn’t look too stark. We do this by adding a dipping sauce, a vegetable coulis or baby greens, to give the dish color and texture.”
Glenmore CC’s Executive Chef, Kristo Papa, offers a tapas menu the last Thursday of every other month. “We offer two different-sized tapas,” he says. “That way, members have a huge selection to choose from, and they get to have a taste of the entire menu if they want.”
Examples of especially successful tapas from Papa’s menu include: garlic-robed and roasted pork tenderloin with cilantro hominy and red wine, shallot demi; seared venison loin with blue cheese, bacon potato cakes and huckleberry salsa; fried green tomatoes with goat cheese fondue; coconut shrimp with black bean and pineapple salsa; eggplant and fresh mozzarella brochette; and halibut taco with jicama slaw, lime crème fresh and roasted corn.
“With small plates, the main ingredient should speak for itself, and be the main attraction,” says Papa.
And when made attractive enough, even the smallest wonder on an appetizer menu can increase check averages—and business—on a very large scale.
Tropical Crab Stack by Jason Zeller, Executive Chef, The Hamlet Country Club, Delray Beach, Fla.
Lobster Corn Dog by Jason Zeller, Executive Chef, The Hamlet Country Club, Delray Beach, Fla.
Pulled Pork Sliders with Hass Avocado and Caramelized Onions courtesy of the Hass avocado Board
View the tapas menu from The Hamlet CC here.