What goes into planning new menus at area restaurants?
Often, it’s a matter of taking inspiration from locally produced ingredients to put together a seasonal menu. But, sometimes it takes a trip to a new place to reinvigorate a chef’s palate and instigate the creation of something entirely new and different.
Such is the case at Mason Street Grill, whose recently launched autumn and winter menu features a plethora of delicious plates with a Southeastern flair inspired by Chef Mark Weber and General Manager Edward Carrella’s recent trip to Georgia and South Carolina.
Dishes like roasted blackened swordfish with preserved lemon, brown butter, capers and spinach, and cornmeal crusted Floridian snapper served with cream lady pea succotash not only provide a mental escape to warmer climes, but they also embody the thought process that happens when chefs travel to various parts of the world to gain inspiration for their next best dishes.
Weber says that the restaurants they visited were determined primarily through referrals from other chefs. So, they stayed away from tourist spots and chain restaurants and really focused on chef-driven menu concepts.
"Before we go on a trip, we already have a lot of ideas in mind of what we want to change about the menu, but we don’t always know how we are going to make the changes," says Weber. "We definitely go armed with a lot of questions in mind. As you begin to experience the food and flavors, your mind starts moving and you begin to fill in the holes."
Once the chef returns to Milwaukee, it’s a matter of moving on to the experimentation phase to see which takeaways make sense for a new menu, and which don’t.
"We always want to tell a story in our menu," Weber goes on. "So we start with a very high level story line and get more specific with each dish."
In this case, Weber says they were primarily looking for inspiration for new accompaniments for signature dishes.
"We weren’t looking for diversity in meats or proteins necessarily, rather in sides, seasoning and ingredients," says Weber. "The spiciness in cuisines in both South Carolina and Georgia was far more intense than what we taste locally. They incorporated a lot of different ingredients into dishes, such as okra, corn meal and kale."
One of the things he says they look for as they travel is a sense of the culinary trends happening in different places.
"We found it very interesting that a lot of the restaurants we visited had many similarities in terms of menu items and culinary trends," he says. "We expected to see a larger variety of different foods, but in reality, many of them shared similar food and menu choices."
It’s something you wouldn’t know unless you actually traveled to that place, he underscores.
"We can read all we want about regional food trends, but when you actually get to taste it firsthand, you can truly experience a city or region’s culinary flavor and mark," he explains.
"An example is with tender octopus in Atlanta. Who would equate octopus to being a standout dish in Atlanta? We went to a few different restaurants that all had tender octopus on the menu. If you pay attention from restaurant to restaurant, you can learn what’s going on in a city from a culinary standpoint and the certain players starting these trends."
The trends a chef experiences on a trip can heavily influence how recipes develop for a new menu, as well as the type of offerings.
Weber reports an increase in the "non-center-of-the-plate" approach to dining in the restaurants that they visited. In other words, the focus of the menus wasn’t so much on expensive steaks or fish, but instead on accompaniments and seasonings.
This trend is reflected in creative new side dishes on the fall and winter menu, like roasted cauliflower, autumn root vegetable hash and Tuscan kale and cabbage.
When I asked if they had favorite spots they visited along the way, Weber was quick to respond.
"We liked South Carolina a lot," he says. "It seemed that everyone in the restaurant scene knew each other. We were surprised about the caliber of restaurants in Charleston, since it’s such a small city.
"The Optimist in Atlanta also impressed us on the quality of food and preparations. There wasn’t a flaw in the restaurant. Menu, service and execution were completely on point, and the space had great history that was nicely incorporated into the décor and overall feel."
In addition to dishes like seafood gumbo featuring fresh seafood, okra and white rice, which appears on both the lunch and dinner menus, diners will also find dinner items like herb crumb crusted Chilean sea bass with roasted pepper sauce and pickled jalapeno relish as well as Florida Stone Crab claws, which are a limited edition seasonal item.
"We are bringing them in as fast and furious as we can get them, but the stone crab season has been relatively light this year." Weber says. "We are committed to serving only the best, freshest crab, while some competitors may resort to lesser quality or frozen if the season isn’t prime."
Weber says that the stone crab season is highly dependent upon water temperatures and weather conditions. In fact, the worse the weather is, the better the crab season tends to be.
"The weather has been pretty nice," he says. "And we have no idea how the rest of the season will pan out … so come in and get them while you can!"
Crab claws run from $25.95 for two 3-5-ounce claws up to $130.95 for eight 5-8-ounce claws. Diners can also choose the combination seafood platter for $45, which includes four oysters, four shrimp and two stone crab claws.
For a look at the new menu visit masonstreetgrill.com.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.