Chefs are mixing up the familiar and unfamiliar to create nouveau tastes.

Intriguing the tongue through balance of flavor and texture, food pairings are the simple yet sophisticated way full-service restaurants are pumping their menus up. Inventive mixing of salty, umami, sour, bitter, sweet, and spicy has allowed new and revamped flavor combinations to sprout on menus. 

“We’re not just looking for tastes going together well,” says Carol Murphy Clyne, executive chef/partner of Cranford, New Jersey’s PAIRINGS palate + plate. “We want to balance textures, temperatures, colors, and flavors.” 

Today’s chefs are experimenting with new pairing trends while riffing on familiar flavors without overplaying them. Sweet and spicy desserts, cultural fusions, and classic ingredients displayed in unexpected manners are popping up on menus across the country. 

“Diners are adventurous, but they want ingredients that legitimately taste good together,” says Naomi Pomeroy, executive chef/owner of Beast in Portland, Oregon. “Don’t simply pair popular or fancy ingredients. Make sure they genuinely pair well; taste your concept and get feedback.”

Newly coupled classics, like tuna tartare and guacamole, or off-the-wall components, like citrus fruit yuzu and chocolate, spark intrigue with present-day diners who want experimental plates. From comforts to ingenious combinations, contemporary pairings create a dance on the tongue that’s thrilling yet balanced. 

“If it comes out of the ground at the same time, it’s meant to go together,” says Mike Davis, chef/owner of West Columbia, South Carolina’s Terra. “We’re pairing root vegetables like sweet potatoes and turnips with greens and seasonal fruit like apples.” 

Staying ahead of the curve by updating your menu is crucial, as today’s diners want local, fresh, and exciting dishes, says Elliot Williams, director of culinary at 110 Grill based in Westford, Massachusetts. 

Imagination and out-of-the-box thinking are driving food pairings on menus. Putting a twist on routine and adding rare ingredients not only pushes the eating envelope, but also meets customers’ ever-growing expectations. 

“We put our spin on items by producing ingredients in various ways to exhibit their different flavors,” Davis says. “Our root vegetable medley features carrots, turnips, parsnips, and a chermoula herb sauce made from carrot tops. We’re roasting carrots for the ginger carrot purée, and using two turnip types—one roasted whole and one glazed with its own sugars.”

For balance, contemporary pairings blend the well known with a bit of surprise. At Ocotillo in Phoenix, Chef Walt Sterling revises house-made pasta with bitter ingredients like cocoa and matcha to pair with sweet rabbit and spicy Hong Kong XO sauce. The restaurant’s matcha green tea pancake with ginger and lemongrass-infused syrup and textured sesame granola is a hit, too.

“We make an association with familiarity. Customers know what pancakes and maple syrup are, which helps bridge the gap,” Sterling says. “They know green tea, but may not know matcha. Using the title ‘matcha green tea pancake’ covers two out of three familiar things, and you jump from unfamiliar to where they’re comfortable ordering it.”

Bringing a modern slant to sushi roll ingredients, Clyne’s restaurant PAIRINGS has sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna with green onion wasabi sauce. 

“That hits every taste bud, temperature, and texture,” Clyne says. “We use yellowfin tuna [and] fry sushi rice so it’s crispy; add crunchy veggies like snow or sugar snap peas; plate a creamy, unctuous edamame hummus purée; and add the burst of wasabi sauce.” 

As pairings venture further out of what’s considered standard, trends are created. Today, chefs are composing vegetable dishes with meat as a side, sweet and spicy combos in desserts and meats, and Asian and Latin fusion flavors. 

Vegetables and meats, a traditional pairing, are forever popular; however, their roles are swapping. Because of the rise of vegetables, Clyne has turned them into the star of the plate, with proteins stepping to the side. 

“Vegetables are going crazy and trending more than anything else. You’re seeing them rise from the bottom of menus to the top,” Sterling says. “The margins are good on vegetables, so it’s more profitable for restaurants, healthier for customers, and better for the environment.” Cauliflower, sweet potatoes, and Brussels sprouts are the most popular vegetable pairings with meats or as the entrée with balanced sides. 

For desserts and meat dishes, sweet and spicy are teaming up to add drama. “We make a spicy, sweet pumpkin seed, sesame seed, and chipotle chile brittle, in addition to a passion fruit mousse with habanero,” says Anthony Lamas, chef/owner of Seviche, A Latin Restaurant based in Louisville, Kentucky. “Sneaking in spice is different, but works really well and gives a nice balance.” 

At 110 Grill, Williams pairs sweet and spicy in the Cajun tuna dish, where the spiciness of the tuna plays off cool avocado and sweet cucumber melon salad. 

Mash-ups of Latin and Asian flavors are gaining traction with customers as well. “Latin and Korean food are taking charge, plus Korean-Mexican crossover,” Lamas says. “Filipino is another influential one, and it’ll be another layer of Spanish/Asian flavors.” 

The tuna tartare with mango guacamole and an olive oil crisp at Clyne’s PAIRINGS plays off unique Asian and Mexican influences for a winning bite. 

Knowing your clientele and how far out you can travel within your concept is key, Williams says. He recommends staying with the trends while gearing the menu toward essential clients to ensure the basics go well. 

“It’s cool to be current, but knowing how to do a trend properly comes with being a mature chef,” Lamas says. “When you hear of new trends, learn them and understand them by eating the food.”

But while it’s great to experiment with new ingredient pairings, Pomeroy cautions chefs to do so with good purpose. “Don’t do things because they’re trendy,” she says. “Do things because they taste good.”

Feature, Menu Innovations