Surveying menu data from restaurants across the country from 2013 through 2014, the numbers make one thing clear: Bitter will make its mark as a key menu trend this year. Customers are demanding more of the bitter flavors typically present in vegetables such as cauliflower, collards, kale, and Brussels sprouts as well as India pale ales and bitter tinctures in cocktails. Some chefs attribute the uptick in bitter to consumers seeking a balance in their palates, while other experts say it’s a throwback flavor experiencing a revival.
Mary Chapman, senior director at Technomic, says the incidence of the word bitter on restaurant menus increased 13 percent from 2013 to 2014. In particular, the word kale saw a 47 percent boost while IPAs jumped 31 percent over the same period of time.
Chapman says consumers have an undeniable interest in extreme flavors, and bitter is the latest incarnation of that trend.
Anthony Meidenbauer attributes the decrease in processed foods as a reason for the increase in the popularity of bitter veggies like kale. Meidenbauer is the corporate executive chef and director of culinary operations for Block 16 Hospitality Group, which operates nine Las Vegas restaurants and a food truck.
“As the movement toward eating farm-fresh items and things that are less-processed grows, the bitter flavor profile is becoming more accepted in the American diet,” he says.
He’s also noticed that his customers are more willing to try a dish that has a bitter component, and they usually love the results. “Often the flavors are something maybe guests haven’t tried before, and it gives them a pleasant surprise.”
Executive Chef Ryan Tate of the farm-to-table restaurant Blenheim in New York City is one of many chefs who recommends opening a meal with a bitter dish. “The bitter taste stimulates the palate and makes you want to keep eating,” he explains.
On his menu, he uses leek tops that have been burned, creating a sharp, savory flavor, and pairs it with rich braised beef short ribs. It may sound like an odd combination, but Chef Tate says the two components work together harmoniously, and that is what he aims to achieve when including bitter flavors. “You want the dish to end up balanced,” he says. “There’s nothing on the menu that is intended to be bitter; it’s all about balance.”