While citrus is a year-round favorite, recent trend reports indicate the category of fruits that includes grapefruit, orange, and lemon is poised for a bigger 2015 than years past.
Driving the renewed interest in citrus and grapefruit is consumers' inclination toward bold, distinctive flavors as well as ingredients with a healthy perception. Citrus creates a balanced dish when combined with other ingredients, allowing restaurants to serve full-flavor meals that are not laden with fat and unnecessary calories.
"Citrus adds the component that allows each and every bite of the item to be refreshing," says Steve Sturm, chef of the 36-unit Firebirds Wood Fired Grill. "Whenever you use citrus, it brings out the flavors of the other items."
According to Technomic's MenuMonitor from the third quarter of 2014, at chef-driven restaurant including independents and smaller fine-dining chains—often looked to by the rest of the industry to lead innovation—grapefruit reached 9.5 percent operator penetration for appetizers and 5.8 percent for entrées. The fruit also appears as one of the top three citrus flavors for spirits and cocktails on Technomic's Adult Beverage Flavor Trends report, earning 14.3 percent year-over-year growth on menus.
Citrus remains a popular staple on both the food and beverage sides, up 10.6 percent in year-over-year menu penetration at the bar. Grapefruit was up 14.3 percent.
One of Chef Sturm's tips for restaurants that want to incorporate more citrus is to purchase fruit fresh, not fruit in a bottle or as a concentrate. The peels have natural oils that come out when the fruit is squeezed, creating a more aromatic end product, he says.
"Our bartenders, just like our chefs in the back, they're creating cocktails using juices that are squeezed to order," he explains. "It's not a bunch of stuff in jars and bottles. When you do that, it becomes homogenized and tastes sweet; it's not really distinctive. Using fresh citrus, a lot of the flavors pop. A little bit of citrus tartness really goes a long way in having all those zones in your mouth hit off each other."
Navel and Valencia oranges are available almost year-round, as are Eureka and Meyer lemons. Grapefruit, however, has a shorter seasonal lifespan: the Rio Red, Texas Rio Star, Pummelo, and Florida varieties are in season only from September through April.
While seasonality plays a part in when citrus can be menued, Chef Sturm adds that it's readily available in the Western Hemisphere, so seasonality is not as much of a hindrance—though if it needs to be shipped from South America, cost is a consideration.
For an entrée on Firebirds' winter menu this year, Chef Sturm envisioned a citrus grilled shrimp topped with cilantro-lime vinaigrette. The shrimp is sprinkled with a spice made of crystalized lemon, crystalized lime, crystalized orange, and a little bit of seasoning that includes sugar and fresh thyme. Then, the shrimp roasts in the oven, and the dish is complemented with a grilled corn and black bean salsa that incorporates fresh orange and lime juices.
Chef Sturm says the dish would not work without the citrus components, which create a tart flavor that balance the savory and sweet. Another dish the restaurant is featuring is a citrus grilled chicken in pineapple salsa that he says "has been received unbelievably well."
One of Firebirds' non-alcoholic citrus-based drinks is Firebirds Fresh Squeezed Lemonade, sold in conjunction with Alex's Lemonade Stand, a charity that fundraises for childhood cancer. The recipe Chef Sturm developed calls for a fresh-squeezed lemonade drink with a sugarcoated rim.
The lemonade sells for $3.50, and $1 from each one sold goes back to Alex's Lemonade. Stephen Loftis, vice president of marketing for Firebirds, says the brand has donated upwards of $250,000 to the charity since partnering with it a year and a half ago.
By Sonya Chudgar