Dishes that chefs love aren't always popular with their customers

Eli Wahl, newly elevated to the position of executive chef at Casbah in Shadyside, would like to add a pork belly dish to the appetizer menu, but he's holding off.

He loves the "luscious" texture of this cut of meat, but he knows from experience that customers won't order it.

This past winter, Jessica Gibson, executive chef of Bistro 19 in Mt. Lebanon, hoped to entice her customers with a new preparation of venison, which had never been a popular choice at the restaurant. The venison was marinated in red wine and topped with a rich hot chocolate foam with a little cayenne pepper. She loved the dish, but it just didn't sell, so she took it off the menu.

Restaurant diners invariably have more conservative tastes than chefs, and because an unpopular dish can quickly harm the bottom line, chefs can't always let their passions drive their menus.

Diners have good reason to be cautious. They're spending money on dinner and they want to be sure they'll enjoy it.

But for chefs, it can be frustrating when preferences don't seem logical, or diners seem unwilling to take any chances. Mr. Wahl pointed out that Casbah sells tons of arugula salad garnished with pancetta, "just pork belly in another fashion."

What diners will and will not eat varies greatly from restaurant to restaurant. Barbara McKenna, owner of the venerable Hyeholde restaurant in Moon, mentioned that sweetbreads are not popular among their clientele; but at Isabela on Grandview, a fine dining restaurant on Mount Washington, sweetbreads have been surprisingly successful, said chef Daniel Leiphart.

He has his own list of ingredients that diners sometimes reject. Like Ms. Gibson, he has trouble selling venison, and even hanger steak sometimes has off nights.

Vegetables aren't free from scrutiny either. "Beets can be kind of hit or miss," he said, "We'll have beets on a salad, and we get a lot of mixed reviews."

So why do chefs continue to push unpopular ingredients? Why, for example, has pork belly been popping up more and more on local menus, despite the fact that chefs almost universally report having difficulty selling it?

Chefs want to stay excited about their jobs, which can be difficult if they have to serve the same dishes night after night. And if chefs never introduced new ingredients, diners would undoubtably grow bored as well. Often, new trends start when a few chefs are brave enough to repeatedly push unpopular items.

Pork belly, when cured, smoked and sliced, goes by the name of bacon. In recent years, chefs have been incorporating preparations more typical of Chinese and Korean cuisine into the Western fine dining lexicon.

Typically, the meat is browned, braised for several hours, then browned again to crisp up the fat. Pork belly is now so ubiquitous in cities such as New York and San Francisco that some obsessive foodies are calling it passe -- but the dish has yet to come into its own in Pittsburgh. Still, chefs keep trying, because they love the dish and they want their customers to have a chance to love it, too.

Trevett Hooper, executive chef of Legume Bistro in Regent Square, had a slightly different take on the pork belly chronicle. He recalls a lot of enthusiasm for it when their restaurant opened three years ago -- about the same time as the height of the pork belly craze in New York. But then interest died down. Now, he puts it on the menu when he gets it from Heilman's Hogwash Farm, a local supplier of pastured pork. "It's helpful when working with smaller producers to be able to take more of the animal," he said, and the quality of Heilman's pork makes any cut relatively easy to sell.

Chefs also take note when ingredients seem to be growing in popularity.

At Casbah, Mr. Wahl has noticed that dried beans and lentils are suddenly enticing to customers. Recently, a woman who had come in just for a drink -- she'd already eaten dinner -- wound up ordering a side of lentils, just because she was so excited to see them on the menu.

The words used to describe a dish can be as important as the actual dish. If a dish isn't selling well, Mr. Leiphart sometimes tries rewriting the menu description. Often, orders immediately pick up.

And sometimes, it's all about finding the right preparation. Ms. Gibson repeatedly tried to find a way to incorporate snails on the Bistro 19 menu, and she finally hit on a combination that sold.

"I have a beer-cheese fondue on it, prosciutto and tomatoes, and they're served over baguette," she said "that beer cheese, I guess really helped."

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or . Follow China on Twitter at . First Published March 18, 2010 4:00 AM


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