Friday, August 21, 2009

Getting bounce from 'balance'

Wipe “locavore” and “natural” off the whiteboard. A new buzzword for restaurant menu planners is starting to take hold: “Balance.”

That’s the underlying principle of True Food Kitchen, the new concept that P.F. Chang’s has decided to back with a $10-million infusion of growth capital. If the emperor of Asian casual dining likes what it fosters, it has the option of buying a controlling stake in the brainchild of Sam Fox, the Rich Melman of Phoenix. The young concept creator’s earlier hatchlings include the Sauce pizza and wine fast-casual chain and one-offs like Olive & Ivy.

True Food is a foodservice retreat for those seeking “a more balanced lifestyle,” according to Fox’s company, Fox Restaurant Concepts. It was created in collaboration with a New Age medical guru, Dr. Andrew Weil, who advocates a blend of conventional medicine and alternative aids like herbs and moderation.

It may be the most visible proponent of the new balance sensibility, but it’s hardly alone. Across the Atlantic, Sodexo, the contract-feeding giant, is featuring a menu based on “balanced nutrition” at 500 of the institutional feeding operations it manages. The aim of the new Vitality line-up, according to the France-based company, is to provide healthy dining options without sacrificing the enjoyment. In short, it aims to strike a balance.

The strategy is hardly unknown on this side of the pond. Seasons 52, Darden Restaurant’s brilliant play for aging Baby Boomers, promises the same sort of balance between taste, indulgence and health concerns. You can have a low-calorie entrée, finish it off with tiny shot-glass-sized desserts, and wash it down with a few selections from the concept’s extensive wine list.

“Balance” also figured into Mimi’s selection of the winner in a customer recipe contest. Patrons were asked to come up with a Meaningful Muffin that could be added to the casual chain’s menu. The winner was a Pineapple Coconut Crumb preparation, praised in part by celebrity judge/chef Gale Gand for its “perfect balance of flavors and textures.” In part because of that distinction, “we felt it would appeal best to a wide audience,” said the Chicago restaurateur.

Clearly “balance” is being used in a variety of ways, just as “health,” “fresh,” “wholesome” or “homestyle” once carried more definitions than a pocket-sized Webster’s. But all the applications suggest it’s a word that resonates right now with the public. For that reason, it’s certain to show up on more menus.

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