Restaurant operators are turning lemons into lemonade with variations on the summertime favorite.
Even as restaurant traffic stagnates, the number of servings of lemonade, traditionally made with lemon juice, sugar and water, sold in restaurants has increased 5.6 percent in the past year, according to The Coca-Cola Company, citing data from The NPD Group/CREST.
Restaurants are renewing their focus on lemonade by using berries and other seasonal and exotic fruits to add flavor and visual appeal; herbs to add complexity; and even health supplements like algae.
At International Smoke, which recently opened in The Street, a restaurant complex developed by Michael Mina in the Waikiki section of Honolulu, guests can sip pink lemonade that gets its color from fresh guava, and an added boost of flavor from Thai basil.
The drink is made by pouring hot simple syrup over Thai basil stems and leaves, letting the mixture steep, and adding it to equal amounts of puréed guava and lemon juice.
David Varley, director of culinary development at The Street, said the pink color lends the lemonade a “summer camp kitsch.”
“There’s something magical about the aroma of fresh guava that’s just captivating,” Varley said, adding that the basil helps keep guests’ interest for the entire 16-ounce experience.
“The thing about beverages is, when you start drinking them, the first sip is amazing, the second sip is good, but by the fourth sip you’re kind of bored. Adding an extra aromatic element keeps people engaged longer,” he said.
The Street also offers an Israeli-style limonana, a slushy blend of lemon, ice and mint served out of a frozen-drink dispenser next to a frozen rosé wine.
“We’re embracing summery, refreshing, delicious beverages,” Varley said.
Lemonade plus fruit and herbs — especially blueberry and mint — is an increasingly popular combination, according to Pam Ferraro, group director of juice commercialization for The Coca-Cola Company.
Although pink lemonade and strawberry lemonade are the most widespread varieties of the drink on American menus, blueberry and mint are the fastest growing, appearing on 106 percent and 81 percent more menus, respectively, from 2012 to 2016, according to menu research firm Datassential. That’s followed by peach lemonade, whose menu mentions rose 64 percent.
Fruit and herbs are the modus operandi of Megan Bailey, founder of Renegade Lemonade, which has kiosks in New York City and participates in many of the city’s food festivals.
Besides classic lemon, popular flavors are raspberry-rose, peach-mint, strawberry-basil and passion fruit-hibiscus. Rotating offerings include blueberry-lavender, tart cherry-Thai chile, pineapple-jalapeño and blackberry-ginger.
And tapping into the emerging trend of drinking activated charcoal, Bailey is working on a charcoal elderflower lemonade.
“It’s very interesting to see a pitch black drink,” she said. “But if it doesn’t taste good, no one’s going to buy it a second time.”
Still, appearance matters, which is why Bailey does a series of “ombres,” which fade from one shade to another. For instance, she tops classic lemonade in shaved ice with bolder offerings, such as hibiscus or purple pea.
Bailey uses the same base for all of the beverages, and then adds herbs, flowers and fruit. Often, the herbs and flowers are steeped in hot water, like tea, and sugar is added to make a syrup.
The current bestsellers are passion-hibiscus and raspberry-rose, “which is odd, because you’d think it would be something like strawberry-basil, but I think people are getting more adventurous,” she said.
Other operators use lemonade to reinforce their restaurant’s brand.
Oceana Poke, a new Livanos Restaurant Group concept in New York City, evokes the flavors of Hawaii by adding passion fruit to its lemonade. The drink is fairly tart, combining freshly squeezed orange and lime juices, passion fruit purée and yuzu, and has no added sugar, making it a refreshing pairing with poke.
“We’re doing a Hawaiian concept here, so we wanted to give people something citrusy to combine with the fish and all the poke bowls we’re doing,” Arias said.
The drink is fairly tart, combining freshly squeezed orange and lime juices, passion fruit purée and yuzu, and has no added sugar.
“We wanted to give people something refreshing, something nice for the summer,” Arias said.
At East Wind Snack Shop, a restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., that specializes in dumplings, chef-owner Chris Cheung uses Chinese preserved plum in what he calls a Honey Sour Plum Drink.
The key to the drink is salty, sweet and sour wah moy, a type of Chinese preserved plum that he steeps in honey, hot water and lemon juice. The drink is finished at service with a sprig of mint.
“It’s a natural energizer,” Cheung said. “It’s basically sweet, salty and sour in the same intensities in one drink.”
Some customers even make special trips to the restaurant for the beverage, he said.
“We have fans for our dumplings and fans for our bubble tea, but there’s a nice chunk of people in the summertime who come especially for that drink,” Cheung said.
At Riverpark in New York City, the local, seasonal ethos is reinforced with the cucumber lemonade at the adjacent Little River beer garden.
“It’s a very simple drink, and beautiful at the same time,” beverage director Dusan Vranic said.
Vranic sources cucumbers and mint from a local farm. He steeps the mint in simple syrup and uses it to sweeten a blend of cucumber juice and lemon juice The drink is garnished with mint leaves or basil.
“I think that grassy, botanical flavors are perfectly matched with lemon and mint,” Vranic said, adding that the drink’s “beautiful green color” is also a draw.
Mulberry & Vine, a health-oriented, fast-casual restaurant in New York City, reinforces its image of serving nutrient-dense food with its Blue Magik Lemonade.
“It’s a super hot, new health item,” chef Justin Schwartz said of Blue Magik, which is a concentrated form of blue-green algae.
Schwartz adds organic evaporated sugarcane juice to lemon juice and filtered water — “just enough so that you’re not drinking lemon water,” he said — and then adds the algae.
“It does not have a very strong taste,” Schwartz said. “I’d say it adds a touch of an earthy flavor. People are really drawn to the color, which is almost turquoise, and obviously the health benefits.”
According to Schwartz, sugar, as opposed to other sweeteners like maple syrup or honey, is necessary for lemonade to taste right.
Andrew Gruel adds caramelized sugar syrup to lemonade and iced tea for the Arnold Palmer at his fried chicken spot, Two Birds, in Irvine, Calif.
“Just cook until nutty,” he said of the syrup. “It adds a deeper flavor (think Snapple), that goes great with fried chicken.”
Although iced tea and lemonade have long been popular, lemonade spiked with coffee appears to be an emerging trend.
Supercrown Coffee Roasters in Brooklyn, N.Y., adds two shots of espresso to housemade lemonade in a drink it dubs the Laura Palmer.
“It’s a riff on the Arnold Palmer, a shandy [beer and lemonade] and kaffee limonade from Scandinavia,” Supercrown owner Darleen Scherer said. “It goes well with our lighter-roast coffees, and it’s quite delicious.”
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