Fresh herbs — often unsung hero ingredients — have the power to elevate a dish from fundamental to fabulous. Lately, chefs with a passion for these fragrant ingredients are increasingly using them on menus.
According to recent data from Datassential MenuTrends, the percentage of restaurant menus featuring the term “fresh herbs” has increased 3 percent over the past year, while a number of specific fresh herbs have experienced strong growth over a one-year and four-year trend, including fresh mint, cilantro and parsley. Additionally, fresh basil, mint, rosemary and thyme are all experiencing notable growth on beverage menus.
“Fresh herbs are a very important element in our food,” said Chad Newton, culinary director of Asian Box, a fast-casual, build-your-own Asian street food concept with seven restaurants in California.
At Asian Box, guests build their own meal by first choosing a base (rice, rice noodles, or Asian salad), a protein (six-spice chicken, lemon grass pork, coconut tofu) and vegetables and then topping it all with ingredients such as fresh herbs, jalapeño, crispy shallots and a house-made sauce. The herbs are a blend of fresh Thai basil, mint and cilantro sourced from local farmers.
“It is very authentic and traditional,” Newton said. “These herbs add a bright freshness that balances out the sweet, spicy, tangy and salty flavors of our food.”
At 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky., chef Kevin Ashworth incorporates herbs harvested from the restaurant’s greenhouse and garden into dishes on his main menu. Among the dishes are watermelon carpaccio with kohlrabi, fish sauce, purslane, Thai basil and benne seed, and border spring lamb with gochujang romesco, summer squash, marjoram and opal basil.
At Milkwood, 610 Magnolia’s sister restaurant, beverage director Stacie Stewart uses house-grown herbs in cocktails like the beet-infused Copper and Kings Unaged Apple Brandy "Gold Rush," made with thyme- and marjoram-steeped honey and lemon, shaken and served over rocks with micro basil garnish.
The comfort food and barbecue menu at Queens Bully, a gastro pub opening in mid-July in Forest Hills, N.Y., features locally sourced ingredients and fresh herbs such as dill and mint that have been grown in the restaurant’s basement-level hydroponic garden.
“We are starting off with growing strictly herbs that will be used for garnishing our drinks and, of course, used in our food. We hope to grow an array of vegetables on our rooftop by next spring,” said Rohan Aggarwal, owner of Queens Bully. “We are very excited to serve the freshest of ingredients to our guests.”
Queens Bully appetizers, entrees and cocktails featuring the hydroponic harvest include deviled eggs with dill and pimento aïoli; the Astoria lamb burger with herbed lamb, feta spread, lettuce and mint aïoli on a brioche bun, and the Flushing Slush, a blended rum cocktail with Kronan Swedish Punsch, raspberry gomme (a thickened syrup), lime, pineapple, sage, Angostura bitters, Bittermen’s Tiki Bitters and nutmeg.
Also growing and using fresh herbs is chef Luca Corazzina at 312 Chicago. Corazzina uses the sage, mint, chives, rosemary, oregano and basil, as well as tomatoes and vegetables he grows on the restaurant’s rooftop garden to make pesto and cream sauces for pastas, herb butter, rosemary potatoes, roasted tomato relish and marinades, and to add flavor to potato cakes and crostini.
Other chefs are going beyond familiar herbs, sourcing underutilized (and largely unfamiliar) varieties such as chickweed, bedstraw and nettles.
“I’ve always cooked with a ton of fresh herbs,” said chef Howard Hanna of The Rieger in Kansas City, Mo. “We use a lot of basil, parsley and mint, [but recently] I got interested in things that are wild and native.”
Among the wild herbs showing up on his spring menu were chickweed, a purée of which he used to make a creamy polenta verde, as well as nettles, which he used to make risotto. New wild herb-infused dishes on his summer menu will include nettle-wrapped merguez sausage and pasta made by rolling nettle leaves into the dough.
Similarly, executive chef Michael Rafidi sources foraged wild herbs for his contemporary Spanish and Moroccan menu at Arroz by Mike Isabella in Washington, D.C., including bronze fennel, nasturtium leaves, amaranth and chickweed. Rafidi uses them to garnish dishes such as big-eye tuna crudo with berbere salt, compressed melon, smoked serrano broth and wild herbs (bronzed fennel and amaranth).
The power of fresh herbs is driving systemwide change at The Melting Pot. The 122-unit fondue chain is currently testing replacing dried herbs with fresh ones (parsley and chives) for use in its signature Green Goddess sauce.
“As part of its Exceptional Food Initiative launched last year, The Melting Pot is continuing to find ways to bring the best products to its guests,” said chef Jason Miller, manager of culinary development for the chain. “The current recipe for the signature Green Goddess sauce uses high-quality dried herbs, but with any recipe fresh is always better.”
Correction: July 7, 2017 An earlier version of this story misstated the number of restaurants Asian Box has in California. It has seven restaurants in the state.