By Elisa Ung
NorthJersey.com • July 15, 2012
Not words I would associate with … Applebee’s.
But like other chains, Applebee’s is putting its own spin on the latest food trends. Red Robin slathers burgers with “premium aiolis,” Burger King’s got a bacon sundae, and you may remember those Korean tacos I tried at TGI Friday’s.
Applebee’s just unveiled a new “seasonal” summer menu. And it apparently has revolutionized the world’s largest dining chain.
“Until now, strawberries were used only in desserts and beverages at Applebee’s. This new summer statement salad moves sliced-ripe-daily strawberries to the lunch and dinner menu,” says the press material.
A strawberry spinach salad! Wow, Applebee’s has entered the 1980s!
Before we go any further, I should say that I looked at this new menu with more skepticism than usual, having just read Tracie McMillan’s fascinating book, “The American Way of Eating” (Scribner, 2012). McMillan worked undercover at a Brooklyn Applebee’s and described a culture of microwaves, frozen foods and sauces from plastic bags.
My takeaway from her experience: Applebee’s might make for a fun evening, but much of the food seemed on par with a frozen dinner.
The four special summer dishes promised to be different. After all, the menu says they are “made with the best ingredients the season has to offer.”
Such as what the menu describes as “seasonal roasted red peppers” – which are actually from a can, according to Applebee’s executive research chef Melissa Haupt. The artichokes on the lemon shrimp fettuccine? Also canned.
And then there are the featured strawberries and asparagus spears, whose local growing seasons are weeks or months past us.
Haupt preferred to talk about the fresh blueberries and spinach in the salads, the fresh rosemary and basil in the pastas, and the gremolata now being made at each restaurant from lemon zest, garlic and parsley – paired with a squeeze of lemon juice on the shrimp, it amps up the citrus flavor in that fettuccine.
She points out that Applebee’s has always served some fresh ingredients, like tomatoes in its salads and mashed potatoes made from scratch at each restaurant.
She assured me that Applebee’s does not consider “fresh” a single marketing campaign: “it’s more about getting our culture energized around handling fresh ingredients,” she said.
Which is not easy for such a huge business.
If you want to add strawberries to a salad at home, you buy some, wash them and slice them up. If you want to add strawberries to a salad at Applebee’s, you have to make sure your farmers and suppliers can handle the enormous demand and that the thousands and thousands of staff members in your restaurants are properly trained to prepare them safely.
But then from a customer’s standpoint, is this kind of large operation really the best place to eat truly fresh and seasonal?
As usual, there was only one way to find out.
And so here’s the report from the Totowa Applebee’s: The seasonal berry and spinach salad with chicken, blue cheese and honey-glazed pecans in a vinaigrette made from concentrated strawberries ($11.99) made for a perfectly pleasant combination. (However, if you’re in the market for a fruity salad at a chain, I’d point you toward the strawberry poppy seed and chicken salad at Panera. It’s not only cheaper, it has about half the calories and fat of the Applebee’s dish.)
Florentine house sirloin ($13.99) had a nice herby flavor from thyme and garlic, and the fresh spinach, fresh mushrooms and those canned peppers added plenty of texture. As for the lemon shrimp fettuccine ($14.99), the shrimp were little salt bombs, and is a dish really “fresh” if it’s drowning in rich garlic cream sauce?
The dishes do add new flavors that will probably appeal to regular Applebee’s customers.
However, if you really want “fresh flavors now in season”? Go to the farmers’ market. But you knew that.