Newest Menu Items at Leading Chains Not Designed for Teetotalers

Categories: Pairing Off

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Corporate kitchens are continuing to add wine and spirits to their dishes, apparently angling for sophistication and increased perceived value.

Olive Garden is now pushing a pasta dish with shellfish "sautéed in white wine" and a stew "simmered in light white wine." Red Lobster's developed a new chardonnay-grilled shrimp, T.G.I.Friday's is glazing ribs with Captain Morgan and Applebee's is saucing its latest sirloin with a California Cabernet.

As Nation's Restaurant News pointed out in a 2008 story documenting the incipient trend, chain restaurants and alcohol have a longstanding relationship. When Howard Johnson, a regular customer at Le Pavillon, cajoled acclaimed French chef Pierre Franey into developing a menu for his restaurant chain, Franey boldly introduced beef burgundy. Road trippers - who roundly rejected Franey's curry -- liked it.

"It is stewed in California wine," Gael Greene reported in a 1970 review for Life. Franey told her: "We always used California wines for the bourguignonne at Le Pavillon."

California wines remain the standard at chain restaurants, which promiscuously affix the word "Napa" to chickens and steaks. The California wine industry, which hasn't been immune to recessionary pressures, has no doubt encouraged the association.

But corporate chefs wouldn't reach for the wine bottle if they weren't sure their customers would be receptive to spiked food. Yearly wine consumption nationwide has soared in the past decade from 568 million gallons to more than 767 million gallons. Restaurants likely hope their boozed-up dishes will inspire customers to consume still more, perhaps by ordering a glass of wine to pair with wine-soaked pasta.

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