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Brunch in One (or Two) Bites

NO, IT ISN'T isn't eggs Benedict with a gin and tonic or bagels and lox washed down with a martini. A "cocktail brunch," according to its creator Rosemary Howe of New York-based Barraud Caterers, combines the informality and hominess of brunch with the mobility and flexibility of a cocktail party. "It's basically comfort food elegantly presented in a cocktail format," says Howe.

"The idea is to serve a [brunch] dish in miniature-to take the essential flavors of a particular dish and re-create them as an hors d'oeuvre," she continues. For example, to make bite-size French toast, Howe dips brioche toast points in a spicy-sweet ancho chili paste and drizzles them with sweet jalapeno syrup. Roast beef-a brunch staple-is carved down to a morsel and served on a caper-onion biscuit topped with a dollop of habanero aioli. A variation on the traditional blini combines rum-soaked black currants and orange blossom marscapone. "The hors d'oeuvre selection should follow the course of an ordinary meal, moving from savory to sweet," Howe says.

Howe conceived of the cocktail brunch idea when a corporate client wanted to hold a special reception in a space that could not accommodate a sit-down affair. The success of that event led Howe to incorporate cocktail brunches into her regular catering repertoire. "Traditional brunches accounted for 20 percent of our business," says Howe. "The corporate cocktail brunches now account for more than 10 percent of our bookings." Howe attributes the success of the cocktail brunches to both the creativity of the concept and the cost advantage. "You can expect to pay about two-thirds less [for the cocktail brunch] than what you would for a sit-down meal," she says.-S.C.

LOOKING FOR A new dish to tease the tastebuds of that seen-it-all client? How about sushi with an Italian twist?

Chicago restaurateur Michael Mormando, owner of La Strada Ristorante-Highwood, has infused traditional Japanese sushi with distinctly Mediterranean flavors, ingredients and techniques. The result: Italian sushi, which Mormando serves-to-order at a casual sushi bar inside his restaurant.

Mormando conceived of this Japanese-Italian hybrid during a trip to Genoa last year. "I wanted to take what Americans think of as sushi, with the pressed and rolled varieties, and bring it to a new level by creating an unusual concept that infuses Italian and Asian ingredients with sushi-grade raw fish," Mormando says. "I'm sure this will be well-received by people looking for trend-setting dining experiences."

With the increasing popularity of both sushi bars and fusion food at catered events, this clever "Mediterr-Asian" dish could very well be the "mashed potato martini bar" of the new millennium.

A sample of La Strada's Italian-inspired sushi dishes:

Steamed escarole rolled with maguro tuna, chilled saffron risotto and leeks with sundried-tomato wasabi.

Rice paper rolled with yellow tail hamachi, saffron risotto and watercress with balsamic wasabi.

Pressed smoked salmon with potato crisp, avocado puree and crisp leeks.

Pressed sweet water shrimp with basil risotto and gaeta olive wasabi.

Pressed maguro tuna with pesto mayonnaise, white risotto and balsamic wasabi.

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