IF THE TERM “hors d'oeuvre” brings to mind unimaginative, reheated canapés, take heart: The days of the frozen crab cake are long gone. A mixture of inspired tastes and textures is taking today's hors d'oeuvre to a whole new level. Here, we look at two catering companies that are giving appetizers a fresh approach by focusing on international flavors and creative presentation.
Los Angeles-based Innovative Dining Group does a number of large-scale events that “tend to be a lot of heavy tray-passed hors d'oeuvre and sushi and robata bars,” says director of catering and special events Laura Holycross. Holycross oversees both the off-premise catering division as well as large events at the company's five restaurants, which serve Japanese, American and French cuisines. One of the most requested items is the robata — meat and fish skewered and grilled over traditional Bincho-tan charcoal and grills, both imported from Japan — which can be served from the grill or tray-passed. Popular varieties include the sea bass, chicken with scallions, and filet mignon-wrapped foie gras and asparagus, all of which are served with dipping sauces.
Both sushi bars and tray-passed sushi are still in demand at events, Holycross says. While standard items such as spicy tuna rolls and California rolls remain the top sellers, clients are also eager to try unique items such as shrimp tempura with jalapenos, baked lobster roll with cream sauce, and, for vegetarians, marinated shiitake mushrooms with avocado and plum paste, which are rolled in soy paper colored with vegetable dye instead of seaweed. Tray-passed sushi is often topped with edible gold to dress it up, she adds, which is always a big hit.
It's not just the hors d'oeuvre that are getting a make-over, but also the manner in which they are served. “People like different textures and different looks, instead of just passing things around on silver trays,” says John Walsh, executive chef at Timonium, Md.-based Chef's Expressions, which averages four or five events a week. “People don't want to see the same thing — the little frozen canapés as I call them — on a silver tray with a doily. I never use doilies.”
Instead, Walsh butlers his hors d'oeuvre on platters and vessels that take inspiration from the hors d'oeuvre themselves. He serves dim sum, such as his popular chicken and scallion variety, in bamboo steamers lined with banana leaves. He also does what he calls his “chopstick line” — filled spring roll wrappers that are rolled thin, deep fried in peanut oil and sliced on an angle, then served in large martini glasses along with dipping sauces. Recipes include a lobster and corn chopstick, crab and fresh basil chopstick, and the shiitake mushroom chopstick, which is served with a smoky raspberry hoisin sauce. For one recent event, Walsh created a smoked shrimp salad mélange topped with a dollop of cilantro pesto, which was served on Chinese soup spoons passed on black lacquered trays.
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When deciding upon menus for events, “I think the advantage of doing hors d'oeuvre, no matter what the group size is, is that you can do a large variation,” Walsh notes. “I like to do 10, 12, 15, and at some really big parties, I'll go up to 20 different butlered hors d'oeuvre.” He adds visual interest by varying geometric forms — for example, serving seared foie gras circles on toasted brioche triangles — as well as garnishing with edible flowers and herbs, such as primrose, marigold, and flowering thyme and sage.
Holycross agrees that hors d'oeuvre allow for a great deal of variety, pointing out that while many of her clients request the company's Asian-inspired robata and sushi, French and American items are also gaining popularity, especially the cream of egg tart with caviar and the Napoleon of whipped brie — which she describes as “very, very decadent” — and the maple-glazed, bacon-wrapped figs, which are particularly popular for autumn menus. “We can always mix it up,” Holycross notes. “If they want a little Japanese, a little American, a little French, we definitely do it. It can all mesh together.”
Chef's Expressions, 410/561-2433; Innovative Dining Group, 323/655-3372