Taste-Test: Applebee's Trendy New Menu

We tried out the chain's wood-fired meats and local produce to determine if the additions are a success


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Photo courtesy of Applebee's

There’s a county restaurant where charred veggies and hand-cut, bone-in pork chops and steaks are prepared on oak wood-fired grills. And all produce gets sourced from local vendors. The newest farm-to-table restaurant from an acclaimed NYC chef, right?

Nope.

It’s Applebee’s.

Photo by John Bruno Turiano 

The 2,000-plus-location casual-dining chain (the largest in the world) revamped their menu a little more than two months ago featuring some new additions intended to improve ingredient quality/cooking techniques and stay on-trend with how more Americans are making food purchases based on natural and/or healthier components. It's a movement major franchises and food companies food are acknowledging to different degrees.

Panera Bread, for example, became the first national restaurant chain to publicly post a comprehensive list of all artificial additives that it has removed or plans to remove (maltodextrin anyone?) by the end of 2016, and Kraft’s Mac & Cheese, which formerly got its iconic faux-orange hue from artificial dyes like Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, now contains naturally sourced coloring ingredients like turmeric, paprika, and annatto.

I spoke with Zane Tankel, CEO and franchise group spokesperson for Applebee’s in the five boroughs and Westchester (seven locations) and Rockland (in Airmont) Counties about their latest efforts. (Scroll beneath Q&A to see how the updated menu items fared when I tasted them myself.)

 

What was the catalyst for the menu change? 

A desire to keep the brand contemporary and relevant to current tastes. We are working to engage Millennials while retaining our current core guests and innovating to ensure we are anticipating our guests' wants and needs.

 

What have been the key additions?

At the center of this effort is our wood-fired grills, which allow us to cook over American oak, deliciously searing in the juices and delivering a signature smoky wood aroma and flavor. And, we are now hand-cutting USDA Choice top sirloin [previously their meats were Ungraded on the USDA Beef Grade Scale of Utility, Ungraded, Select, Choice, and Prime] in each restaurant, including our 12 oz. Butchers Reserve, 8 oz. and 6 oz sirloins, plus hand-cut bone-in pork chops, and a variety of other dishes.

 

Which is your favorite? 

The signature Butcher’s Reserve 12 oz. sirloin. And it’s important to mention our new fire-grilled sides, including fresh fire-grilled veggies, maple-pecan mashed sweet potatoes, and garlicky green beans.

 

What are some other notable selections? 

We have a whole new section of the menu expanding beyond just steaks including cedar-grilled salmon, grilled chicken breast, double-glazed baby back ribs, and shrimp ‘n Parmesan sirloin. And, this [July], we are rolling out limited time-only wood-fired grill salads: Southwestern steak, grilled watermelon and spicy shrimp salad, and grilled chicken, avocado and grapefruit salad. 

            

The perception some have of chains like Applebee's is that of processed and frozen ingredients. What would you say in response?

We have invested in the largest kitchen renovation in company history replacing our grills, [and] elevating quality and flavors across the menu. All burgers are fresh-ground chuck, sirloin steaks are hand-cut, and all produce comes in fresh from locally sourced vendors.   


Putting the New Applebee's Menu to the Test

After speaking with Tankel, a question I asked myself was, "So how much of the menu changes are marketing/PR spin and how much are real changes? Kind of like when your favorite cereal says, “New and Improved,” and you realize upon consumption it’s just ad-speak to create an impression and increase sales.

To find out, I dined at the Applebee’s closest to my home in White Plains. Upon entering, I could detect a slight waft of wood smoke in the air, so that was a good start.

I ordered a number of the new items, including two that stood out: the grilled watermelon and spicy shrimp salad, and the grilled chicken, avocado, and grapefruit salad. Both were presented well, with bright, fresh-tasting veggies and fruit (the grapefruit was especially juicy and delicious) and dressed evenly with house-made Champagne-vinaigrette and Greek yogurt dressings. My only complaint is about a third of the watermelon chunks had too much of the white part of the rind left on it.

 

Photo by John Bruno Turiano 

 

My other main selections were middling. The cedar-grilled salmon, while having a nice wood-fired smoke on it, was underdressed and could have used some fresh herbs and olive oil (there is the option for a maple-mustard glaze). The 6-oz. Choice sirloin was ordered medium but came medium well. It was serviceable, and I’m certain better than if it had been a pre-menu upgrade Ungraded cut, but not something you would seek out. I would also suggest they work on their uninspired plating (an exception to this, besides the salads, was a playfully presented Cracker Jack banana cheesecake) and strawberry lemonade that tasted like liquefied sugar and not much like lemon or strawberries (though there were thinly sliced strawberries floating within).     

PHOTO BY JOHN BRUNO TURIANO

Sides varied from above average (cheddar bacon potatoes, garlic mashed potatoes) to average (fire-grilled veggies that needed seasoning and garlicky green beans that were in need of garlic).

The fact a huge chain like Applebee’s has committed itself to at least talking about food quality is an excellent first step. The second step of actually providing some better-quality food is also a positive. However, I still have to point out that considering the obesity epidemic in the U.S., there are too many items (not as much the new wood-fired grilled selections) with a ridiculous amount of calories (the cheeseburger egg rolls app has 1,000-plus, for example).

Considering I cover food and dining for the magazine and focus on local independently owned restaurants, my usual travels exploring the county food scene would not likely take me back to Applebee’s. But if someone were to want to meet me there for lunch, I’d check first to see if those limited-time salads were taken off the limited-time list.   

 

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