Spring is finally in the air and new flavors are blooming on menus nationwide.

Along with traditional seasonal ingredients like strawberry, rhubarb, asparagus, peas and ramps, other less-expected items are also taking root. Here’s a look at what’s popping up and what’s to come.

Brie

Creamy, premium and indulgent, this mild French cheese is appearing on sandwiches and burgers, and in snack boxes and elsewhere.

Caribou's Turkey Brie baguette

At Bar Louie, Brie can be found on flatbread, along with mozzarella and provolone. It’s topped with pulled pork, grilled pears, caramelized onions, fig jam and spinach.

At Caribou Coffee, Brie ups the French feel of a new baguette sandwich, where it complements turkey and pepper jam.

At The Counter, Brie is the inspiration for the new “Un-Brie-lievable” turkey burger, which also features mixed greens, tomato, cranberries and apricot sauce, all served on a multigrain bun.

At the San Francisco Bay Area locations of Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Danish brie appears in the chain’s new cheese and fruit box, along with Cheddar and Monterey pepper Jack cheeses, apples, roasted almonds and rice crackers.

Pear

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In addition to appearing on Bar Louie’s flatbread, pear can also be found in a growing number of fruit-and-cheese platters, snack boxes, and cocktails. In fact, pears in cocktails — especially when they are unexpected, like in Margaritas — are causing a social-media buzz, said research firm newBrandAnalytics.

1760's Pear-Ginger cocktail

Among other elixirs, BD’s Mongolian Grill recently introduced an Asian Pear Cooler cocktail, made with Grey Goose La Poire Vodka, Finest Call Sangria, Lime Sour mixes and lemon-lime soda.

Restaurant 1760 in San Francisco offers a Pear-Ginger cocktail made with pear juice, ginger shrub, Verdicchio wine and gin served with a Campari ice cube.

Ciabatta and brioche

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These two breads fit perfectly into the trend toward premium. Egg-rich brioche is on 19 percent more menus now than a year ago, and is the bread of choice for upscale sandwiches such as the mahi mahi version that Hooter’s introduced for Lent and The Counter’s new Southeast Asian Ahi tuna sandwich.

Wendy's Bacon Portabella Melt on Brioche

Brioche is particularly popular with burgers these days. It’s the bun for Jack in the Box’s new Bacon Insider, which has bacon pieces mixed into the patty, and is used for the bacon cheeseburger on Friendly’s recently revamped menu.

Friendly’s is also using it for French toast, and Bravo! Cucina Italiano just added to its brunch menu roast turkey sweet potato hash and eggs with brioche toast.

Ciabatta, meanwhile, is now on 14 percent of chain menus and 6 percent of independent restaurant menus. It’s Wendy’s premium carrier of choice for the season — currently holding the Ciabatta Bacon Cheeseburger with Asiago cheese, thick-cut bacon, rosemary-garlic aïoli and oven-roasted tomatoes — and the chain will be rolling out a chicken sandwich on the bread shortly.

Jack in the Box, Sonic Drive-in and Applebee’s are currently using ciabatta, too. And a ciabatta crisp makes for a premium element served with First Watch’s new smoked salmon and vegetable frittata.

Sundried tomato-basil ciabatta is the bread for a new Caribou Coffee sandwich, which also has oven-roasted turkey breast, mozzarella and aïoli pesto spread.

Lamb bacon

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Bacon is one of the most beloved savory items around, and chefs are finding ways to extend its popularity. Increasingly common, they are substituting lamb for pork — that is, curing and smoking lamb bellies to add a taste of spring to dishes.

Oysters topped with lamb bacon from Alden & Harlow in Cambridge, Mass.

The Easter menu at Tocqueville restaurant in New York City boasts a pan-roasted lamb loin with braised shoulder and lamb bacon. Michael Scelfo, chef of Alden & Harlow in Cambridge, Mass., shaves lamb bacon, along with pickled mushrooms and cucumber labneh, over oysters. And at Two restaurant in Chicago, lamb bacon, arugula, and Wisconsin Parmesan, flavor a parsnip risotto.

Prediction: More mint, everywhere

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Mint is typically found in teas, cocktails and hot holiday beverages and desserts, but its presence is growing, particularly as Vietnamese food grows in popularity. Mint typically accompanies many of that cuisine’s spicy dishes, but it’s also no stranger to Mediterranean food. That fact was borne out at last year’s Food & Wine Best New Chefs Party in New York City, at which celebrity chef Scot Conant served roasted rabbit with herbed spätale, parsnip and mint, and Michael Symon made yogurt cavatelli with lamb Bolognese and mint.

mint

Although that was last year, it usually takes a while for such trend-forward dishes to move into the mainstream. And this year it’s already appearing in unexpected places, like beer.

Dennis Marron, the chef of Poste Modern Brasserie in Washington, D.C., is growing hops in his herb garden so local brewers can make custom beer for him, but recently those beer makers are looking past his hops.

“Now all the local breweries are like, ‘Hey, can we get some mint’,” he said.

And mint julep variations are already showing up on cocktail lists, such as in BD’s Samurai Smash, which is made with Bourbon, huckleberry syrup, mint and club soda. You can expect to see more examples of this refreshing herb put to surprising uses soon.

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary