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Everyone nearby stares when China Chilcano’s concolón arrives at the table. A server sets up a tray on a stand with a sizzling clay bowl filled with aji amarillo-flavored fried rice, fatty pork belly, sweet Chinese sausage, pickled turnip, shiitake mushroom, soft eggs, and bok choy.
“Let me show you, please,” the server says as he lifts up the bowl with a white towel like a sommelier presenting a bottle of Bordeaux for inspection.
Next, he picks up a small saucepan filled with soy sauce and oyster sauce and pours the hot liquid over the dish. Using two spoons, he folds the rice on top of itself, cutting the tender pieces of pork belly, releasing the ooze of the egg yolks, and scraping the burnt bits of rice from the bottom. As he works, he explains each component like a TV cooking show host. For the finale: a sprinkling of chicharrons on top.
This is the 2015 twist on deboning Dover sole in the dining room or tossing a Caesar salad tableside. While the French guéridon style of service is a throwback to a time when waiters wore white gloves and dress codes demanded a jacket and tie, a new generation of chefs are bringing back the show with a modern flair. Mintwood Place and DBGB Kitchen and Bar have revived the baked Alaska, set afire with a butane torch at the table, while America Eats Tavern assembles beef tartare (locally sourced, of course) in front of diners. Others restaurants are presenting dishes tableside in new ways. Sure, half the Mexican restaurants in town now serve tableside guacamole. But others are carving Spanish ham, grinding and brewing coffee, and mixing cocktails at the diner’s side. Rose’s Luxury chef Aaron Silverman has even said he plans to make tableside preparations a prominent part of his forthcoming fine dining restaurant.
Tableside preparations and finishes come from an era where servers and the maitre d’ were the stars of restaurants, rather than the chef and his cooks. Josu Zubikarai, chef and co-owner of forthcoming Spanish restaurant SER (Simple Easy Real), recalls when he started working in restaurants decades ago that being a waiter was a career, not just a job. As such, the work involved a level of skill and professionality beyond taking orders and bringing the check. Knowing how to prepare a dish tableside was part of that: “I remember working with a server who used to peel an orange tableside without touching the orange with his fingers.”
But as jobs that require those kind of skills have disappeared over the years, so have the tableside preparations. Restaurants have turned more casual and minimalist, and the grip of classic French cuisine has loosened. The stuffy idea of a waiter who calls you “madame” preparing crepes Suzette has fallen hopelessly out of fashion over the last few decades.
Zubikarai wants to bring back this previously dying artform in a more casual setting at SER, which opens in Ballston on March 2. “I just don’t want them to feel like robots,” he says of the waitstaff. “They memorize the menu and blah, blah, blah, they tell you, and they don’t even know.”
SER will offer several dishes prepared or finished tableside, including paella and iberico ham hand-carved in front of guests. This is not just a matter of show—although that’s certainly part of it—but of quality. “When you cut in the machine, you cut always sideways. When you do it with a knife, you go longways,” Zubikarai says of the ham. “To me, it’s totally different. The texture and everything.”
Zubikarai also plans to have a cart that comes around to tables to prepare salads. The cart will display three to four different lettuces, a range of vegetables, a choice of proteins, and several vinaigrettes that diners can mix-and-match how they want (or with recommendations from the server). SER also plans to eventually serve a salt-baked fish that’s presented and deboned in front of diners and possibly even mashed potatoes that are mixed with olive oil and garlic in a mortar with a pestle at the table.
At China Chilcano, there was never even any question that the concolón would be served tableside. “You have to,” says head chef James Gee. “It’s just so beautiful, why would you not?” And as with Jaleo’s tableside paella, it’s important that someone scrapes up the crispy bits at the bottom and mixes it all together. Plus, at least some tableside service has long been a hallmark of José Andrés’ restaurants, from the sangria at Jaleo to the guacamole at Oyamel.
The sudado de pescado at China Chilcano arrives with similar panache. The slow-poached red snapper is enveloped in a puffed-up bubble of clear parchment tied with a golden ribbon. The server tugs both ends of the ribbon in unison, releasing an aromatic seafood cloud of steam. Then, the server adds a small carafe of leche de tigre or “tiger’s milk”—a lime-based marinade used for ceviche—over the fish and crowns it with herbs and marigold flowers. The presentation came from Minibar, which served a truffled beech mushroom “risotto” glimmering in gold dust in a clear parchment bubble.
Also coming soon to the Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese restaurant: fresh fruit frozen pops called marcianos that are served tableside in a portable cooler box like they’re hawked on the streets of Lima.
For Gee, this new style of tableside service is much more about fun and the “ta da” moment than the pomp and circumstance associated with the old French style of service. It’s also less of an intrusion: “We don’t want to sit there for 20 minutes and debone a fish,” Gee says. “Are you supposed to watch? Are you supposed to have your conversation while this guy’s standing over your shoulder?”
To avoid that awkwardness, Oval Room has taken a more interactive approach. When the fine dining restaurant reopened in July after a $1 million renovation, it introduced a showy tableside coffee preparation. The staff sets up a tray with the siphon, a Bunsen burner, cups and saucers, cream and sugar, and two glass containers of coffee beans. Diners can then pass the coffee beans around and smell them. Once they make their selection, the beans are ground at the table with a hand-cranked Hario Skerton burr grinder. While the coffee is brewing, the staff shares anecdotes like how the siphon was the most commonly used way to brew coffee in the United States until the 1920s, when the automatic drip machine was invented.
The idea was to do something after the main course that would “spice up the part of the meal that is generally not very exciting,” says bartender Tyler Philips, who’s behind the coffee program. He also argues that having someone prepare the coffee in front of diners ensures its quality. If it’s prepared behind the scenes, you don’t know if it’s been sitting there for 10 minutes or if it was rushed. “If the server’s tableside, then he has no choice but to brew a good cup of coffee… He has to do it correctly because they’re all looking at him,” Philips says.
Philips also likes the idea of the front and back of the house sharing responsibility for the quality of the food. It puts everyone on the same team.
The coffee demonstration is also part of Oval Room’s newfound effort to create a conversation-provoking, viral dining experience. “We want people asking questions, people seeing things,” former general manager Simon Stilwell said when the restaurant was preparing to reopen in July. “We want people stopping and taking videos of it or using social media.”
Philips thinks the tableside preparation also results in higher tips—“without a doubt.” The service isn’t cheap either: a four-cup siphon is $20, and two cups are $12. (Cocktails are the same price.) “It’s a pretty effective way to both raise the tip percentage and also the raise the amount of the check,” Philips says.
As for why restaurants are rediscovering all this now, it seems to fit the current ethos of knowing where your food comes from and how it’s prepared. It’s become the norm for restaurants to bring the table to the kitchen by building seats with a view of the saute station. Why not bring the kitchen to the table?
Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab managing partner Michael Rotolo also chalks it up to the ebb and flow of trends. “A lot of restaurants in New York are going back to the ’60s, ’70s classic era dishes,” he says. “Everything is cyclical and that was such a great era of restaurateuring.”
At Joe’s, which opened in D.C. just over a year ago, clusters of Alaskan king crab are broken down and snipped up with shears for an audience. The restaurant also does a very classic tableside Dover sole. Neither preparation existed at the original Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami; both were first adopted shortly after the Chicago location opened 15 years ago.
Bombay Club manager Naresh Israni likewise sees this style of service as part of a general trend back to classics. “A lot of old school things are coming back: tableside preparations, old school cocktails like the Sazerac and Rusty Nail,” Israni says. “Even the spirits. Bourbon is back in fashion. Rye is back in fashion.” He also suggests that in a booming dining scene, restaurants want to put in the extra effort to stand out.
While it’s nothing new, Bombay Club makes a big production out of its “cobra coffee.” Israni, a self-proclaimed “master” of the boozy after-dinner drink, starts by caramelizing sugar, which is used to coat the flutes the coffee is later served in. He then adds Scotch to the pan, setting it aflame, and extinguishes it with Colombian coffee from a French press. Finally, he takes a long strip of orange peel (meant to look like a cobra), holds it above the pan, and pours a flaming ladle of Cointreau down the peel, igniting it as well. The drink is finished with whipped cream. Bombay Club brings diners into the lounge to see it, because of the fire hazard in the carpeted dining room.
Israni says he still prepares 15 to 20 cobra coffees every weekend. It’s one thing the Indian restaurant just can’t take off the menu, because it draws customers back again and again.
“Whether it’s new or it’s old, if you give a dining experience, as they say in our business, instead of just giving them good food… no matter where you’re located, they will come back for that experience.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery