Chefs Revive Tableside Service with Smoke, Knives, 'Clouds' and Personal Attention
Porter House, Desnuda, Marc Forgione, Urban Farm Put a Twist on Flambé Tradition
Oct. 29, 2013 6:57 p.m. ET
When Christopher Uriarte, 36, sits down to a dinner at Eleven Madison Park in New York, it isn't only the food he's excited about—it's the show. The restaurant serves several dishes prepared or finished by the chef at tableside. A carbonated egg cream is prepared on a cart. A raw carrot put through a meat grinder clamped to the table is carrot tartare. "The spectacle adds to the experience," says Mr. Uriarte, a financial-services executive who visits the restaurant, with its $225 prix fixe menu, about twice a year.
Tableside service, popular at high-end restaurants of the "Mad Men" era, is making a comeback.
Chefs looking to surprise their customers find tableside presentations create dining room buzz. Many dishes somehow become more attractive after a spin on the food cart. Diners find the theatrical effects, educational chitchat and personal attention from a chef make a meal more memorable.
This month, Michael Lomonaco, chef and partner at steakhouse Porter House New York, began offering a $110 roast duck dish for two, in which the bones are crushed in a traditional French duck press at the table. The entire duck is wheeled out on a traditional guéridon cart and disassembled at the table. The duck's legs and thighs are served in a salad for the first course while the breast with the juice from the crushed bones is offered second.
"It takes two people to do this—one to work the duck press, the other to assist in capturing all the juices," says Mr. Lomonaco, who occasionally does the show himself. The required time commitment is a big reason the duck isn't a permanent menu fixture.
Tableside techniques add value and make costly dishes easier to sell, chefs say. At Urban Farmer, a Portland, Ore., steak house, a best-selling entree is the 14-inch-long Tomahawk rib-eye, offered for about $80. Rolling out the 40-ounce cut of meat and carving it tableside results in less waste, says the executive chef, Matt Christianson, who discusses the marbling of the fat with the guests while slicing. And by selling lesser-known, individually-priced cuts this way, the restaurant moves through an entire cow in less time. "We can get an 800-pound animal in and sell through it in…two weeks tops," says Mr. Christianson, who started the offering last year.
Entertaining a client with a restaurant meal and a chef's participation makes for a more memorable meeting, says Mason Walker, 32, a partner in a medical management company in Camas, Wash., who dines at Urban Farmer monthly. The bone-in steak "looks prehistoric, like something you'd see in a movie," he says.
There are downsides, for some diners. Not every food preparation is that engrossing. Watching as the restaurant staff makes guacamole and salad can be boring, Mr. Walker says. Salad preparation "is not something I enjoy watching. I can shake my own salad at home."
At business meals, a meat dish carved at the table might "halt the flow of conversation," Mr. Uriarte says. When the chef prepares food at your table, "it's sort of like you have an unintended dinner guest."
But some tableside preparations are quite a show. At the Desnuda ceviche bar and restaurant in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, customers can order oysters that are "smoked" using what chef-owner Peter Gevrekis calls a "tea bong" brought to the customers in their booth. Lapsang souchong tea leaves, which have a smoky aroma, are lighted with a torch and create smoke that is trapped in individual glass orbs covering each raw oyster. Guests wait a minute and a half, then slurp the smoke-enveloped oysters. They are priced at $18 for four, reflecting the time needed to smoke them.
"We tell the customer to sit there and watch the smoke dissipate," says Mr. Gevrekis who started offering this at his original ceviche bar in 2008. He has added other tableside theatrics, including searing fish and torching potatoes to give them a brulée crust.
Marc Forgione, chef at the eponymous New York restaurant, does tableside "clouding" preparations or dishes such as squash ravioli or rabbit Bolognese, where he pours liquid nitrogen into a broth of truffles to create a fragrant mist that envelops the table. He says he got the idea from a science video he watched on a monitor in the back of a taxi cab.
Mr. Forgione says it's important to him to meet guests who might otherwise know him only from his TV appearances on "Iron Chef." They are often surprised he's at the restaurant, he says. "I can come over and say hello, but with this it's a little bit more fun."
The original tableside restaurant service was the formal French guéridon style, where a server wheeled the food out on a trolley and put the finishing touches on right there at the table, says Mark Erickson, provost at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y. This traditional mode gave way, starting in the 1970s, to nouvelle cuisine, with its artfully arranged food on oversize plates served straight from the kitchen. Now, Mr. Erickson says, "we're seeing a re-emergence of tableside activity."
Some chefs focus on recreating the flaming recipes of the 1950s and '60s such as steak Diane, a pan-fried steak flambéed with brandy. Others are emphasizing smoke. "What's happening now tends to be more meaningful toward the outcome of the food" than the traditional flambé, Mr. Erickson says.
This month, at 676 Restaurant in Chicago, Executive Chef Joshua Hasho rolled out a tasting cart of various cuts of meat smoked that day in the restaurant's $12,000 smoker. He wants to entice diners by letting them taste a selection of six meats from the new smokehouse menu.
"It's a lot of talking about what you're putting together on their plate," says Mr. Hasho. He also offers guests a tour of the kitchen's refrigerator filled with house-made charcuterie.
A dining cart and traditional tableside preparations can create a sense of nostalgia, says Alex Brennan Martin, partner at Brennan's of Houston, which opened 44 years ago.
Flambé standards like Bananas Foster and Crèpes Suzette were available at the restaurant but were tough to serve in a dinner rush, and the presentation was inconsistent, Mr. Brennan Martin says. Two years ago, he trained a crew of servers and chefs to be "flambé chefs," who sautée and finish dishes like a Creole-spiced veal chop and an off-menu warm spinach salad at the table.
They have learned to pour alcohol using a shot glass rather than straight from the bottle, which can catch on fire. Still, "splattering is one of the hazards," Mr. Brennan Martin says.
For restaurateurs, a big appeal of tableside service is the way it piques the attention of other tables. A burst of flame and the aroma of sautéed garlic gets other diners turning around to take a look. "You do the first [flambé dish] in the dining room and people ask for it the rest of the night," Mr. Brennan Martin says.