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September 26, 2009

Entertainment at the table

KamikazisHibachi.jpgMy earlier post on bananas Foster inspired Donna Beth Joy Shapiro to write me about the various ways waiters used to entertain us at the table.

The most obvious one is Caesar salad. When it was the It salad, it was always prepared tableside. The waiter started by breaking a raw egg into a bowl to make the dressing. Just the fact that restaurants don't use raw eggs in their salad dressings anymore meant that had to stop. ...

The chopped salad at Marconi's could very well have been chopped in the kitchen. It was just part of the show.

Danny Dickman, when his restaurant Danny's on N. Charles St. was the fanciest restaurant in town, used to prepare steak Diane at the table.

And there were other showy desserts besides bananas Foster (cherries jubilee and baked alaska come to mind) that involved the waiter.

The reasons these have, for the most part, disappeared aren't all that complicated. As MrRational pointed out under the bananas Foster post, that's asking a lot of today's servers. They come and go; and as a restaurant owner, you have to concentrate on the basics when training someone these days.

But the main reason, I think, isn't a practical one. It's more that these dishes are considered a little passe. After all, it was often the owner, not the server, who did the cooking at the table.

I can think of examples of tableside cooking for entertainment even now.  At Tersiguel's in Ellicott City our waiter prepared the viande du marche, rib eye with demi-glace and bearnaise. But Tersiguel's has a lot of traditional French dishes on its menu.

More common these days is the boning of a whole fish tableside. Or in the case of Real Seafood in Annapolis, the shelling of a lobster. These aren't so much entertainment as just doing the work for the customer and showing that, yes, the fish or shellfish was whole as ordered.

And the most obvious examples of all nowadays, as Donna Beth pointed out, are the hibachi cooking at Japanese steakhouses and, more interesting to me, the preparation of sushi if you sit at the bar.

Now that's entertainment.

(Barbara Haddock Taylor/Sun photographer)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 5:57 AM | | Comments (18)


I think Danny's was at the northeast corner of Charles and Biddle (two blocks west of Calvert) -- the better to have the "WHALES" banner highly visible for evening commuters.

You are so right. I'll change it. EL

hmpstd - also, a banner stating "The Run Is On" advertising the brief availability of shad roe.

The most recent tableside presentation I've had was at Luna Piena in Manhattan. I ordered branzino baked in a salt crust, and the waiter removed it from the crust and filleted it at tableside.

I love watching sushi chefs. Used to watch Iron Chef (the original, pale imitations don't do it for me) just for the knife skills. Well, ok, and the camp.

A few years ago, I was at a conference in Halifax (great city). My boss had recently chewed me out for not spending enough on food, plus Halifax is a great seafood town, so I decided to go for sushi.

Found a promising looking place (that is to say, I randomly picked a hole in the wall in an alley off the main drag). They offered me a table. I asked if I could sit at the bar.

This made the chef very happy. He told me that Haligonians didn't know anything about sushi, and never sat at the bar. When I asked him what was good, he nearly proposed.

He proceeded to make me lovely, lovely sushi and sashimi. Little raw shrimps, firm and sweet. Slices of all kinds of delicious fish. Shellfish. Watching his knife work, chatting, eating fish caught that morning (he gave me the boat names, in some cases), it was all grand entertainment.

I left a happy, entertained and full woman, for an evening walk down the historic and beautiful streets of Halifax. Up them, too (Halifax is rather hilly).

There's always Teppanyaki for table entertainment. My favorite for this is the Japan pavillion in Epcot but there are others that do it well too.

The last time I went to Reflections in OC, they were still doing steak Diane (or a similar dish) table side. Too bad about Reflections, a new decor and sparked up menu with a great chef could really turn that place around.

Is there any type of "fire code" violation with flambe dishes??
If transfats are a no no, then heaven save us from the flambe!

"and God gave Noah the rainbow sign..."

I would go out to Japanese steakhouses more often if they had a "no show w/dinner" option. Love the food, but not the presentation.

A few places do tableside guacamole. The place in Harborplace that's touristy Mexican/Hawaiian did at one point - assume they still do.

The best tableside prep I've had was the flambe orange duckling for two at Le Continental in Quebec City.

Second is the Bananas Foster at Brennan's in New Orleans.

The size and duration of flames produced during tableside preparation and finishing should not pose a fire hazard if a few precautions are taken: 1) Make sure no curtains, draped fabrics, or other flammables are within several yards; 2) do not hold up the flaming dish while bringing it to the table (a probably apocryphal story I heard concerned a banquet where the finale was Baked Alaska brought out from the kitchen by the waitstaff, en masse, while held high above their heads. Of course the sprinkler system went off).

The highlight of the final formal night on cruise ships used to be the March of the Baked Alaska to march music. Waiters would parade through the dining room carrying platters of flaming meringue and ice cream. Now, they still march but the baked alaska has sparklers instead. Similarly, flambe desserts are done out of sight instead of tableside. Once again, the tort lawyers have ruined it for everyone.

bra1nchild wrote: "Once again, the tort lawyers have ruined it for everyone."

yeah, better someone be burned and disfigured for life than to have your superficial dining entertainment ruined.

safety first, folks.

I love the table-side service when you order a whole fish at Black Olive.

Does Tio's still prepare the Irish Coffee tableside? I haven't been there in years, but that was one of the things I liked most.

Ahhh, true Caesar Salad made with raw egg. My mom used to make it like that when I was growing up, and sometimes I still do. It is the right way to do it.

I rarely order Caesar salads in restaurants. Most places don't actually make it, even though they make something they call Caesar salad. I would love to find a place that actually does it right.

IIRC, the "real" Caesar salad used a "coddled" egg, not a raw one.

Most amazing example of "service as show" I've seen was once at The Parthenon in Chicago (which claims to have originated saganaki), a waiter was serving a large group. He had about five orders of saganki balanced on his left arm, and he lit the bottom one. There was a loud "WHOOMP!!" as the flames ran up the trays, culminating in a fireball that charred the poor fellow's eyebrows and hairline. Clearly a bit too much brandy, or too long a delay before lighting the alcohol vapor cloud.

At the sound, everybody in the place stopped talking and turned toward the noise, just in time to see the flash dying out, and the waiter dousing the platters with the juice from the lemon.

After a moment while everybody figured out that he was merely dazed and scorched, but otherwise OK, the whole room erupted in the loudest "OPA!!!!" I've ever heard.

@Nik: at some point it seemed as though a Top 10 Caesar Salads might be forthcoming, though I can't find any follow up.

I've been meaning to try one of the Korean BBQ places near Station North since I hear that can be a good form of dining entertainment. I guess we could lump in fondue if DIY is in-bounds. It's too bad that hibachi place in The Belvedere gave up the ghost. Not that it was great, but we need at least some options inside the city lines.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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