Dinnertime is showtime, tableside entertainment that creates a wave of diners who suddenly want it too.
There’s food assembled and served tableside, artful compartments holding accoutrements and dishes accompanied by not just a sprig of an herb but the entire plant.
Nothing turns heads, however, like flames from a dish torched at the table. At Nisos in Chicago, salt-crusted whole fish doused with ouzo is so dramatic that the servers take a few steps back. But they join in on the fun – expected when guests joke that their eyebrows have been singed.
Flambé is indeed an accessible, affordable and an easy way to encourage word-of-mouth marketing. When it catches on, it can bring in new customers as well as returning guests who want the wow factor again. Here’s how fire heated up the menu for these restaurants.
THE BACON TOWER
At The Black Sheep in Manassas, Virginia, slices of Nueske bacon get pre-baked and hand-rubbed with raw brown sugar. Pinned by wood clips onto a line, they are then torched tableside with a sprig of rosemary, which heightens the sweet and smoky aromatics.
“Every concept has a signature item – this is ours,” says Justin Gudiel, executive chef and director of culinary experiences for the Villagio Hospitality Group. The dramatic presentation makes it their most Instagrammed menu item. Guests ask for it by name. It also creates an entertaining experience fortified by staff interaction.
❱ Torching tips: Keeping essential tools stocked is a must when a menu item is constantly requested, “especially with the supply chain issues we have experienced due to the pandemic,” Gudiel says. “Not having the bacon tower available is not an option due to its popularity.” Make sure you have consistent plating and torching systems your staff can repeat. Improvisation can mean dangerous mistakes.
Several menu items get torched tableside at Steventon’s in Le Claire, Iowa. But the appetizer of Kasseri cheese flambéed with 151 Rum and served with fresh lemon and garlic toast points is a best-seller.
Steventon’s boasts that they have the “hottest food in town.” Guests see spinach salad, cherries jubilee and bananas foster torched at tables across the dining room, which bulks up the overall entertainment element. As a savory item, the cheese is a simple preparation that makes an excellent shared dish. They also offer an outdoor firepit so guests can lounge with cocktails and shared plates while taking in an expansive view of the Mississippi River.
❱ Torching tip: No matter the dish, train staff on how to set various liquors or sugars on fire. Also, organize the equipment pre-service. The point is to offer guests a show, sure. But it’s also an opportunity to make each experience feel personal and attentive. With equipment and skills supported, servers spend more time interacting with guests and less time rushing to put together the next setup.
A combination of cake, ice cream and torched meringue often modified with seasonal elements has made a comeback in recent years. At Edmund’s Oast in Charleston, South Carolina, Pastry Chef Heather Hutton pairs a sweet spice cake and a bitter, boozy honey caramel Kahlua ice cream for her winter offering.
While most restaurants, such as RPM Steak in Chicago, light the dessert tableside, Hutton prefers to do it in the kitchen. “I want full control of how bitter or how sweet I want that meringue to be torched,” she says. With sweetness from the cake, meringue and a finishing honey caramel drizzle, she aims for a slightly charred, black swirl from the torch. “It’ll be bitter from that meringue with a floral sweetness on top. The dessert combines nostalgia and creativity, offering guests a dessert they may not have experienced or seen as a plated dish. “It doesn’t matter if somebody was looking for a fancy dessert or a casual dessert.”
Hutton creates an Alaska to torch tableside on special occasions or holidays. For those occasions, she focuses on chocolate combinations that can handle going more sweet or bitter. This way, the final dish isn’t dependent on counterbalance from a precisely torched meringue.
❱ Torching tip: For consistent, stunning presentations, Hutton warns that the Alaska should be frozen completely, and the meringue should be very cold before attempting to pipe it on top. “If it’s not cold, it’ll fall off,” she says. If stored in an air-tight container and kept frozen, they’re quick to finish during service, making them an excellent dessert to prepare ahead.
OTHER WAYS TO THROW FLAMES
A simple dish: Traditional Portuguese restaurants slice chouriço, then set it over a ceramic grilling dish filled with cachaca liquor, and light it on fire.
Americana nostalgia: Setting aflame sliced bananas set in a sauce of sweet, browned butter, dark rum and banana liqueur before pouring it over vanilla ice cream, the mid-century classic bananas foster harkens to a time when suits and skirts were requirements for diners and servers alike.
A nod to modernity: Portable smoking guns can add fragrance to a dish or drink, while dry ice provides a smoke-like element – both of which up the entertainment experience.