Tableside service is back

It's not just for Caesar and tartare anymore.

  • Photographs: Roxana Marroquin

Photographs: Roxana Marroquin

Center Cut

Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

Flamb cart at Center Cut
Center Cut steakhouse’s ode to old school is pastry pyrotechnics on wheels. The attention-getting flamb cart ($18 for two people, $11 for one) sets classics like bananas Foster and cherries jubilee aflame. “We wanted to give people something different than what they usually get—a bit of guest interaction,” says executive chef Bradley Day. That they do. The cart—equipped with a bottle of rum, crme de banane, a large pan and a burner—is rolled out to the diner’s table for the show. “I think this is why they invented Lipitor,” quips the waiter as he drops spoonfuls of butter onto the pan, followed by a gravy boat full of brown sugar. He then adds the fruit and alcohol, and dunks the liquor-filled pan into the burner’s open flame. The fire licks up about a foot in the air, eliciting oohs and aahs, before it’s extinguished. The resulting hot fruit in boozy, buttery syrup is then poured over ice cream and served. Voil: flamb. Empire Hotel, 44 W 63rd St at Broadway (212-956-1288)


Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

Yosedofu tofu at Morimoto
Some tableside preparations don’t require the constant attention of a server. Sure, the yosedofu tofu ($16) at Morimoto is presented by a waiter, but the most important action happens on its own. First, an earthenware dish containing heated soy milk is brought to the table. Then, the waiter adds nigari (a saltwater reduction rich in magnesium chloride that eventually causes the soy milk to firm up), stirs the traditional Japanese concoction and covers it with a lid. “It needs to stand for seven to ten minutes,” says the waiter. “Do not take the lid off.” But you’ll want to take the lid off. Resist the urge—you’ll ruin the trick. Ten long minutes later, the server lifts the lid to reveal newly formed, deliciously silky tofu. 88 Tenth Ave between 15th and 16th Sts (212-989-8883)


Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

Singapore Slaw at Shang
In its heyday, tableside preparation involved waiters with flashy smiles and flashier flambs. At Shang, it’s a bit more subtle. The Singapore Slaw ($18), a salad of 19 eclectic ingredients ranging from pansies to crispy taro, is simply dressed, then tossed by the waiter and served. Though the extra bit of service may seem unnecessary, the ceremony of tossing is essential to this refreshing appetizer. It’s inspired by yusheng, a Malaysian dish composed of strips of raw fish and vegetables that is usually eaten by the country’s Chinese immigrants on the seventh day of Chinese New Year; the tradition is to toss the salad with chopsticks while yelling out, “Lo hei” (“upgrade”). According to the custom, the higher you toss, the greater the fortune—or “upgrade”—you’ll receive in the coming year. At Shang there’s no yelling, nor does the food jump from the plate. But the bright flavors and crunchy textures ensure a good night, if not a good year. Thompson LES Hotel, 187 Orchard St between E Houston and Stanton Sts (212-260-7900)


Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

Tea-smoked oysters at Desnuda
Order the tea-smoked oysters (three for $24) at this tiny ceviche bar and discover what might happen if a stoner got a hold of high-end ingredients. “People want to be involved in the execution—the fire, the smoke, the smells,” says owner Peter Gevrekis, as he whips out a makeshift gravity bong and packs it with Lapsang souchong tea and Szechuan peppercorns. While holding the bong over a bucket filled with water, he lights a blowtorch and singes the tea-packed bowl. “Whoa, dude,” one customer comments as Gevrekis collects the thick white smoke in a glass dome, which he places over the freshly shucked oysters. The diner is then instructed to remove the glass, inhale the fragrant, spicy smoke and immediately slurp down the cold-smoked bivalves. 122 E 7th St between First Ave and Ave A (212-254-3515)

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