It used to be fashionable for restaurant waiters to finish a dish tableside, usually by dousing it with alcohol and setting it alight, before portioning and serving it.
This sort of thing went out of fashion in the 1980s but it looks to be coming back in style, with restaurants putting more effort into tableside preparation despite the manpower crunch.
In a recent interview with SundayLife!, French celebrity chef Joel Robuchon, who has two restaurants at Resorts World Sentosa, said he is looking to bring back tableside service such as slicing meat in the dining room and finishing food in front of diners.
And it is not only Western restaurants that are going the extra mile.
A waitress serves barbecued Peking duck. (Tiffany Goh)
Chinese restaurants such as Prima Tower Revolving Restaurant, Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck Restaurant and TungLok XiHe Peking Duck carve Peking duck tableside, while popular steamboat restaurant Hai Di Lao has staff pulling la mian for those who order it.
Prima Tower Revolving Restaurant executive chef Chan Sung Og, 59, says, “While tableside service does require extra time and effort, we feel that diners, especially corporate diners who frequent the restaurant, appreciate the extra touch.”
At the Keppel Road restaurant, three months of training are required. The carving is conducted by only the restaurant’s service captain or manager.
Restaurateurs that SundayLife! spoke to all agree that placing an emphasis on tableside service helps them to stand out among the competition.
French restaurant Scotts 27, run by French chef Julien Bompard and his wife Edith Lai-Bompard, hopes to reintroduce gueridon service into dining. “Gueridon” is French for small table and the term refers to food served on a trolley in restaurants.
Serving sea bass en croute (sea bass in puff pastry), for example, is similar to Chinese restaurants portioning out steamed fish at the dining table, says chef Bompard, 44.
He says, “We want to show that eating Western cuisine with a French influence can be family-friendly. It’s like we are embracing the future while tapping on the past.
“It is also great for our staff to showcase their talent, interact with diners and create a homey atmosphere.”
Housewife Jin Lu, 49, who dines at least twice a month at Scotts 27, appreciates the level of detail in her dining experience.
She says, “It’s like going to a friend’s home and the owners know my family and what we eat and don’t eat. My son loves the beef tartare (also served tableside), and we order it all the time. You don’t often get such attentive service, maybe only if you are dining at a counter-style restaurant.”
Over at Singapore Marriott Hotel’s Pool Grill, a simple Caesar salad is given the “wow factor,” says assistant restaurant manager Joannah Valerio Singian, 30.
The salad dressing is made from scratch in front of diners. In March, the hotel also began preparing lobster cocktail tableside. The shellfish is blanched and served with lettuce and cherry tomatoes.
Manpower issues have not slowed down Japanese dessert salon Henri Charpentier in Dempsey. The restaurant opened in October short-staffed, and its president Goki Arita told SundayLife! that he needed more staff for the dessert performances.
Some dishes completed tableside here include the signature crepe suzette.
Two months on, store manager Haruki Katagiri, 39, says the restaurant is hiring more staff and trains them for at least three weeks on the job in tableside service.
John Wang, 49, director of The Ship at Shaw Centre and nex, also notes that doing tableside service can be a struggle at times.
He says, “Although tableside service usually takes a few minutes, when coupled with shortage of staff during peak periods, it may mean a slight delay in attending to all customers at the same time.”
Precautions taken include providing napkins for diners to shield themselves from the splatter of sizzling steaks.
Margaret Heng, chief executive of hospitality institution Shatec, also acknowledges that offering tableside service is “one of the best approaches to providing a unique level of service.”
The school has been teaching students about tableside service in selected modules since 1983. Lessons include “simple service,” such as grinding pepper over soup and salad, to more complex service, such as preparing salad from scratch, to serving crepe suzette and making mocktails and cocktails.
They are also briefed on safety precautions such as dealing with open flames, handling sharp knives, proper use of utensils, ensuring movement of portable equipment is safe and that equipment is properly stored.
Engineer Gisele Ong, 28, who dines at least twice a month at Hai Di Lao, orders the hand-pulled la mian every time.
She says, “The la mian performance is an interesting touch and the service is good. The la mian portion may be a bit small, but I guess we are also paying for the performance, which can be funny and entertaining.”
By Eunice Quek
(The Straits Times)