Friday, June 25, 2010

Identifying Dinner Plate Intangibles

One of the books on my list of too many books to read is The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  For those people who have read the book and those who can infer simple ideas from simpler book titles; the book is essentially about a pinpoint moment where an event tips you over to one reaction of another.  I’m sure there is also a good deal of subsequent reaction and consequential hypothetical discovery in the book, but I wanted to write today about how there are basic tipping points that go unnoticed on dinner plates. 

On Sunday night, I had a wonderful Chinese family style dinner (with only one dining companion and 4 dishes ordered) at a relatively new restaurant in my neighborhood.  The meal was comforting, satisfying and unbelievably filling – at the end of which, I decided that I needed to walk the 15 block distance home to burn of part of the meal. 

The restaurant was packed that night as it seems to be during almost every other night that I’ve driven by.  After dinner, my roommates were curious to gather some of the details on the quality of the dinner and what I ordered specifically.  After running through the names of the dishes, I started telling them about why they were good and the amount of polish that was present in each dish – a sign of a very detailed and well-trained chef. 

It happened that a lot of what I was analytically describing normally seems to go unnoticed by the patron.  For those who have a good understanding of dinner plates and technical elements (e.g. presentation, techniques employed, textures), they have a slightly better appreciation for what’s in front of them – and they are also able to qualify their appreciation/joy/satisfaction with the proper words.  The most articulate group are normally referred to as restaurant critics… sometimes.  But, for the casual and common diner, an analysis in the proper words or descriptions do not come so easily – despite the fact that they consciously know that their meal was of a superior “it-was-great” quality.

I’m not implying that people should start to psychoanalyze their meal, but I’m actually trying to put light on some of the more overlooked components of a dinner plate that seem to render a favorable verdict.  Let’s call these things, dinner intangibles. 

And yes, by naming them out, I guess I am making them “tangible” – I understand the contradiction.  Let’s move on.


Dinner plates: Everything about the type, size, color and style of the dinner plate matters.  Appropriately sized and thematically coordinated dinnerware is integral in the type of message that the food is saying.  Using modern white plates to convey Southern comfort is as confusing as using Chinese blue fish plates for fine dining.  Need an example of the perfect combination of restaurant theme and dinnerware?  The quickest that come to mind are the Heath ceramics at Frances and the custom designs at Chicago’s L20.  It’s not like those restaurants are wildly acclaimed or something…


Garnish: For many people, garnish happens to be the stupid parsley leaf sitting pointlessly in the middle of the plate.  I assure you that garnish, when properly executed, should be an integral element of the meal.  For many detailed chefs, it always seems to be a final element that either accentuate or add complexity to the plate.  Sometimes it’s the most apparent thing on the plate and sometimes I’d argue that some garnishes are not even visible, but the primary intent for the garnish should be used in support of the actual food (with texture or flavor).  Some of the more popular/trendy garnishes over the years include edible flowers, flavored oils, different salts, shaved vegetables and fried shallots/garlic.  Dyed daikon roses really don’t do much for me.


Plate temperature: Plate temperature is more about function than anything else.  It’s really simple: hot food in cool plates get cold fast and cold food in hot plates get warm fast.  Unless you ordered a warm salad or cool steak, I’m not sure either of those things help your dining experience.


Uniform shapes and clean cuts:  Nobody cares when they get a steak that sits naturally on a plate, but if you were to look at a plate of vegetables where some were cut into squares and some where cut into diagonal slices, I’m pretty sure you’re going to be dissatisfied with either the ugliness or the different textures due to uneven cooking.  I’m not sure people want to see manhandled  and jagged slices of meat or bread either.


Portion control: Portion control should be a part of the message or theme of the restaurant.  If you put a share plate that has too much food, then it will likely not get finished – partially running cold and endlessly sitting in front of the guilty diners.  If the portion appears to small compared to other plates, then you’ve let the diner psychologically demote the value of your plate and or part of your menu.  A mentality that let’s them think, “only some things are worth ordering.”  I think most people crave generous portions and appreciate large portions, but from the standpoint of the diner and the restaurant alike – a balance or appropriate portion (with respect to the restaurant style) is much more important.  For some restaurants, I understand and appreciate that excess is the point.