Table-side service adds element of theatre to Hong Kong dining
At-the-table preparation is coming back in style as diners rediscover a taste for traditional dishes
Nobody goes to Hugo's to be trendy. When the Hyatt Regency reopened in 2009, it re-established its flagship Western restaurant, Hugo's, with a menu and service style instantly recognisable to anybody who dined there 30 or 40 years ago.
A big part of the restaurant's appeal was the table-side preparation of classical dishes such as steak tartare, lobster bisque and bombe Alaska. All were reintroduced, along with other old favourites.
They have proved a hit with both returning regulars and younger diners with traditional tastes.
In the original Hugo's heyday, at-the-table service was seen as a mark of sophistication. Other top restaurants of the era such as The Mandarin Grill and Amigo also made a feature of it, but by the end of the 20th century it had come to seem old-fashioned. Many of the heavy, rich dishes that lent themselves best to that service style were out of sync with the vogue for lighter, supposedly healthier, fare. One by one, the restaurants retired the carts.
But some restaurants may now be thinking of dusting them off. Tray or trolley service is coming back into vogue. Some diners, it seems, prefer meat and potatoes to artfully presented drizzles on slate.
At Carbone in LKF Tower several of the most popular dishes are prepared at the table or presented to the diner for inspection in raw form before being taken back to the kitchen to be cooked.
"We have the Caesar salad, for which the dressing is mixed at the table, and a caprese salad, for which heirloom tomatoes are layered and then fresh burrata is cut and put on top," says manager Jack Gonsalves.
"The grand porterhouse is shown raw so the guest can see the freshness and the quality of the meat before it goes back to the kitchen. For seafood we have a whole branzino [grilled Mediterranean bass] which is also presented whole and raw before being cooked."
According to Gonsalves, many diners come specifically for the table-side service. Even those not ordering those dishes enjoy the element of theatre the presentation brings to the restaurant.
"Take the banana flambé," says Gonsalves. "The fire adds a lot to the atmosphere. It makes the restaurant very lively. The bananas are flambéed in Bacardi 151 - a very high alcohol rum which gives a great flame. Everybody watches."
At Morton's The Steakhouse, general manager Simon Graham is also a believer in the value of old-fashioned at-the-table service - even though, worldwide, Morton's is reducing the emphasis it has traditionally placed on it.
"One of the big things at Morton's before was a table-side menu presentation, which we reduced about three years ago. Before, we would bring to the table our menu cart with our meat tray with all the cuts on it, live lobsters, our seafood selection and our potatoes. It was a good selling point."
That presentation, however, often involved a 10-minute conversation during which servers were unable to respond to other guests, while carts in a busy restaurant encroached significantly on space, he says.
Nevertheless, he has exercised his discretion as general manager to retain some elements of Morton's at-the-table service.
Guests are still offered the option of inspecting the steak cuts - now on a more manageable tray rather than a trolley - and the porterhouse steak is still carved at the table.
"Visually, it's good for the server to bring something over, then the guests can see their steak cuts, and it breaks the ice. They can talk about what guest preferences are, whether they like more marbling or leaner meat, and how we prepare things," says Graham.
"We do a dessert presentation as well as a meat presentation. The soufflé for two we still do table side. We add a sabayon cream or a sabayon sauce and we divide the soufflé as the guests request. Sometimes, the guests want to do it themselves."
At Boqueria - like Carbone, in LKF Tower and operated by the Black Sheep restaurant group - executive chef Robert Petzold says the success of its tapas cart service means the restaurant is moving towards more meals on wheels.
"We're doing almost a dim sum-style of brunch. We have meat platters with sauces that we carve at the table - tenderloin and a leg of lamb - and the suckling pig we also do in the evening for à la carte presentation, Spanish style, where you cut it with a plate and then throw the plate down on the ground. It creates a good vibe. We're getting more, different carts down the road. The goal is to get brunch so you don't have to go to a buffet."
At Hugo's, no carts are being retired any time soon. "Some of the most popular items are Caesar salad, lobster bisque, steak au poivre, roasted US rib of beef, crêpe suzette, cherries jubilee and Irish coffee, which are all prepared and flambéed with gueridon [trolley] service or served from the carving wagon," says manager Paul Lau.
"About 20 per cent of the items from the à la carte menu are prepared at the table, which makes up 50 per cent of the signature dishes. These items are well received by guests of all ages, although many of our most frequent customers have fond memories of our table-side cooking."