During his victorious appearance on the inaugural season of Iron Chef Canada, Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar Chef Alex Chen prepared a salmon dish that wowed: he wrapped the fish in fig leaves and then clay, which hardened as it baked.
When someone orders this item at the restaurant now, it’s served table-side, a waiter breaking open the dish’s terra-cotta-coloured exterior with a wooden mallet then peeling back the steaming leaves to reveal the juicy, medium-rare wild fish as mouthwatering scents waft into the air.
It’s a dramatic dining experience, and just the latest addition to the roster of dishes you can find in Metro Vancouver that are prepared or plated right in front of your eyes.
Here are a few places to go when you’re looking for a dinner with a tableside show.
Atlas Steak and Fish (4331 Dominion Street, Burnaby)
Having recently celebrated its first anniversary, the Delta Hotels Burnaby restaurant serves several dishes at the table, including caesar salad (barring occasions when romaine lettuce is off the menu due to nation-wide health concerns), with the dressing made right from scratch, all creamy, garlicky, and lemony and finished with cracked pepper; and spinach salad: working over an individual gas burner, a server heats up the dressing, setting it aflame with a splash of brandy, the warm sauce hitting cold, crisp spinach leaves along with mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and egg for a textural starter that fills the room with head-turning scents.
Then there’s the restaurant’s best-selling dessert: baked Alaska. The meringue gets a spritz of caramel liqueur, which is lit on fire, giving the top its characteristic golden tips. Seasonally, cherries jubilee gets a similar treatment.
“If you want to make people happy, when you’re entertaining them flambee some good fruit pour it over ice cream and you’re going to have a quiet room with just the sound of spoons hitting bowls,” Richard Goodine, Delta Hotels Burnaby’s food and beverage senior operations manager. “I think the single greatest thing that tableside service does is increase engagement with the table, and the heart of great service is engagement,” he adds. “We want people leaving not saying ‘That was good’ but ‘Wow’.”
Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar (845 Burrard Street)
Executive chef Roger Ma created the Iron Chef-winning clay-baked salmon dish in homage to his mentor, Daniel Boulod. The wild Pacific salmon is cooked medium-rare and served with red-wine sauce, celery root, and millet-grain risotto in the clay-breaking presentation that he describes as fun and theatrical. It’s not the only dish that Boulevard serves at the table, however.
Glazed veal shank is another. After the meat is cooked with herbs sous vide at a low heat for 36 hours so it’s luxuriously tender, a server pulls it apart at the table and serves it with butter-sherry vinegar sauce, rosemary-and-roasted garlic white polenta, glazed brussels sprouts, cippolini onions, squash, and salad. From there, the bone goes back to the kitchen, where chefs knock out the marrow, season it, and scoop it on to grilled sourdough for Part II of the veal-shank service.
Boulevard also offers hay-smoked strip loin, made with roasted prime strips of Holstein. To finish the cooking process, hay gets added and is lit on fire. After a few minutes, the hay attaches to the outside of the meat, infusing it with flavour. A covered pot is brought to the table, and once the lid is lifted, smoke billows out; a server then carves the meat and plates it at the table.
Black + Blue Steakhouse (1032 Alberni Street)
Look for classic caesar salad and bananas foster to be served tableside, while the chef comes out to slice and serve Kobe beef.
“It’s about creating an exceptional and immersive experience for our guests,” says Glowbal Restaurant Group marketing manager Grace Cheung.
(At one of its sister restaurants, Glowbal, smoked sablefish chowder is served at the table.)
Hy's Steakhouse & Cocktail Bar (637 Hornby Street)
Tableside service is part of Hy’s history. Staff members go through intensive training to serve caesar salad, spinach salad (with the flambeed dressing), steak tartare (cubes of beef served with crostini), classic chateaubriand (the fat end of the fillet roasted, then brought out to the table in an oval copper pan then sliced and served with a bearnaise sauce and jus), and steak Diane, named after the goddess of the hunt. The meat is seared on a grill and cooks quickly while the server prepares a mushroom-shallot cream sauce.
Bananas foster also create a buzz, the fruit flambeed in rum, brown sugar, and orange zest then served over vanilla ice cream. Cherries jubilee also show up seasonally.
“A lot of these dishes create a certain contagion in the restaurant; when you’re cooking, everyone’s wondering what the delicious smell is,” says Hy’s general manager Chris Langridge. “Diners feel more involved; it feels more personal. Making food for each other is intimate, and when it’s being prepared in front of you with grace and charm, it adds another element.”
Mott 32 (1161 West Georgia Street)
Preparing the restaurant’s signature applewood-roasted Peking duck is a time- and labour-intensive process. The bird is air-dried, brine-rinsed, dried again, then, on the day of roasting in a special oven, it’s fan-dried so that the skin puffs up and separates from breast. At the table, the skin is served first, to be dipped in red sugar; the breast and back meat come next, for diners to wrap in the restaurant’s signature paper-thin pancakes with sauces, scallions, cucumber, and other ingredients.
“It’s part of the dining history with Chinese restaurants doing Peking duck, where the final stage of the carving is done tableside,” says Robert Stelmachuk, Mott 32 wine director. “We’re also one of the restaurants that has the room to do it; most dining rooms are so cramped you can’t wheel a cart around between tables. We’re fortunate to be able to do it, and guests really like it.”
Whole fish maw is a highly prized delicacy in Chinese cuisine that comes in a clay pot and is served tableside. There’s also mimosa tableside service here, while summertime calls for the restaurant’s rosé rickshaw.