Special seating

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The best seat at a baseball game is behind home plate. The best seat in a theater is often in the balcony. And the best seat in church, judging by parishioner behavior, is a pew in the back.

But where's the best seat in a restaurant?

That depends on a number of factors, but until recently everyone agreed that it was one far away from the kitchen.

Not anymore. Today the hottest restaurant seat (figuratively and literally) is not merely close to the kitchen, but right in the kitchen itself. It's called the chef's table.

A chef's table provides diners personal attention from the chef and a meal designed exclusively for them. Because guests at the chef's table can see what is going on in the kitchen (some restaurants even employ television monitors to give close-up coverage while others position the table overhead in a "skybox" for a bird's-eye view) the experience is as much theatrical as culinary.

The growing popularity of the chef's table is probably the inevitable result of our growing fascination with food. First came the "open" kitchen (i.e., right out in the open where everybody can see food being prepared) pioneered by restaurants such as Joyce Goldstein's Square One in San Francisco, where many years ago I experienced it for the first time. The chef's table is just the next logical step.

Though a contemporary phenomenon, the chef's table actually has roots in medieval times when royalty would hold dinner parties in the palace kitchen so guests could interact with the king's personal chef. Some argue that the concept really emerged during World War II in France when chefs there, trying to retain some measure of privacy under the watchful eyes of the Nazis, began dining in their own kitchens atop a butcher block. (Many Left Bank restaurants still offer such tables to regulars.) An even more recent legend says the concept was born at Los Angeles' Hotel Bel-Air when the chef placated a celebrity who wanted to avoid the paparazzi by personally serving him at a table set up in the kitchen.

You don't have to visit California to experience the phenomenon, or, fortunately, New York, where Alain Ducasse charges $500 per person to eat in his kitchen. Several St. Louis establishments feature a chef's table, including a charming version at Marty's Baking where Sunday brunch is served at tablecloth-draped prep tables amidst kitchen paraphernalia.

Closer to home James and Patricia Allen execute the concept at Celebrations in Cape Girardeau where every night they offer a special tasting menu served in a cozy private room across from the kitchen.

The chef's table truly is the best seat in the house, even when compared to the one in your own kitchen. After all, somebody else does the dishes.

Flank Steak with Crispy Polenta and Roasted Shallot Vinaigrette

This elegant recipe, adapted from a cookbook by Charlie Trotter, whose Chicago restaurant houses the best known chef's table in the country, is easy enough that you can serve it at your own table any time you want.

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

1/4 cup butter

2 cups hot polenta

4 shallots

1 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons chopped chives

salt and pepper

4 (4 oz.) pieces flank steak

10 sprigs thyme

Directions:

Sauté garlic in 3 tablespoons of the butter for 1 minute. Fold into polenta and season with salt and pepper. Spread on a sheet pan into a 1/2-inch thick layer, cover with plastic wrap, and chill for 2 hours. Meanwhile, peel shallots and place in an ovenproof pan with 3/4 cup of the olive oil. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes until soft. Let cool, remove shallots, and reserve oil. Julienne the shallots and put in a bowl. Add vinegar and slowly whisk in reserved oil. Add chopped chives and season with salt and pepper. Cut polenta into four 3-inch discs and sauté in remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a hot, nonstick pan for 2 to 3 minutes on each side until golden brown and crispy. Blot with paper towels. Season steak with salt and pepper and rub with remaining 1/4 cup olive oil. Remove thyme leaves from their stems and rub onto beef. Grill for 5-7 minutes on each side until medium-rare. Place a piece of polenta in the center of each plate and top with a piece of steak. Spoon vinaigrette over and around plates and top with a grinding of fresh pepper. Serves 4.

Listen to A Harte Appetite at 8:49 a.m. Fridays on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or send e-mail to tharte@semissourian.com.

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