Tossed and torched: Craving tableside dining during a pandemic

A hiatus from the full restaurant experience has made Dan Curd miss tableside dining.
Flambee at the side of a table

Sometimes, the waiter and the chef can be one and the same. That is, when servers toss, saute and flambé luxurious dishes like Caesar salad, steak Diane and cherries jubilee right at your table. These specialties once epitomized the ultimate in fine dining and were mainstays at restaurants in Madison, including the fabled Simon House and Admiralty Room at the old Edgewater Hotel. Not being able to dine out at all has made me nostalgic for many things I miss, not least of all the showmanship.

To actually cook at the table required a chafing dish — a handled skillet set over a spirit burner. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a chafing dish became the must-have gadget for restaurants and home dining rooms. Today, the term usually refers to a covered pan set in water that’s used to keep food warm on a buffet.

This cooking craze probably started in France, which is certainly the home of crêpes Suzette — thin pancakes flavored and flambéed with orange liqueur. In 1895, Henri Carpentier created the dessert in his chafing dish at Monte Carlo’s Café de Paris for the future King Edward VIII. To Carpentier’s horror, it burst into flames. Thinking the dish was ruined, he tasted it anyway. Serendipitously, it was magnifique! Julia Child introduced much of America to the pleasures of French cuisine, and her TV shows and cookbooks embraced recipes for crêpes, soufflés and steak, all flambéed.

Undoubtedly, the most influential masterpieces ever concocted at the table is Caesar salad. Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant, came to California, where he worked at a couple of eateries until opening his own place in San Diego. When Prohibition started, he opened a second location just across the border in Tijuana. During this period, the Mexican town became a haven for drinking and gambling. According to one story, after an exceptionally hectic day on July 4, 1924, and running low on provisions, Cardini threw together a salad with what he had on hand. Romaine lettuce, olive oil, an egg, Parmesan cheese, seasoning and croutons theatrically tossed at the diner’s table would become the classic Caesar salad.

What is arguably the best-known blazing dessert of all, bananas Foster, was also conceived out of necessity. In 1951, Owen Brennan, founder of the venerable New Orleans restaurant Owen Brennan’s, asked his sister to create a new dessert for a dinner honoring Richard Foster, the chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission. She recalled the caramelized bananas her mother had often made but thought them too homely. Her daughter suggested flambéing to jazz them up “like they do at Antoine’s” (another restaurant in the city famous for its flaming baked Alaska).

For the most part, this culinary show at the table declined after the 1960s and ’70s, but it seems to be making a comeback. The practice is alive and well at Rare Steakhouse — bananas Foster are all fixed in view with panache. Increasingly, Mexican restaurants, including Compadres in Middleton, now roll out the guacamolier, a cart used to turn avocados and other ingredients into guacamole right before your eyes.

Whether it’s hokey or sophisticated, food prepared tableside proves a little drama at dinner isn’t always a bad thing.

Dan Curd has written for Madison Magazine for more than 20 years.