Last weekend, over a meal at a suburban pub, our order of fried calamari arrived in a large brown doggie bag. While it amused our fellow diners, who swiftly began snapping shots of the dish for Instagram, it left us highly confused. ‘Are we being asked to leave now?’ was the first thought.
Doggie bags are definitely pushing it. But numerous other restaurants have also retired the plain round plates in favour of slates, chopping boards, mini-trucks, even bird cages. So, what is it about a serving plate that adds, or in some cases, takes away from the dining experience?
Culture on my plate
Keeping with its theme (San Francisco style, ingredient-driven menu), The Table in Colaba imports crockery from the region. Its supplier, Heath Ceramics, also makes custom-made lines for other popular Bay Area restaurants. Owners Gauri Devidayal and Jay Yousuf recall painstakingly lugging over 160kg of plates all the way from San Francisco before setting up the restaurant. “This crockery has a special place in my heart because of all the trouble we went through to get it to the restaurant. We knew it would be difficult to replace breakages but that didn’t stop us,” says Devidayal.
Apart from creating a definite connect with the food (which is inspired by the California style of cooking using fresh and local ingredients), the plates also turn into a perfect backdrop for striking creations, like the shrimp dumplings or the kale salad with garlic croutons. Similarly, at the newly opened South American-themed bar Lima in Bandra-Kurla Complex, crockery is specially designed and hand-painted keeping the theme in focus. So, deep blue and indigo tones are juxtaposed with flowers, creepers and leaves on its serving plates. Since the restaurant is designed as a verandah with a colonial feel, the crockery matches this vibe.
At the Bombay Canteen in Lower Parel, dishes like Kutchi dabeli bada pao and the milk-braised Kashmiri raan are served in crockery from Baarique, a local supplier. Known for using only kansa (a metal that fuses 85 per cent copper and 15 per cent tin) utensils from the traditional metalsmiths of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, the folks at Baarique then hand paint the utensils with India-inspired motifs like birds, lotus and mandalas. “Even if one out 10 guests notices our plates, it makes me very happy,” says Yash Bhanage, partner, The Bombay Canteen.
Slates over plates
While some restaurants prefer that their food do the talking with subtle touches to its cutlery, there are others that use quirky presentation as crutches for shoddy fare. Since March last year, a UK-based Twitter account — @WeWantPlates — has been railing against pretentious, and at times impractical, food presentations by tweeting photographs with funny captions, largely submitted by its followers (see box). This online mockery of a restaurant trend that may have overstayed its course resulted in pubs and cafes putting up blackboards that read – ‘actual plates here’ to please customers.
“It is often said that we eat with our eyes first. Hence, it is important to present food the way it’s meant to be. I believe in simple and clean presentation and we use long and wide white plates for that,” says Nishant Mitra, owner and chef, Eddies. Closer home, serving plates are giving way to wrought-iron bicycles and weighing scales, and it seems like this trend won’t fizzle out any time soon. Increasingly, restaurants are using gimmicks in the guise of molecular gastronomy to add drama (in most cases liquid nitrogen) to their food.
At a popular Lower-Parel based eatery, the server brings over a big ball of chocolate filled with macarons, cake and chocolate chunks and literally throws it in the table amidst smoke rising from the plate. The resulting ‘explosion’ is anything but a visual delight. “There is a fine line between tasteful and gimmicky. Every country has gone through the phase of using objects that are anything but plates to serve food. Apart from adding value to the dish, the presentation should tell a story too,” says Bhanage.
Zorawar Kalra, founder and managing director, Massive Restaurants that runs Masala Library, Pa Pa Ya and Farzi Café, agrees. “Right from cutlery to crockery, everything plays a role in food presentation. The visual appeal of a dish is vital as it enhances the dining experience,” he says. At the Lower Parel-based Pa Pa Ya, edamame and chick pea sliders are served on a mini-jeep to make it an authentic American experience. While these touches add to the quirkiness of the space, they also make for good photos on social media. According to Devidayal, however, gimmicks are unnecessary distractions if the food is good. “But maybe that’s one way to make sure you’re Instagrammed,” she adds.
We Want Plates, an online campaign against gimmicky food presentation
Started in March 2015 by Ross McGinnes from West Yorkshire, UK, We Want Plates is an ongoing online campaign against ‘serving food on bits of wood and roof slates, jam-jar drinks and chips in mugs’, according to its Twitter handle. With over a lakh followers, the page regularly tweets photos of food served in a pair of shoes, hats, wellies and even an upside-down umbrella. Following the success of the campaign, McGinnes was invited for television appearances and became a local celebrity. Follow @WeWantPlates for updates.
The writer tweets as @culturecola