Within the sensory overload of a great restaurant, it’s easy to fall back on plain white plates in the name of simplicity, or even elegance. Why mess with that notion? Brad Farmerie, whose AvroKO Hospitality Group seeks out eclectic, eye-catching serving ware has an idea why:
“To have an amazing dish served in a unique way heightens the guest experience and makes the meal even more memorable,” said Farmerie. “It adds the element of surprise, which isn’t often incorporated into a meal … It also keeps the kitchen crew thinking outside the box so that we can keep progressing and innovating on future menu developments and exceed our guests’ expectations on every visit.”
David Kinch, chef/proprietor of Manresa in San Francisco and consecutive Michelin star winner, doesn’t think putting intense thought into serving pieces should be out of the ordinary.
At Manresa, his menagerie of serving ware that includes plates with realistic hands (front and back) and retro and somewhat odd-looking portraits of bears and children.
“I don’t regard it as unusual,” Kinch said. “Paying attention to every detail of a dish naturally suggests that you consider the serving vessel.”
Beverage programs, in particular, benefit from a shot of whimsy.
Megan Barton, bar manager of the Blinking Owl Distillery in Santa Ana, Calif., always has an eye out for “glassware that can showcase a cocktail and add to the experience,” she said. “There’s something elegant about sipping a stirred gin cocktail from a delicate piece of crystal or the playfulness of a tiki cocktail in a mug shaped like a pufferfish.”
Blinking Owl’s co-founder and chief financial officer Robin Christensen aims for a “Wes Anderson-meets-Art Deco-meets ‘70s vibe” through glassware that showcases cocktails and continues the theme. That owl drinkware, for example, happens to make great planters, so they’re available for customers to purchase, offering a merchandising opportunity.
Barton often lets funky vessels inspire her cocktails.
“I think of this in reverse,” she said. “Give me a fabulous glass and I’ll find a fabulous cocktail to put in it.”
Her current obsessions include shared cocktails in punchbowls and tea-like service for cocktails, which she hopes to introduce on upcoming menus.
Creativity runs wild at The Poni Room
AvroKO’s Farmerie and Nicole Gajadhar collaborated on not only the menu, but the service-ware choices at the newly opened The Poni Room, the seafood-and-rosé centric downstairs to Saxon + Parole, named for the days when the Bowery was home to horse stables.
Farmerie eschews the need for everything to match.
“We’re fans of mix-and-match plates, so it leaves us the freedom to include something funky and different when we find it,” Farmerie said. “Once we have a dish idea, we often just do a big Google search to see what’s out there and then order some into the restaurant to make sure it’ll work for what we are serving.”
One item that’s been working well at The Poni Room has been the fish pitcher.
On the menu, rosé is sold by the glass ($13), by the bottle ($58) and by the fish ($46). Once the rosé starts flowing from the fish’s mouth, the mood for the oysters, Hamachi crudo and grilled octopus is set to seaside mode.
Gajadhar has found that “most of our dishes lend themselves to unique serving vessels,” she said, describing the smoking s’mores in jars at Saxon + Parole and a cocktail in a ceramic figurine of a donkey pulling a cart at sister bar Ghost Donkey. “As the creativity flows with our food and drinks, we develop and focus on how to encapsulate the experience we want to deliver in upcoming iterations of the menus.”
“It tastes and smells like Gummi bears so why not serve it in a honey-bear jar?”
That’s the logic behind Grey Ghost and Second Best beverage director Will Lee’s choice of vessel for The Gummi Bear, made with housemade raspberry vodka, peach Schnapps, housemade sour mix, 7-Up and pebble ice.
Serving it in a trophy with ice takes the cute honey bear into surrealist territory with a dash of badass Detroit self-deprecation.
In San Francisco, the new concept Palette is incorporating food into the art world lexicon.
Palette is “a vibrant expression of food + art,” something that’s evident from the name’s double entendre. The plates themselves have intricate works of art that slyly reference the food on top of them. For example, an illustrated lamb peeks its cute little head out from beneath the Lamb’s Lettuce Salad with mache, frisée, sheep’s milk cheese and walnuts.
Tony’s Tartare of smoked, cooked, pickled and raw root veggies with quail egg and horseradish is arranged over a plate with a folksy root vegetable design.
Serving vessels as performance art make appearances at Times Square’s The Polynesian by Major Food Group and 701West by Ian Schrager’s The Times Square Edition Hotel, where the jumbo-sized, tiki-forward drink menus include such dazzling items as: the Exotica Bowl ($85), a giant brandy snifter inside an even bigger clam shell filled with dry ice. When served, hot water is poured on the dry ice for cascading waves of smoke-like vapor.
For the Ay Chihuahua ($60), Don Julio 1942 Tequila and shishito and agave syrups come in a glass resembling a squash on a bed of real wheat grass. When it’s served, the grass gets graced with edible flowers, each with a sprinkling of different flavored salt: chile-lime, sundried tomato and classic smoked salt.
Fun, festive and functional
Anthem is a Tex-Asian pub in Austin with an eclectic vibe. The Kegged Mai Tai is a signature cocktail made with Clement Select Barrel Vieux Agricole rum, Plantation Original dark rum, lime, dry curacao and orgeat. It’s served not from a kitschy tiki mug but a Chinese takeout container.
“The inspiration for the Kegged Mai Tai came from thinking of containers that would have an Asian theme, while being fun, festive and functional,” said Anthony Hitchcock, chief operating officer and owner of Flagship Restaurant Group.
When brainstorming what to serve that cocktail in, Hitchcock had a eureka moment from his everyday life.
“I knew from my many years of Chinese takeout that those containers are impermeable and held the perfect volume,” he said.
Hello Kitty dressed-up cocktails
“As the only destination in the U.S. that serves Hello Kitty craft cocktails, we definitely wanted to play up all the whimsy and cutesy-ness that Hello Kitty represents in every facet of the décor,” said Allan Tea, managing partner of Hello Kitty Bow Room at the Hello Kitty Grand Café in Irvine, Calif.
That goes for everything from the all-pink room to the giant bow lighting installation and “of course when it came down to the actual drinks,” Tea said. “Nothing says Hello Kitty cocktails more than having them served in mini-football sized Hello Kitty mugs.”
The Hello Kitty team takes things a step further and dresses up the mugs — literally — in assorted handmade costumes. Recently, to mark festival season, they added a flower crown to one of the mugs and a cowboy hat and handkerchief to another.
Ball is in your court
Chef and restaurateur David Burke recently opened David Burke at Orange Lawn, a restaurant within Orange Lawn Tennis Club in South Orange, N.J., where he serves “green donuts in a tennis sleeve,” a grab-and-go dessert with spherical donuts inside a repurposed tennis ball sleeve from the club (of which there are plenty).
“Why not be resourceful and use them?” Burke said.
Contact Tara Fitzpatrick at [email protected]