Where’s the Plate?

There are gimmicks galore at restaurants and old-fashioned plates are the casualty.

Stuffed morels served on a tree slice at Arth restaurant in Mumbai Stuffed morels served on a tree slice at Arth restaurant in Mumbai

It's becoming increasingly popular to dish up meals in/on weird, random objects like breadboards, chopping boards, flowerpots, miniature shopping trolleys and jam jars. Anything but a regular plate. Is this just a case of style over content by pretentious restaurants?

Restaurants are trying to stand out. But instead of choosing the food way, they are going the presentation route. Crispies dangling from a washing line, dips in mini buckets, fries in fake fryers, burgers inside a mock telephone booth… because who wants to serve food on plates? That's so square. Unless the plates actually are square… Over-creative chefs and overreaching restaurateurs are turning their back on the traditional plate in favour of far less conventional serving suggestions. The trend which cascaded from high-end restaurants such as Masala Library in Mumbai (remember the amuse-bouche on a mini cycle) has now percolated to gastropubs and restaurants across India.

Chickpea bhelpuri served in cones at Garde Manger, Mumbai Chickpea bhelpuri served in cones at Garde Manger, Mumbai

It all began, you will recall, with slates. But it didn’t stop with food on a piece of roofing material. The construction company continued to provide inspiration with bread arriving in mini gunny bags and gravies in buckets and pizzas on shovels. Just when everyone started going crazy with slate, entered the glass jar that seemed to hold everything from drinks to desserts. This youthful thumbing of nose at tradition didn’t stop at that. Some fashion-forward restaurateurs even planted the dessert in plant pots.

Farzi Cafe in Delhi and Bengaluru serves chicken with barbeque cream in a miniature truck Farzi Cafe in Delhi and Bengaluru serves chicken with barbeque cream in a miniature truck

“Actual plates are going to be the hip new thing this year,” jokes a food writer who doesn’t want to be named. So has the restaurant trend that started with slates and boards escalated out of control? Absolutely, believes Cordon Bleu-trained chef and author Michael Swamy. “Food in buckets, baskets, etc., are just gimmicks. Amuse-bouche on the seat of a small cycle is just weird. Top chefs create magic on plates,” says Swamy, who employs designer plates from Villeroy & Boch at his restaurant Nuevo in Delhi.

Is it presentation over practicality?

There’s something to be said about a restaurant adding a fun bit of flair for presentation. It’s like upgrading a dish. But traditionalists are questioning the practicality of serving salads on ping-pong bats and a BBQ feast in a wheelbarrow. Not clever. Just plain irritating. It’s form over function, believes Shounak Shah, who recently ate a barbequed entrée on a slate plate that made a horrible noise like nails on a blackboard. “Apart from the hygiene issue the juices go everywhere. It is meant to be fun, but it becomes tedious when you have to ensure you don’t make a mess of your food.”

Slates are flat, and if you put anything too runny on them, it’ll dribble over the sides. But clever chefs invented the little comma of thick purée cowering apologetically beside your fish tikka, rather than the more fulsomely applied sauces of yore. The problem is that if you're taking the time to arrange fries in a miniature shopping trolley, chances are, they're not going to taste great.

Garnishes for khow suey come in test tubes at Mumbai's Grandmama's Cafe Garnishes for khow suey come in test tubes at Mumbai's Grandmama's Cafe

And it's not just plates that are being substituted for unsuitable objects. The drinks-in-jam-jars trend is still going strong. Old fashioned whiskey is served in a glass skull while a truffle- scented dark chocolate caramelised cauliflower soup finds itself in a tea cup at the gastropub London Taxi in Mumbai. Cocktails in IV bags take the cake, though. “If I have forked out 0300 for a G&T, I don't want it served in a IV Bag hanging from a metal stand,” says Siddharth Salvi, a pub regular.

Over-creative chefs and overreaching restaurateurs are turning their backs on the traditional plate in favour of far less conventional serving suggestions.

Restaurateurs and chefs, however, seem unfazed because of a small group of people who want to eat off a white china plate. Their justification: the dish merits a quirky presentation. The kakori kebab at Arth in Mumbai is served on a black slate as it compliments the restaurant’s concept of a gas-free kitchen. The stuffed morels are served on a tree slice. “Ours is a gas-free kitchen; we use charcoal and wood to cook. The idea is to make them resemble how they look in the forest,” explains chef Amninder Sandhu.

Veg-dhansak-served-tiffin-style-at-SodaBottleOpenerWala Dhansak served tiffin-style at SodaBottleOpenerWala in Gurugram

Not all restaurants are thinking purely about the presentation. Sodabottleopenerwala’s dhansak in a tiffin box adds a personal touch to the dish as it derives from the Bombay dabbawala who delivers home cooked food to offices. The chicken tikka masala at Farzi Café is served in a deep bowl inside a bright red telephone booth. “The deep bowl helps to keep the dish warm for a long time while the telephone booth adds a quirky appeal to the dish,” explains chef Saurabh Udinia of Massive Restaurants Pvt. Ltd. While the fried chicken rides on a truck, the galouti burger here is ensconced inside a bright red box, which helps retain the aroma and keeps the burger warm for long.

Truffle scented dark chocolate caramelized cauliflower soup served in tea cup & saucer at London taxi in Mumbai Truffle scented dark chocolate caramelized cauliflower soup served in tea cup & saucer at London taxi in Mumbai

Sometimes, it’s done to add a local flavour just like the chickpea and puffed rice bhelpuri served in bamboo cones at Garde Manger Café, Mumbai. The scooped out and hollowed crusty bun used to dish up spicy misal (a Maharashtrian street food) at D:OH! helps to absorb all the flavours of the mixed lentils, chopped raw onion and crispy farsan. The garnishes for the khow suey at Grandmama's Cafe, Mumbai, come in individual test tubes which give the option of customising according to the customers’ taste buds.

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