Table Manners

In a restaurant, it’s the food that walks away with all the applause while the table, dressed in its tablecloth and the sparkling cutlery are left sulking. Dig in, and beyond the food what lies underneath is an amazing art — the art of laying the table.

By Anu Prabhakar (ARTS + CULTURE)

Published: Fri 24 Apr 2009, 9:59 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 8:17 AM

“Laying out the table is not easy,” says Frenchman Michel Miraton, who is in-charge of kitchen operations, Food and Beverage at Coral properties, including Coral Deira.

On entering Al Nafoora, the Mediterranean restaurant at Coral Deira, the perfect blend of yellow, blue and white — through carefully folded blue napkins, white tablecloths bordered with a dainty blue lace and mirrors fitted within yellow dome-like designs on white walls — is hard to miss. These colours are usually associated with the Mediterranean culture, Miraton tells us.

In an Indian restaurant, everything ‘simple’ is replaced with the ‘magisterial’. The restaurant must be rouged in pink and exuberant colours like burnt orange and red. Even the tablecloth, at times, sheds its cotton avatar for a silk one. “When you enter an Indian restaurant like Handi, you must see extensive designs and embroidered tablecloths,” says Surajit Roy, food and beverage operations manager, Taj Palace Hotel (Handi is part of the hotel). At Arab restaurants, red rules. A red tablecloth coupled with a red or white napkin and flower decorations are a prelude to an Arab restaurant’s show of opulence. “The show plate is supposed to be red or white, with crystal glasses,” says Miraton. Retain the crystal glasses and replace the steel cutlery with silver and you’ve got yourself a set up quite similar to upscale French restaurants like Monte Carlo.

Tejinder Jhutti is the brand manager of Table Art, a four- year-old shop which focuses on luxury table toppings accessories. “Big candle holders are not used often now as people want to be able to talk to their friends easily and see across the room without the candles blocking their view,” she says. Another outdated rule is using a crochet tablecloth, she points out. In fact, in some cases, less is more. Many restaurants are presenting the ‘bare look’, by doing away with the tablecloth altogether. “In case you have a beautiful mahogany table, why not show that off with only table mats? Your table mats could do the trick,” says Jhutti. It certainly does the trick at Turkish restaurant Topkapi at Taj Palace Hotel. The restaurant lays out placemats with designs that invoke the Turkish culture.

Interestingly, a lot of thought and planning goes into choosing the right plate. White plates are a favourite among chefs from all over the world. “Kebabs are a typical delicacy of Turkey. A wide variety of kebabs which use different spices and flavours are included as a part of their staple food,” says Huzmeli Tevfik, Chef De Partie, Topkapi. “Turkey is very famous for their glasses and colourful hand painted ceramic crockery. This is widely used, from ancient times, to serve food, especially kebabs, to retain the taste and flavour as most of the kebabs are grilled on charcoal heat, the traditional way.” Miraton feels “the food on the plate will cover the design any way.” Experimenting with various plates and shapes is fine as long as the surface area of the table is remembered. “Ducassa, the great chef at Monte Carlo, used to measure the distance between the plates before laying them out,” says Miraton almost reverentially. The cutlery is directly linked to the food served. So the next time you have an outdoor party, you might want to rethink serving that juicy steak and chips in a floral designed white plate. Instead, go in for something less delicate looking. An Indian restaurant may have an added reason for the affinity towards the neutral white. Curries like the green palak paneer are not particularly blessed with an appetising colour. The whiteness of the plate enhances the visual effect and makes the dish look more palatable. Copper utensils are often used in Indian joints, points out Roy.

Like any form of art, this one too needs unleashed imagination, stress these avant-garde professionals. Team up white salmon with a black plate and the guest is sure to sit up and take notice. And if it’s red or black salmon, experiment with some white sauce. Even the sacrosanct left and right positions of the fork and the spoon are toyed with. Here, traditional gives way for the practical. Restaurants have even kept spoons hurdled in a glass, at the centre of the table, says Miraton. At Topkapi, Turkish coffee is prepared in a special brass pot with wooden handle called Cezve.

Biriyanis, kebabs and curries are often shared by a table. “Indian cuisine is all about sharing,” says Roy. Hence, spoons are a must on the table.

With top customer service and lip smacking food being a given at most eateries, the only way to stand apart is through creative personalisation of the table. The clever usage of napkins designs like fancy swan and fan patterns can transform a mediocre setting into a show-stopper. “People go wrong as they think that they have to have a candle in the middle. You could experiment with candle groupings and vases. Go out in the garden and collect a few twigs and do a funky arrangement. You could play around with the different textures and sizes of nuts by layering them in a glass and putting candles on top,” explains Jhutti. Some like it traditional, while others funky. Yes, it’s time to bring up the art — from beneath the table.

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