We first noticed it at Parlour Bar. The guy sitting next to us had taken delivery of his entree, and we just stared. And stared some more. The guy finally asked if we intended to snatch his dinner.
No, it wasn't his octopus that we wanted. What we wanted was to know why it was plated all the way over at 3 o' clock on its dish, while the remainder of the plate was empty.
We stared some more.
When the Alinea cookbook was released in 2008 we remember how all the plating went skinny and rectangular, like a bikini wax landing strip, punctuated with lots of scattered little microgreens, baby beets, and dots of Perfect Puree. Lovely to behold, if not a bit vexing to eat.
So we asked Borough/Parlour chef Nick O' Leary: What's up with that?
"If you make a cook do the same thing over and over again, he's going to get bored," he said. When he worked at Travail, nothing was ever allowed to get plated the same way twice.
"It was a rule."
And it's sort of a rule in his kitchen now, too.
"If a cook asks me how I want something plated, I say 'I don't give a shit.' Square, round, rectangle, whatever. Just as long as it's different."
We also asked Gavin Kaysen about side plate, after spotting a banished-to-the-side tartare during our first meal at his wildly buzzy restaurant Spoon and Stable.
He said that on the one hand, plate play can be a selfish thing that chefs do for themselves, to show off their "art attitude," but on the other hand, its also a strategy to help guests remember the meal long after they've left the dinner table.
He also said, by way of reminding us that restaurant cooking is a fast-paced endeavor, that innovative plate maneuvers must be something that can be executed relatively quickly. Hence, side plate -- no more difficult that plating in the middle, but... different.
And Kaysen cops to the phenomenon that in a world with social media, the chefisphere can be like one big mind-meld.
He could look, for instance, at a plate by chef Alex Stupak of Empellon Cocina in New York, and think to himself, "I can create food that looks like that."
Go to Empellon's website, and you will see: side plate, side plate, side plate.
It's all gorgeous food, of course, but still sometimes looks like it's trying to jump ship.
O'Leary says he's always thinking of flavor first, before he ever plates, even if his platings can be some of the most painterly in town. We can corroborate that his plates never agitate; the flavors come together on the fork without having to chase the bite around.
He says it's just something that comes together in his mind -- he can't really explain how he does it.
Some food writers (including this one, it seems) have been taking restaurants to task for putting form over function, creating pretty plates that are not always so pleasing on the palate.
But aside from looking a little, well, silly, side plate doesn't threaten to ruin your bite. Just head a few short inches to the left or right and you're in business.
Other restaurants are taking the opposite of the pretty plate approach, and instead fully embrace the more "ordinary" way of plating a dish, even thinking of a little messiness as its own aesthetic.
New York's the Little Owl is a beloved yet modest bar, serving straightforward classics like a fatty pork chop dropped into a big bowl of beans. It's the kind of place that likely would steer clear of swooping, swooshing, or sprinkling. And yet, as I dial up "images" under their name, there it is! Side plate!
The more we contemplate side plate, the more it begins to come into focus. The Rule of Thirds is a technique that proponents think of as aligning a subject slightly off center points -- creating more tension, energy, and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject. The eye "likes" to see things divided into thirds.
Thought of this way, side plate starts to make more sense. In fact, maybe it will become de rigueur in kitchens. Or, maybe it will go the way of side cleavage: It was fun, but classics usually trump trend.
We'll take our food the way we prefer our décolletage -- front and center, please.
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