Local chefs discuss what makes a beautiful dish. Photography by Michelle Pollard.
There’s a reason Instagram is filled with pictures of restaurant food.
Who can blame us for pulling out our phones to snap a picture when it looks so good you just have to share it?
We take pictures of everything from fried onion burgers to seared sea bass — all worthy of a “like.” But it’s not every day we’re presented food that’s truly spoon- and swoon-worthy.
Some plates are so beautiful, we might as well call them “culinary couture.” Think about some of the best fine dining restaurant meals you’ve had, where architectural feats are topped with sprigs of hydroponic herbs. Or perhaps the dish wasn’t fussy — a poached halibut flanked by four corners of roasted new potatoes — but beautiful in its simplicity.
We talked to some of Tulsa’s best chefs about the beauty of food, the importance of plating and what factors make diners ooh, ahh and snap a picture to share with all their friends. They gave their restaurant’s dish that fits the bill.
Just walking in the door at the Polo Grill, the expectations are high. The elegance of the restaurant is matched by the plating of the food.
“Plate presentation for me is always dictated by the ability of the guest to be able to intuitively know how it is to be eaten so they are not confused on what they are meant to do,” says Executive Chef Wyatt Rogers. “We have always had a saying that once it hits the plate, like in golf, you have to play it where it lays.”
Rogers and General Manager Michael Funk know the importance of presentation, but agree it shouldn’t overshadow the service of the dish.
“Getting the dish to the table in its optimal form is the most important thing we do on a daily basis,” Rogers says. “You can have the best food in the world, but if you can’t get it to the table hot, presentation stops being important.”
Though there was a time when whimsical presentation was in style, Rogers says people no longer want a dish that looks like someone has been in the kitchen playing with their food. Plates today are more precise and natural, he says.
A chef’s personal style also plays a role in how the food will be presented.
“I have always been a bit of a math geek, so symmetry is aesthetically pleasing to me,” Rogers says. “When working on large presentation pieces, it really helps define the look of the food.”
Five seared scallops are presented with a roasted red pepper risotto, sautéed spinach and a roasted red pepper coulis. Color, texture and flavor blend harmoniously in this entrée.
2038 Utica Square
Tallgrass Prairie Table
Before the guest ever knows how it will taste, the plate arrives. After all, first impressions are everything.
“For the chef, it is their display of art,” says Stephen Lindstrom, executive chef at Tallgrass Prairie Table.
For Lindstrom, that art is made with a vibrant palette of carrot puree, beet salads, lemon preserves, pickled blueberries and bright greens. The colors are bold, but Lindstrom isn’t creating a rainbow.
“I like to keep the composure of my dish, as some would say ‘high and tight,’ meaning to build the component of the dish in order to give it depth on the plate,” he says. He keeps the food close together, built up rather than out, and is unafraid of leaving negative space on the plate.
For General Manager Johnna Hayes, the beauty of the food is important, but not as crucial as the feeling she wants guests to experience as they’re dining, which, in part, comes from the look of the food, she says.
“Though having a precise plate is important to the aesthetics as well as consistency, we want our guests to feel as if they are eating with family,” Hayes says.
So, while the food is artfully constructed, it should also put people at ease and make them feel comfortable.
“Our food is genuine to the chef,” Lindstrom says. “The preparation from beginning to end shows on each dish, using local vegetation, house butchering our own meats and putting together thoughtful ingredients.”
Pan-seared pork belly represents the style and substance of Tallgrass and its sister restaurant, Bramble Breakfast and Bar. In a room kept a constant 52 degrees, the pork is butchered and cured for 24 hours, braised for four hours and allowed to rest another 24 hours before being served. It is then pan-seared and served with spiced beet puree, pea tendrils and sweet and spicy tomato jam.
“It has, from the beginning, been one of our guests’ favorite dishes, with the components ever-changing,” Hayes says. “The pork belly has stood out on its own as a staple on our menu.”
313 E. Second St.
“Garnishes are highly overrated,” says Kathy Bondy, owner of the French Hen.
Those who’ve eaten at the French Hen know how Insta-worthy the food is. But for Bondy, it can’t be fussy. That means garnishes should always be edible and only included if it makes sense with the dish. If it doesn’t, she leaves it off.
Perhaps it’s that combination of pragmatism and French aesthetic that makes the French Hen’s plating so enticing.
“A beautiful plate has color, varied heights and textures,” Bondy says. “But (presentation) is definitely not everything. Don’t stop there. The food must be hot and properly seasoned.”
Bondy started in her father’s fine dining restaurant in Arkansas when she was just 14 years old. That early start combined with years of experience managing and owning local restaurants gives her an innate understanding of what makes food a feast for the eyes.
Roasted lobster tail is an unpretentious yet elegant dish that starts with a 12- to 14-ounce cold water lobster tail. It is taken to greater heights — literally — with placement on a bed of pommes Anna. It’s served with creamed spinach and garnished with a bit of bright green fried spinach.
7143 S. Yale Ave.
Nothing at the Palace Café is done without thoughtful consideration and deliberation.
The mastermind behind it all is chef and owner James Shrader, who seems to dream in food — elevating the plate beyond what mere cooking mortals could imagine.
Shrader says that when creating a new dish, he puts taste as first priority, aesthetic second and his ability to consistently produce it as third. But actually creating beautiful food is the most fun, he says.
He always makes the main dish the star of the plate.
“I rarely cover my fish or meats with sauce,” he says. “It is usually presented with sauce on the plate or on the side. I am mindful to leave space between items so they will stand out on the plate.”
The plates themselves have become a major factor recently, as the Palace spent $10,000 in 2016 buying new ones. The old functional plates were scrapped in favor of china and burger boards that suit the presentation of individual menu items. Special ceramics were purchased locally from Fat City Clay, and burger boards were purchased from Tulsa’s Fransen Furniture.
“If I can’t find the dish I want now, I have it made,” Shrader says.
He has seen a lot of changes in food presentation over the years, and he says that while the trend has been going toward a more casual atmosphere and service style, it comes with an elevated expectation for a clean and purposeful presentation. Shrader attributes diners’ heightened expectations to the explosion of images on Instagram and other social media.
“Early in my career, my main focus was, ‘Does it taste good?’ Directly after culinary school, my focus sharply changed to, ‘How nice can I make this look?’” Shrader says.
It took years of experience, but Shrader says he has found a way to deliver both.
The baby beet salad has a simple yet stunning arrangement of arugula, fennel, goat cheese and an orange vinaigrette.
“I always say, ‘Order the beet salad if you don’t like beets because I’ll make you a beet fan. Order it if you like beets because my beet salad is perfect,’” Shrader says.
Another visually impressive dish is Palace’s pan-seared sea scallops, which are served on a potato puree with bright dots of pesto.
1301 E. 15th St.
For Kenny Chan, food and art are one and the same. Whether he’s behind a canvas or a cooktop, beauty is on his mind.
“I’m an artist,” Chan says. “I paint using watercolor, oil, acrylics, everything. Every detail is important.”
When he has painted something he’s proud of, he likes the compliments. The same goes for a dish he has created at his restaurant, Sushi Hana.
“I like to hear, ‘Wow,’ when the server walks by a table with a plate,” he says. “I like to walk around, see the expressions, see everybody turn their heads.”
For Chan, an artful plate might include a bright vegetable or an unexpected pop of color on a plate of sushi.
“I really enjoy color,” he says.
But it’s also about the blurred lines of the senses — like the combined sight and smell of smoke rising from a plate of chicken teriyaki.
With sushi, Chan works to make each piece or roll have its own look.
“It’s like a song. I like to use different beats,” he says. “When creating my rolls, a lot of them use the same ingredients, but we don’t keep them the same. We give a different hook to it.”
Chan gets his aesthetic inspiration from travel, and he collects ideas from any number of cuisines. Sometimes that inspiration comes from the restaurants of his own friends and family, many of whom are in the restaurant business in New York City and around the world.
“We have conversations about what’s new and how it should look,” he says.
His latest inspiration is a salmon ice cream he tried at a tiny New York City restaurant. Though fishy frozen dairy may not make it onto Sushi Hana’s menu anytime soon, “It made me think nothing is impossible,” says Chan, and the dish inspired him to keep cooking up the unexpected.
Wherever he goes, Chan notices details of beautiful food and considers how it might be applied in his kitchen. Recently at a Korean restaurant, he asked the waiter, “Hey, what’s this stuff on top?” and knew it was something he could try at Sushi Hana. Sure enough, he now uses jellyfish noodles on salads and in rolls, taking the unique texture and applying it in new ways.
The Golden Mango roll is a head-turner. Shrimp tempura and crabmeat are rolled and then topped with slices of vivid yellow mango and a mesmerizing golden sauce.
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