Tableside food preparation in restaurants has been mostly a novelty of the past, as in the 70s and 80s; however, there appears to be a resurgence in New Jersey restaurants. Owners are trying to give us ever-demanding diners more for our money without having to add too much to their cost. People, in general, are easily entertained: a little mixing, a little fire and personal delivery from the preparer turns patrons’ heads, leaving others wanting that same special attention.
Most of us do not aspire to achieve sensory stimulation when ordering a Caesar salad, but if a cart comes rolling to the table, and the server carefully cracks eggs and combines the visibly fresh ingredients (rather than bottled dressing) to construct your salad – you feel privileged! The meal just became tastier and more memorable.
There are numerous rodizio restaurants, such as Rio Rodizio in Union, Rodizio Grill in Voorhees and Casa Nova in Newark. But by definition, their meat carving is delivered as in all-you-can- eat format. The added entertainment while dining is predictable at both these and hibachi restaurants. It came as a pleasant surprise, though, this past Friday, when I found out a 99-year-old piano/singer friend of ours was playing at Il Cortina Ristorante. I hesitated because the address read “Paterson”, but the owners clearly understood this would cause trepidation and printed (Hillcrest section) on the web site. Without knowing anything about this section, I knew it meant a “don’t worry” section, and it is.
We walked in to find out that the staff of the former Bonfire in Paterson had been transplanted, and there was Clem at the piano, singing old standards. The music began our evening of entertainment-enhanced dining. After ordering a lobster and asparagus risotto and cappellini frutti de mare, all were intrigued at the preparation of a bowl of Caesar salad center room for another exclusive table. I wasn’t envious, because our house salads were a sight to behold, wrapped decoratively with a long sliver of cucumber. When other diners were on dessert, a cart came rolling out again. The flames are a sure-fire way to get attention and to get a dessert order from a table of people thinking they might be too full. It was bananas flambé served with vanilla ice cream. We wanted to feel just as important and placed an order too. Bocconi in Hackensack is another restaurant that performs this spectacle. They also filet branzino tableside, as does Il Capriccio in Whippany.
Maybe this added service is making a comeback in New Jersey, stepping up the experience of not-so-expensive restaurants and making them feel expensive. I can vouch that they are not doing it to distract you from food that isn’t good. They’re doing it because they know how to appeal to all the senses of their hungry customers, not just their sense of taste.