Diminished Aesthetics

The scene at Poppy is robust. As the dining room fills, it’s cavernous nature seems to amplify the energy of the 100 plus seats we fill every night. Large floor to 25 foot ceiling windows look out onto the bustle of the north tip of capitol hill’s main drag, Broadway, allowing the twinkle of lights, the passage of traffic, and the steady flow of passer-by’s to engage the diner. It’s less than intimate, speaking over the buzz of 40 other conversations, hearing laughter flow through your space, watching servers buzz food through the dining room at a dizzying rate. But feeling the room, the people, the life, is all part of being at Poppy.

The pace in the kitchen is much the same. Varying conversations cross the kitchen between the busy cooks, buzzing around each other, laughing, hustling. It’s an energizing to say the least.  Service is a rapid stream of orders flowing in and out, tickets lining the rail from 5 to 10, plates, and the large trays that are the Thali’s a constant cover on the pass.

With the speed and volume that it requires to keep up with this style of service, adjustments had to be made to the plating style.  In fact, coming from a girl who worked predominately the world of “large white plates, tiny tiny food,” I would say the visual aesthetic at poppy is virtually non existant. This, of course, is an over statement. However, the visual aesthetic of the dishes I plate at Poppy are completely and utterly at the opposite end of the spectrum.

The expansive canvas like plates we were used to working with have been replaced with diminutive Heath ceramic bowls, smaller than those I eat cereal out of at home. Rusty earth tones, oranges, browns, took the place of the high gloss white.  And the components are snuggled into their little bowls, or tiny plates, just big enough to comfortably hold them tight.

The modern plating styles I spent years developing, so exaggerated in the plates at Veil, are moot.  It was sad at first, not being able to stylize anything. But since then, it’s become a blessing of sorts.  With the dial turned so far down on the visual aesthetic, I have been able to concentrate on texture and flavor much more. If a component is no longer cut, shaped, made to look a certain way, the shape now primarily exists for it’s appeal in the mouth, and the way a spoon pressing into the bowl will pull at the component.

My little bowls of dessert have brought me quite a bit of joy, in fact. Take, for instance, my most popular dessert on the menu now, “Hot Date Cake”, a play on stick toffee pudding. A cake made of a copious amount of dates was designed to be very moist and sticky when cut in one inch cubes. Five of these sticky little cubes are warmed and nestled in the bottom of a little bowl, and soaked in a big one ounce ladle of warm butterscotch sauce. Scattered over this are pieces of medjool dates, and salty buttered pecans, cut to be just the right size to be spooned up, and feel big enough for textural appeal, but not too big that they need more attention from your mastisizing teeth than another component. A scoop of banana ice cream sits atop sized to melt just a little providing a sauce like layer and a nice firm cold portion of ice cream.  It nearly hides everything underneath from view.

If you are wondering, I take a good three hours a week hand cutting every buttered pecan exactly in half, and the dates in exactly twelve pieces. Sure, it would be easier to just run my knife through a pile of the pecans, breaking them up into approximate sized pieces, but that’s just not quite right. Some pieces would be too big, many about the right size, and then this layer of small pecan crumbs would stick to everything else in the bowl. And honestly, with such a humble presentation, the textures and flavors have to be even more correct.

Which brings us to the flavors. Rather than stretching them out over the expanse of a 10 inch plate, where they sit aside each other, the flavors in the bowl are compacted, right on top of each other, existing nearly with in each other. That means that if every single flavor added to a dish doesn’t taste perfect together, it won’t work.  It sounds like a big “duh”. Of course everything should taste good together. But when you are stretching flavors out over a plate, you don’t always get every single flavor on a spoonful, particularly not in the exact same ratios every time. It’s not that those large plated dishes shouldn’t make an effort to taste perfect together. Instead, it’s that in these little bowls of dessert, any subtle flaw or weakness in the flavor profile has no room to hide.

What I love about these tiny dishes I work with is that they exude comfort. It’s much like you would share a dessert at a friends house, at home cuddled up in the corner of your couch, around a pick nick table. And they are just so easy to pick up and share. And with the large, communal nature of the dining room at Poppy, the casual dining style, I feel these small layered dishes are the culmination of the experience.

It has brought to mind the question to me, how well would all of my stylized desserts have fared stacked in a bowl? Were the choices I made strong enough to stand up to such close quarters or did they favor a visual aesthetic that withdrew from the flavor pairings.

Michael Laiskonis wrote recently, referencing this same subject but on the flip side of it. He wondered if some of the stylistic choices he made added anything more than a visual aesthetic, and if not, did it belong.  He argued, and I agreed, that to a point, yes.  Components that add to the visual are appropriate, when used appropriately. When working in a restaurant which does use elegant plating styles to exemplify the experience in said restaurant, then a graphic line of sauce, a few dots, a sprinkle, used in moderation, absolutely belongs.

There are times when increasing the visual aesthetic is appropriate, and indeed increases the diners enjoyment of the dish. And to deny the importance of the visual aesthetic is to do a disservice to your customers experiences, and your desserts. Of course, the flavors must belong together. But drawing a line of sauce across the plate may not add flavor to every bite of your experience, the way a covering of the same sauce infuses every bite of my little bowls, it still belongs.

Desserts plated so stylistically are eaten differently as well, tentatively, with more awareness and caution, tasting a bit here, a bit there, not wanting to destroy the visual aesthetic more than necessary. So a line or dot of sauce offers the chance to dip the tip of your spoon in that flavor alone, taking it in, building the experience of taste as carefully as the dessert itself was constructed.

Of course, this is within reason.  I am sure most of us are quite glad to see the era of the sugar cage and bland white tuilles fading.  And can we also hope for the death of the duo of a mint sprig and dusting of powdered sugar????

I am a firm believer in loving everything for being what it is. A desert at Poppy, layered, snugly in it’s tiny earth toned bowl is Poppy, and is beautiful for existing there. The large expansive graphically presented plates from high end restaurants are equal, no better, no worse, but beautiful for being what they are and existing where they belong. One is not better than the other. You might prefer one to the other.  You might have had a higher percentage of good experiences in one format or another. But when done correctly, with respect to letting each be what they are, they are both beautiful.

3 Responses to “Diminished Aesthetics”

  1. peabody says:

    Mmm, makes me want to make sticky toffee pudding.

  2. Roberto N. says:

    As simple as it may be, it looks delicious, and I bet the smell coming out of that little bowl must be tantalizing.

  3. very moving piece, wish i had the dessert to digest with the thoughts

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