Like an earthquake at your table

Times Staff Writers

THE chef reaches up, pulls down a ticket, shouts out an order, spins around and inspects a couple of plates going out, wiping the edges with a towel. A loud clatter of dishes, a line cook barks back, and another order goes out.

This is the Foundry on Melrose, Eric Greenspan’s hot new restaurant. It’s hectic and tense and noisy, but we’re not in the kitchen -- we’re in the dining room.

Though the new spot has already become known as a place to be entertained -- there’s live music six days a week -- the real show is chef Greenspan himself. Instead of standing on the kitchen side of the traditional “pass” (the place where cooks pass plated dishes to the waiters), Greenspan has jumped the counter and “expedites” orders from the dining room side. And it’s quite a performance.

Especially for the diners who are seated at the half-dozen tables directly across from the pass. The storefront restaurant is narrow, so Greenspan, with his in-your-face style, is awfully up-close and personal. “Two shorties and a Dory,” he yells. (That would be beef short ribs with horseradish espuma, celery salad and confit tomatoes, and roasted John Dory with fresh garbanzo beans, eggplant caviar, radishes and ramps.)


The Foundry isn’t the only restaurant in town that’s broken the fourth wall. A “bar chef” has also broken out at Fraiche, a new restaurant in Culver City, landing in the dining room, where he flambes drinks not tableside, but tabletop. At Ketchup, a slick Sunset Strip hamburger joint, a roving bartender rolls up her cart to mix cocktails tableside. And at Mozza, the open kitchen concept has gone so intimate that diners at the bar can feel the heat of the pizza oven while they watch chef Nancy Silverton at work. It’s all so close those diners can literally grab ingredients and gobble them up. And sometimes, they do.

Tableside service performed by waiters is certainly nothing new. Once upon a time, it was reserved for fancy, old-style continental or French restaurants, where servers would carve ducks or flambe cherries jubilee or offer cheese from a cart. Then there was the spinning salad at Lawry’s, where a waitress in a funny hat would set a salad whirling and dramatically pour the dressing on from a great height. Steaks and seafood showed up tableside before being prepared at Arnie Morton’s the Steakhouse -- even broccoli and potatoes in the raw made a dining room appearance.

A few years ago, the old-style cheese trolleys and tableside carving began making a comeback.

But now, since chefs and cooking have been so glamorized and televised, the kitchen itself is spilling out into the dining room. It’s as if the concept of the chef’s table has taken over the whole restaurant.

Not only do diners want to be around the chefs, the chefs are relishing hanging with the diners. With Silverton, it was a progression -- starting with grilled cheese Sunday nights at Campanile. Then she schmoozed with diners at the bar for Monday mozzarella nights at Jar. And in 2005, she planted herself smack in the middle of the dining room at La Terza, where she manned the antipasto table, dishing up octopus in fresh tomato sauce or burrata with prosciutto and cipolline for “tavola Italiana” -- also known as antipasto Tuesday.

“I love being in the dining room and being able to interact with people,” says Silverton, who points out that the antipasti at La Terza and Jar and the grilled cheese sandwiches at Campanile were simple enough to manage. Ditto Mozza, though she frets when she feels the crust isn’t up to par. “But in a restaurant where the food is much more serious, I think it could be very distracting,” she says.

Greenspan describes the food at the Foundry as “fancy-schmancy,” but that’s not keeping him in the kitchen. “The intensity, the ferocity, how much work we’re doing, I don’t mind showing that,” he says.


In your face

RESTAURANT kitchens tend not to be temples of politeness, and that’s not lost on Greenspan, who makes no effort to sugarcoat his demeanor. (In other words, there’s a lot of yelling going on.)

“As sweet and cuddly as I am,” he says, “I’m more imposing at the restaurant.” For diners, it’s a great window onto the way restaurant kitchens really work, almost like a reality-show supper-club.

Fun and entertaining, yes, but it can also be kind of startling -- as when you’re tucking into your spot prawns with saffron aioli, deep into conversation, and a menacing growl from chef to waiter breaks the bubble of your dining experience. Or when your table is suddenly the center of attention, which might happen at Fraiche. Order a Prosecco Fruit Flambe, and Albert Trummer, who calls himself a “bar chef,” might leave his post behind the bar and bounce into the dining room with armfuls of equipment and glassware, plop it all down right on your table and start concocting. And narrating, with his melodic Austrian accent, exactly what he’s doing.

He pours vanilla Grand Marnier over sliced strawberries in a glass pitcher, then whoosh! He takes a blowtorch and ignites the whole thing, chattering all the while. He pours the flaming liquid into glasses, and douses the flames with blood orange juice and Prosecco. Voila.

The drama isn’t lost on other diners -- the night we were there, people stood up at their tables, then came over to watch. This is no theme restaurant, either, just a casual neighborhood spot.


An ongoing drama

NOR does the entertainment stop with the aperitifs. Order the branzino en papillote, and it will be delivered by two servers. One of them, with a great flourish and the expert use of two spoons, rolls back the parchment, releasing the marvelous aromas in a puff and revealing the whole roasted fish. Would you like the skin removed? She deftly pulls that back too, rolling it over and around the spoons.

After the main course, just when you thought the coast was clear -- boom! A gigantic wooden cheese board lands on the table. “Would you care for some cheese?” asks the owner-maitre d’, grinning. This is no dainty cheese plate or rolling cart -- it’s an earthquake on the table.

It’s a different kind of show in the gleaming white-white dining room at Ketchup. A perky young server in a miniskirt, with all the enthusiasm of a cheerleader, takes your order, then sends over a bartender with her cart. It’s laden with plastic jugs of mixers -- pineapple juice, Kool-Aid-laced vodka, along with bottles of Kahlua and Absolut Vanilla. An ice bucket holds Kenwood California sparkling wine and a bottle of Yoo-hoo (for the Chocolate Hooville cocktail). Want to try a Dazed and Confused? Or a Summer Lovin’? She’ll mix you a shot to taste -- or a whole super-sweet cocktail.

(It’s almost like being at a club like Area, where your own personal mixologist comes to the table and concocts cucumber watermelon margaritas or lychee cosmopolitans.)

It won’t be long before the show extends beyond the dining room: The Foundry’s Greenspan says he’s installing a video camera at the pass this week; by next month live streaming video and audio during service will be accessible on the restaurant’s website.

“Audio for the entertainment value of it all,” says Greenspan. “Visual because we change the menu every week. Let me show you what the food’s looking like. It’ll be fun, it’ll be interesting.”

We can’t wait.