Writer: Anissa Helou
The way food looks on the plate, at least in some cultures, is as important as how it tastes. It would be unthinkable for a Japanese chef to unceremoniously dump a meal onto a serving dish without paying particular attention to both the dish itself (often a pretty lacquered or delicate ceramic one) and how the food is arranged on it. The same can be said of Arab chefs, especially when it comes to mezze, with ivory dips spooned into beautiful earthenware bowls streaked with pale glazes, the other dishes arranged on plain oval plates to create movement on the table, allowing the food to add its vibrant colours to the scene. Even if the culinary art of Arab cuisine is not as sophisticated as that of the Japanese, aesthetics are still a prominent concern with garnishes like the delicate lines of red paprika drizzled up the smooth, raised edges of dips and crisp green herbs sprinkled over meat to liven them up.
Where Japanese and Lebanese cooks have retained the culinary aesthetic of their ancestors, Western chefs are constantly changing how they present their creations. Ten years ago, the trend was for towers on a plate. Different elements of a dish were piled one on top of the other to create preposterous and precarious structures that collapsed into a messy heap as soon as you started eating. Thankfully, this trend is over. Now, we have a gentler, more natural approach to serving food with many chefs adopting the Japanese aesthetic, using lacquer, slate or delicate ceramics and often steering away from the accepted notion of bowls or dishes to use blocks of stone or containers made of edible material, serving their exquisite creations as if they were still-lives. Today, every detail is appraised with the eye of an aesthete; a welcome development given how staid the world of fine dining was until not so long ago.
On a recent visit to Agapé Substance, the current venture from rising Parisian culinary star David Toutain, I was struck by how pretty everything was, from the dark vases containing bouquets of paper-thin dried strips of wood that once circled Vacherin cheeses (stylish recycling) and the elegant lettering on the spare menu to the serving dishes. In such a tasteful setting, the meal had to be exquisite. And it was. Not only to taste but also to look at. It was art on a plate and sometimes, not even on a plate. For one of the amuse-bouches, for example, translucent sheets of beetroot were slipped into slits cut into a rectangular block that seemed to be carved out of a foam rock. That same block was also used to serve the tiniest radishes, leaves still on, which you dipped into the most perfect blobs of sauce piped in between them. As perfectly shaped as the dollops of sauce, leaves sprayed with some sort of shiny edible substance to make them glisten and allow the edible earth to stick, I wondered at first if the radishes were actually real.
The meal reminded me of one I had at Urasawa in Los Angeles, possibly the best Japanese restaurant in the US. Every detail of that dinner was as exquisite as the one I had at Agapé and even though I was dining alone that evening, I never felt bored simply because the gorgeous aesthetics added so much pleasure to the sumptuous flavours and textures. The attention to detail was such that even Urasawa’s knives became part of the design and were precisely arranged on a beautiful Japanese cloth whenever he wasn’t using them. More than art on the plate, this was art in the kitchen!