Consider the cloche: That shiny metal dome that covers and shields a plate of food as it makes its journey from the kitchen to the table in a certain kind of restaurant. The cloche is there ostensibly to keep the food warm during its perp walk through the restaurant and to signal a benchmark of luxury as the waiters present the food.
But the cloche also signals the spiritual as well as the spatial distance between the kitchen and the dining room; it’s as much a wall of separation as the sliding glass between the chauffeur and passengers in a stretch limo.
I haven’t noticed a cloche in years, and I’d be willing to bet that you haven’t either. It’s not that the food coming out of our top restaurant kitchens has grown any less intricate or ambitious. Quite the contrary. It’s that the kitchens have gotten closer.
I might even go a step further and say that high-end dining today flourishes in a setting that is just the opposite of the expected one. The space between chef and diner has shrunk to zero. The new luxury is a kind of intimacy.
In New York, restaurants such as Blanca, Atera, Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and Momofuku Ko seat customers at counters facing the kitchen. After preparing a dish, the chef often brings it directly to the diner. These restaurants serve set, seasonal menus of at least 10 (but sometimes as many as 30) courses. They charge dearly and tend to do well when the Michelin men hand out their stars.
If you’re thinking, “Yeah, well, New York…,” don’t. Two of the most talked-about restaurants in the South — Nashville’s Catbird Seat and Houston’s Oxheart — follow this format. They book out their tiny dining rooms far in advance; if you’re not precisely on time and nimble fingered when they release seats on their websites, you won’t get in.
There is no Atlanta restaurant yet dedicated to this style of dining, but a new cooking space in Inman Park will make it possible on an ad hoc basis. The Third Space opens Tuesday in a loft in the Studioplex complex, next door to Serpas restaurant. The downstairs is dominated by a high-end custom designed kitchen fronted by a long counter. Owner Asha Gomez (chef at the terrific Indian restaurant Cardamom Hill) sees it as a venue for local chefs — as well as cookbook authors on tour — to prepare demonstration dinners and conduct cooking classes, much like The Cook’s Warehouse.
But the Third Space feels just that much more like a dining room than a classroom. It seems less a place for the chef to explain, “This is how I chop an onion,” and more like an environment where cooking and dining happen in close proximity. It’s about the smells and sizzle, the glint of shiny knives, and the murmur of easy conversation between those who prepare the food and those who consume it.
If the way I describe this kind of dining sounds a bit like a sushi bar, you’re not far off. In Osaka, Japan, there has been long been a tradition of “kappo” restaurants where the chefs prepare seasonal menus based on the day’s ingredients and the customer’s taste. Kappo chefs employ all manner of cooking techniques (unlike sushi chefs) and engage customers throughout the preparation of the meal.
Japanese food historian Isao Kumakura writes, “conversation flows naturally…[t]he chef talks about the qualities of the day’s ingredients and recommends a menu to suit each diner. Customers, for their part, share their immediate appreciation with the chef and swap questions and culinary knowledge across the counter. This interchange increases the pleasures of dining and can inspire elaboration and innovation.”
One of the first Western chefs to notice how this kind of intimacy could work within the context of fine dining was Joël Robuchon, who has opened branches of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in many world capitals, including the gambling capital of Las Vegas. Customers sit (mostly) at counters facing the kitchen and order off a small-plates menu that offers both à la carte and set menu options.
The counter seating, however, is only part of the equation. The customer shouldn’t be saddled with too much choice but rather get a sense that the kitchen has sourced the best seasonal product and used its skill and innovation to present it in a series of dishes that captures the moment.
It will be very interesting to see where Gomez goes with the programming at the Third Space. The early schedule (posted at thethirdspaceatl.com) sounds nice, with locals chefs such as Miller Union’s Steven Satterfield preparing dinners with wine for $85. But I’ll be very interested to see where it goes from here as ambitious chefs and curious diners learn to use this space to find each other. I bet in a year’s time when we lift the cloche on the Third Space, we’ll find an exciting and vital locus of creativity.