Take a trio of seared scallops. Place them on a typical, round, white dinner plate. Throw on a garnish. Step back. What do you see?
Three circles on another circle with a sprig.
Now take those same scallops and position them any which way on a square, thick, glass plate. Forget the garnish. What's the result?
"You can only go so far with the food. Now it's time for the plate to be part of the presentation," says Todd Gray, chef and co-owner of Equinox, a new restaurant at the center of downtown that serves modern American food.
It's all about geometry, spatial relations, visual impact and a sense of surprise. In a world where round has long been preferable (Don't be a square!) some chefs say square is the shape of things to come.
For Gray, a square plate "acts like a picture frame." Suddenly a simple smidgen of shellfish is showy. The square creates an illusion. "I don't have to do stacking towers and drizzling oil or color-contrasting sauces. Nothing. I can let the plate act as the visual enhancement to the food," he says.
Gray gently hand-forms jumbo lump crab meat mixed with capers and diced mango, dips the balls first in a light tempura batter and then into bubbling grapeseed oil. He positions the crisp little crab fritters atop a tangle of pea greens on a 5-by-5-inch-square "slab" of black glass. For color he adds a "rain" of red lobster roe. The effect is soothing and stunning--a place setting that would do Pythagoras proud.
His square plate of choice? That would be the Slab Series by Annieglass (based in Watsonville, Calif.), which produces handmade, translucent glass tableware. Such glass is an investment for a restaurant. Beneath a counter in the Equinox kitchen, neatly stacked between white linen napkins, are glass squares that cost as much as $26 each. (An average, white, restaurant-quality dinner plate costs $4 to $6 wholesale.)
A square plate in a restaurant is nothing new. Japanese chefs have long favored angular tableware--square and rectangular plates--for sushi and dipping sauces. But the crossover from round to square and East to West, both in restaurants and in the home, is relatively new and on the increase.
Still, square is a trend that may not be right for all restaurants and homes. Some chefs will resist.
"Chefs must be taught. Come on. Break out of the mold," says Ann Morhauser, creative director-owner of Annieglass. Morhauser's glass plates, bowls and serving dishes are particularly popular in California where there is a strong Asian influence in restaurants serving modern American cuisine. "Too often [chefs] think that their food can't share the limelight with the plate," she says.
Nevertheless many area chefs are setting the stage with squares.
Chef Michel Richard of Citronelle in Georgetown as well as chef Jacques Van Staden of Aquarelle in the Watergate Hotel are using white porcelain squares made by Bernardaud, known for the manufacture of French Limoges dinnerware. They appreciate the extra room a square provides.
"There's more surface area to play around with. Corners allow the food to spread out," says Van Staden, who insisted on square dinnerware when he assumed the job of executive chef three months ago. His "chef's tasting" menu, which goes for $90, includes a four-part first course presented on what Bernardaud calls a Fusion tray.
In one corner Van Staden places a tiny soft-shell crab encrusted with rice flakes, pistachios and basil seeds in an Indian-style pappadam cracker surrounded by baby bok choy. In the opposite corner, atop a tomato confit, is a chunk of seared foie gras. But the 11 3/4-inch plate also has room to spare for a roasted beet salad with tamarind-glazed grilled quail as well as an asparagus risotto with black truffles.
"On round plates things tend to go the center," says Van Staden, who calls his cooking style Mediterranean/Asian. Sauces run and become one. "I don't want my food crammed together and touching," he says.
Three months ago Brian McBride, chef at Melrose in Washington's West End, added 11-inch square, white porcelain plates to the Park Hyatt Hotel's collection. His new philosophy? "The plate is the garnish," says McBride. "Squares eliminate the need for things that don't belong on the plate. Stuff like the little slivers of red and yellow bell pepper you see everywhere." Apparently there is no space on the square plate for excess.
More square plates are going home, too. Consumers want to replicate what they have seen in restaurants.
Calvin Klein Home as well as Bernardaud introduced minimalist square plates at the April Tabletop trade show in New York this past spring. Their collections reach department stores this fall. The latest at Pottery Barn stores is "brick" red square plates with matching noodle bowls. Target calls its new stoneware squares Furio Home World View.
"I definitely think [square plates] are coming this way from what we're seeing in the trade magazines and at the table-top shows," says Janelle Parker, director of corporate sales for Michael Round Fine China & Crystal in Springfield. (Other table-top trends to watch are continental (meaning oversize) flatware, heavily cut glassware and platinum-coated or platinum-colored anything.)
Parker says that thus far no area engaged couples have registered at Round for square tableware. But plates with an edge are on the wish list for brides in New York, Dallas and San Francisco. "We are a bit more of a conservative area. But it's coming," she says.
But hold onto those round plates. Not every dish works on a square. "Noodles go on a round plate. A whole steamed fish goes on a long oval plate. It's as simple as that," says Jessie Yan, chef and co-owner of Oodles Noodles in downtown Washington and Bethesda, Spices in Cleveland Park and Yanyu, her new restaurant for regional Chinese food in the same block as Spices. Yan found her heavy ceramic squares with an iridescent blue glaze in a little shop in Tokyo. She loves her new plates and the options they present.
"Chinese only use round plates and oval platters. But look. Look how my Kung Pao roast chicken sits on a square," she says. "It's a perfect match."
CAPTION: Squares are all around town, clockwise from top left: Fusion tray and square canape plates by Bernardaud at Aquarelle with Jacques Van Staden's first course from the Chef's Tasting Menu. Annieglass Slab Series at Equinox with chef Todd Gray's crab fritters. Burnished gold dessert plate from Calvin Klein Home. Iridescent blue earthenware square plate at Yanyu with chef Jessie Yan's Kung Pao chicken.