Aside from identifying an incognito celebrity or overhearing a messy breakup, eating out at a restaurant lacks theatrical value. The experience is predictable, says Vincent Lee, the assistant manager at Korean restaurant Honey Pig in Annandale, Va.: “You place your order, a waitress brings your food, you eat it and then leave.” But for diners craving a side of excitement with their T-bones, some restaurants offer dramatic tableside preparations and presentations. At Honey Pig, for instance, servers cook seasoned meat, Korean barbecue-style, on gas-fired grills in the center of each table. “They can tell you what tastes good and what goes best with what,” Lee says. “They’ll guide you, so your meal turns out for the best.” Here are four of our favorite dishes served with flair and best enjoyed with a group of friends.
Banana Flambe au Rhum
3419 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-237-1015
It’s not every day that your server intentionally lights something aflame at your table. But at Nam-Viet, the fiery display comes standard when you order this crunchy-sweet dessert ($6). Unlike the New Orleans-born bananas Foster, the banana in the Vietnamese version is deep-fried with an egg-and-flour coating. The toasty fruit arrives at your table, where a server tops it with sesame seeds, followed by maple syrup and Paramount 151 rum. Then, the server lights the whole combination on fire, rotating the banana using tongs until the flame goes out. “It’s the perfect amount of burnt,” says manager Ray Caleon. “The flame helps the rum flavor sink into the banana and makes it crispier.”
Spicy Pork Belly
7220 Columbia Pike, Annandale, Va.; 703-256-5229
The meat isn’t the only thing that’s raw at this Annandale Korean BBQ joint: Corrugated metal walls and a stripped concrete floor give the space the feel of an unfinished, underground lair. The decor (modeled after a typical casual restaurant in Korea) means there’s little to distract you from such dishes as pork neck, beef intestine and, our favorite, spicy pork belly ($15). For the last, “we bring out two slabs of thickly sliced pork belly that have been marinated in a spicy sauce and toss them on the grill at your table,” assistant manager Vincent Lee says. It’s best enjoyed with steamed rice, traditional side dishes such as kimchee, and lettuce (which can be used to wrap the ingredients for easy eating). If you’re up for it, you can request to cook for your table. “It’s a communal experience,” Lee says.
Peking Gourmet Inn
6029 Leesburg Pike., Falls Church; 703-671-8088
The time and effort that go into this signature Beijing dish ($39, feeds four) is dizzying. “First, we boil the duck in water with vinegar and honey,” says assistant kitchen manager Paul Liang. The duck dries for about 24 hours, then is roasted for nearly two. “Then, we blow-dry it with a fan until all the fat drips off.” Next, it’s dunked in a deep fryer. At your table, a server strips the duck’s skin and slices its juicy meat. Your job: fill a flour pancake with meat, hoisin sauce and scallions, roll it up and eat it like a taco.
2605 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-332-7300
Sukiyaki is a traditional Japanese stew-like dish of meat and vegetables containing a high amount of sugar (recipes often call for at least 5 tablespoons). That sweet stuff gives the dish its signature taste. “We use so much sugar because it adds flavor and makes the beef more tender,” says head waitress Yanoko Manigan. At Tono Sushi, the dish ($42, feeds four) is prepared at your table on a portable gas grill by a server in traditional Japanese garb. First, thinly sliced beef and tofu are sauteed with vegetables such as onions, Napa cabbage, shiitake and oyster mushrooms and carrots. Next, a sukiyaki sauce made of soy sauce, sugar and mirin (a condiment comparable to sake) is poured into the pot. The result is a saccharine-savory soup that may taste peculiar if you’ve never had it before. Diners are encouraged to eat it in a novel way, too: “We serve the dish with a side of raw egg,” Manigan says, “so you can dip [bites] in that to cut the sweetness.”