Tag Archives: place setting

The Right Way to Enjoy Al Fresco Dining

al fresco dinner ware

Dining outdoors – perfect for longer, warmer nights.

Days are getting longer and the nights are warming up – a perfect combination to dine al fresco with friends or a significant other.  It’s more than simply eating outside or just two Italian words that mean “in the cool air” – it’s a whole experience when done properly.  It’s creating the perfect table setting, candle-lit ambiance, just the right amount of casual and, of course, the perfect menu.

Many people think of white paper plates and red solo cups when they think of having a picnic, but for me, it’s always more than that.  Whether it’s dinner in the backyard by the pool or in the park with a big group of friends or perhaps a concert at The Hollywood Bowl, it’s important to make every dining occasion special but also worry-free!

There are so many fantastic unbreakable options now.  Crate and Barrel has an entire selection of beautiful rustic melamine (plastic!) in several colors that all coordinate well with bowls, plates and service pieces in different patterns (also melamine).  Add their “glassware” made from different polymer materials unbreakable glasses in all shapes including stemmed wine glasses and margarita glasses. You’ll have the basics for a colorful, fun and worry-free table setting. Yesterday, on my video, I showcased other options from Williams Sonoma. Use woven placemats in a coordinating color with a white linen napkin and colorful napkin ring to complete the look.  All you need now is simple flatware (really only a fork and knife), and you’re set.

Candlelight is important to set the mood.  Hurricane lamps with candles (include some citronella candles – to keep away the flying insects) to set around.  Make sure that the top of the candle is lower than the top of the hurricane lamp otherwise even a small breeze will blow out the flame.

Create simple centerpieces for height and color. Keep it casual.  You can use flowers, but then you need to worry about vases with water that can tip over.  Some of my favorite centerpieces are just twigs with small flowers (cherry blossom branches, birch branches, manzanita branches, etc.).  And sometimes it’s even simpler than that – just a large bunch of green – even Magnolia leaves in a big enough bunch are casual and beautiful.  You don’t need water – just a fun container.

Plan the menu appropriately for wherever you will be dining and how far you will be traveling to get there.  If you’re in the backyard, your menu can include hot food straight from the kitchen or BBQ. If you’re traveling (even around the corner to the park with friends) plan a menu that only includes food that can be served room temperature – salads, grilled in season vegetables (asparagus, artichokes, broccolini, et cetera – look at the farmer’s market for ideas). Veggies can easily be added to a plate of cold pasta salad to add color and flavor, along with cold sliced roast and cold fried chicken – you get the idea.  Don’t forget an easy batch cocktail – margaritas, negronis or keep it simple and bring wine.  And don’t forget the wine-opener.

One last safety note – warm evenings and nights also bring bugs. I hate bugs, but I especially hate mosquitos that can be a real pain (literally). Some of your guests may be uncomfortable about dining outside without some protection. Remind your guests to wear their preferred insect repellent lotions (et cetera) or ask them what they prefer and bring some just in case they forget. I also burn Tiki torch fuel that’s spiked with citronella – it seems to do the trick. Start them up about an hour before your guests arrive and you’ll be bug-free for hours.

You may enjoy this so much, you’ll make it a regular event all summer!

What kind of Champagne Glasses?

FRAN_Champaign-Detail

Easy hints and tips for the “right” champagne glass for your party.

It’s a little joke between wine drinkers that the best glass for wine is always the one that you’re holding. No matter if it’s one of those little plastic cups hosts might use to serve at a casual backyard gathering or the elegant stemless glasses that they use at your favorite café bar, when you love wine, and you’re drinking a good one, especially Champagne, it almost doesn’t matter how it is served.  But, even if you’re OK at the moment with the plastic cup in your hand, you always want to know how the wine you want to offer should be served.

For example – what if you want to host a caviar and Champagne tasting party like I did a few days ago. What glasses do you set out for something like that?

First, the good news: there is no shortage of places to go to find them and no shortage on selection. Second, there are three glass types for serving Champagne: flute, coupe, or tulip wine glass. If you can’t find a tulip shaped glass, then a white wine glass will do very well.

FRAN_Champagn-Fluted-Glass

The Fluted Glass

The flute glass (with its tall narrow shape) is the traditional shape for champagne. The shape of the bowl helps encourage a lot of bubbles to rise to the surface and show off the fine effervescence of bubbles. But there’s more to Champagne than just bubbles. I may use fluted glasses for young wines, but not for a good vintage.

The ‘problem’ with the flute is that it tends to short-change the experience a little, especially if you want to drink a good vintage Champagne. The small top of the flute doesn’t allow much air space for the aroma to collect and enhance the flavor. Because there is so little of the surface exposed to air, the flute limits your ability to thoroughly appreciate the aromas and flavors that the winemaker worked so hard to put in your glass.

There’s always the novelty of the coupe glass. They are elegant looking, and some of them are even fantastic works of art. I have a set of very simple crystal ones with tall stems from Iittala. This glass style was popular back in the early 20th century – think flapper girls, glossy hair, and the Charleston.  The coupe was originally designed to showcase a Champagne style that was also popular then – a sweet bubbly dessert wine – which is fine if that’s what you want to do. However, it’s not right for the style of Champagne that is produced today.

FRAN_Champagn-Coupe-Glass

The Coupe Glass

I think that the coupe is a little like the flute glass – there are just some things it doesn’t do well. It can’t capture the beauty of the Champagne, especially the ones that are currently being produced. The wide shallow bowl doesn’t let the bubbles develop as they would in a taller glass, so they come to the large surface quickly, burst and are all gone before you’ve finished your glass.  But the worst problem is the large surface area at the top of the bowl means that too much air meets the wine and both bubbles and aroma (and much of the taste) are lost quickly.

That’s why experts – the connoisseurs of wine – have moved away from the flute glass and novelty coupe for enjoying fine aged sparkling. They want to enjoy what the winemakers put into the wine.  By using the proper glass, you get to showcase the artistry of the wine: the aroma, the palate, and the look. That’s why if I’m serving an excellent aged sparkling wine, I want my guests to enjoy it from either a wide tulip shape or a white wine shaped glass.

FRAN_Champagn-white-wine-Glass_mod

The White Wine Glass (alternative for the Tulip Glass).

The tulip glass gives you just enough length and surface area so that bubbles can burst at the same time. When it is filled to no higher than two-thirds full – you’ll have plenty of room to capture those aromas at the top of the glass. The wider bowl allows more room for the aeration of the wine. The flavors develop better when the narrower rim captures and holds those aromas in the glass for you to enjoy.  If you can’t find the tulip shape, then a white wine glass will suffice. Tulip glasses are similar enough in shape to a white wine glass, only wider at the bowl and slightly narrower at the top.

Last, but not least, I have a few suggestions for your party. There are three brands of Champagne/sparkling wine that I love and will always recommend:  Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame (a bold style for a strong statement), Ruinart Blanc de Blancs (for a big impression on your guests) and Gruet Sparkling from New Mexico (my go-to sparkling for those informal gatherings).

For glasses, I recommend three – the Baccarat Crystal flute, the Iittala Crystal coupe, or a simple white wine glass from Crate and Barrel.

Enjoy!

 

What bread plate is mine?

Tabletop place setting

Easy tips for setting your table, for every day!

When my kids were at home, we always ate our meals at the kitchen table, and if I was having a party, the meal would move to the dining room.  Somehow all that changed when the kids left for college.  There were times that it seemed like it was just too much effort to set the table – after all, it was “just us” –  and on occasion, we would find ourselves eating in front of the TV.

Not too long after the kids left for college, I decided that we would no longer be eating in front of the “boob tube.” We would return to the table where we could have a real conversation together, find out what went on during each of our days and get re-connected after a long day of work.

To be honest, my preference has always been to enjoy a nice meal and conversation around a table with my friends and family. That means setting the table! When you do it right, even your garden variety basic meal can be turned into something everyone enjoys. All you need to do is take the time to put everything in order on your tabletop.

Don’t be embarrassed though if you can’t remember where to put the bread plate and whether (or if) you should put out a soup spoon.  It can get very confusing and so many people get it wrong.  After twenty years of owning restaurants, the right place setting is practically tattooed on the inside of my eyelids. I still fight the urge to fold napkins when I’m at a friend’s home for dinner.

Always remember this one basic rule: set your table for the meal you’re having, not for a fancy party (unless of course, that’s precisely what you’ve planned). If you’re not having soup, don’t put out a soup spoon. If you’re not serving bread, don’t put out a bread plate. To be honest, unless you’re setting a formal table you don’t really need that bread plate anyway.

According to Emily Post, a place setting is an array of dishes and utensils and the dinner plate is the “hub of the wheel.” But, if your goal is to entertain friends and encourage conversation, don’t get too fancy.

I usually set an informal table. I like to “stack” my plates: dinner plate on the bottom, with salad plate on top (if I’m serving salad). Where I put the napkin depends on my mood – sometimes I put it under the forks (like my mother did), sometimes it’s folded on top of the dinner/salad plate, sometimes I use a napkin ring, and sometimes I put it in the water glass!  It just all depends on how I want the table to look that day.

Forks always go on the left of the dinner plate with the largest fork closest to the plate and then smaller ones next to that. Knives are placed to the right of the plate and spoons to the right of the knife. The sharp edge of all knives should be turned to face the plate.  Placing the sharp edge of the knife facing inwards dates back several hundred years when it was considered aggressive to place the sharp edge of the knife facing outwards.   The bread plate goes on the left, above the forks.

Place water, champagne, and wine glasses in a line on the right, just above the knife and spoons. And remember, the water glass is the first glass placed with champagne and wine glasses to the right of the water glass.

Remember, simplicity! Only set the pieces that you will use during the meal, but if you’re serving dessert, you can place the dessert fork above the plate (I like the way that looks). That means that if you’re not serving champagne, don’t put a champagne glass on the table.  I like to set coffee cups and dessert plates out only when it’s time – otherwise, the table gets way too cluttered, and on my table, all that extra stuff won’t leave any room for the actual food!

Just because you might be having a very casual BBQ outside, or serving hamburgers and hot dogs for dinner, and you’ve chosen to use heavy paper plates and plastic forks and knives to simplify clean up, doesn’t mean that setting all the pieces in their proper place on the table won’t make it feel special.  You might want to use string or ribbon as a napkin ring to dress it up just a little bit.  You can even make a “roll up” out of the napkin, plastic ware and a piece of string (it’s what restaurants give you when you order “to go”) to make your very casual table more fun!

By the way, there is nothing better than a little candlelight to add a little ambiance to the meal. Even if your tabletop is completely disposable, dim the lights, light some candles, and – voila – you’ve just added something fun to the experience. Never use scented candles at a table. Seriously. Who wants “country cinnamon” competing with the Pasta Bolognese that you labored over in the kitchen?

What you want is a comfortable setting that eases everyone into an enjoyable dinner experience.