Carrying the Torch
Flambé isn’t passé at Wilfs Restaurant, one of Portland’s last bastions of tableside service
STORY BY ANGELA SANDERS
PHOTOS BY AARON LEE
It’s 1963. You’re celebrating your anniversary at a nice restaurant. Your wife’s silk dress glimmers against the velvet banquette, and candlelight throws warm light on the coiffure that only a few hours ago absorbed half a spray can of Aqua Net. The remnants of your clams casino and dry martinis, served club-style, of course, have been whisked away.
Here comes the maitre d’, pushing a wheeled table, upon which he’ll prepare your main course: steak Diane. He sautés shallots, adds cream, and now tips the copper pan into the flame. Whoosh! Dinner is on fire.
Flambéed food is part show, part deliciousness, and increasingly hard to find. It used to be that a good hostess kept a recipe for crêpes Suzette on hand for special dinner parties, and cherries jubilee was mandatory at tony restaurants where the waiter wielded a fork and spoon in one hand à la “French service.” Not anymore. El Gaucho offers a flambéed brochette. The Benson Hotel’s London Grill, closed in 2011, used to flambé a few items. But otherwise, flambé has largely died out in Portland.
Wilfs Restaurant & Bar in Portland’s Union Station is one of the few dining establishments that still carries the torch, so to speak. Wilfred Nofield opened Wilfs in 1975. Although he died seven years later, his daughters Adele, Candace, and Jo-Ann continue to run the restaurant. Chef Deb Serkoian reigns in the kitchen. With its high-backed, red velvet chairs, a piano bar, and the muffled ding-ding-ding of a train easing by the back windows, Wilfs is an institution. “People have their first date here, get engaged here, hold their wedding parties here, then come back for anniversaries,” says Jo-Ann Nofield, maitre d’. “We’ve had a few break-ups, too,” she adds with a shrug.
“Tableside service is an old art that ought to be preserved,” she continues. She points out that tableside service, which includes non-flambé rituals such as mixing Caesar salad, “makes people feel taken care of.” It’s a show.
Jo-Ann says that to pull off tableside service, a restaurant has to have the room to wheel around the sturdy tableside cart with its cooking ring. For many restaurants, that means giving up a few money-making tables. Plus, tableside service takes time. Instead of a few quick check-ins from a waiter, a maitre d’ or captain spends a minimum of five minutes preparing a dish. More time per customer means more staff, and staff must be paid.
Jo-Ann also notes that not all staff are suited to tableside service. Whoever does tableside has to like cooking. Not all servers do. The server must be confident and have a flair for entertainment. Cooking tableside means a give and take with customers, answering, for instance, the inevitable question about flambé gone awry (nothing dangerous has happened, Jo-Ann says). Above all, timing is vital.
She should know. Jo-Ann has worked at Wilfs since the restaurant opened 41 years ago. She was 15 at the time. Her father started her off as a janitor, then moved her to parking valet, then cashier, and, when she was 21, bartender. With her curly hair and no-nonsense manner, Jo-Ann appears capable of running anything from a truck stop diner to the Tour d’Argent, no problem.
At last, Wilf deemed Jo-Ann ready to learn the art of the flambé. She shadowed her father for a few weeks. She says he was a natural maitre d’ with “flair and flamboyance,” and she hung on to his instructions of “a spoon of cream” and “two spoons of mushrooms” as she memorized the details of tableside service.
Her first dish to prepare solo was a salmon flambé. She flawlessly swirled in the correct portions of cream and shallots, and she mimed the graceful way her father handled the pan, with a smile as she dipped it in the flame.
But she’d forgotten how he stepped back at the crucial moment. Instead, Jo-Ann hovered over the pan, and the flame roared into her face. The diners gasped at the show.
At that time, in 1981, a popular series of Bud Light TV commercials featured men saying, “Gimme a Light” to bartenders and getting everything from grow lights to fireworks in return. Wilf, watching Jo-Ann’s explosive performance from a discreet distance, quipped, “I said I wanted a Bud Light.” Now, Jo-Ann has mastered flambé. “I have them eating out of my hand,” she says. “Pun intended.”
Jo-Ann says that flambéing at home is easy. “All you do is light your food on fire.” Newbies are wise not to be as cavalier. The basic steps of flambé are to cook a warm sauce in a flameproof dish. Pour brandy or another high-proof liqueur around the pan’s edge. If cooking over a gas flame, dip the pan’s edge in the flame. If not, use a handheld lighter with a long stem. And remember to step back.
For flambé, Wilfs Restaurant serves bananas Foster, cherries jubilee, steak Diane, tropical prawns, and, in season, peach flambé. One of their most popular dishes is bananas Foster.
Recipe makes four servings. Preparation time is 15 minutes.
8 tablespoons salted butter
3/4 cup lightly packed light-brown sugar
1/4 cup crème de banana liquor
4 medium-size ripe bananas, sliced in half lengthwise
1.5 ounces of brandy to flame
4 to 8 scoops vanilla bean ice cream (frozen yogurt and non-dairy ice cream substitutes work, too. Try a berry sorbet for a twist on the traditional.)
Four chilled serving bowls
In a sauté pan over medium heat, melt butter. Stir until golden brown, add banana liqueur and sugar, and mix well. Lay bananas, flat side down, in pan. Heat for three minutes or until banana is tender. Add brandy around the edge of the pan. If cooking over gas, tip the pan into the flame to ignite the brandy. Otherwise, ignite with a long-handled lighter. The dish will flame for about 15 seconds.
Place scoops of ice cream in the serving bowls. Remove bananas from pan, turn off heat, and place 2 banana halves in each serving bowl (you might need to cut the banana to fit). Pour the cooked syrup over each serving portion. Eat before the ice cream has melted.
Once you’re comfortable with this preparation, experiment by adding nutmeg or cinnamon, changing the liquor to Kahlua, dark crème de menthe, or Tuaca.
This recipe is for gas heat; add a few more minutes of cooking time for electric heat.
Angela Sanders writes about food, culture, and history from Portland. www.angelamsanders.com