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Restaurants assess flaming dishes after Bananas Foster accident

It is supposed to be dinner and a show, all in one.

Diners watch as the plate comes toward the table, usually with some degree of sizzle. A high-proof accelerant is added. There are pyrotechnics. The flaming food is served.

Fire is the cornerstone to cooking, and the circular nature of trends has led to the return of dramatic dining room presentations, like the Bananas Foster dessert that injured four people in an accident at a Palm Harbor restaurant on Saturday.

The incident at Ozona Blue forced some area restaurateurs to reassess their policies and tighten up precautions where necessary.

"We've changed our methods since the incident," said Demetrios Salivaras, the chef and owner of Dimitri's on the Water in Tarpon Springs.

Like many Greek restaurants, Dimitri's offers saganaki — flaming cheese — as an appetizer on the menu. It's a firm cheese that is pan seared. When it is brought out, the server holds the plate, gives it a shot of alcohol and lights it.

The dish used to be available throughout Dimitri's. But on Sunday, Salivaras decided that the staff could flambe the dish only in one area of the restaurant, at least five feet from any customer.

"You can't have an accident like that with a guest," he said.

Other restaurants amend their presentations if safety dictates.

Island Grille and Raw Bar in Tierra Verde serves Bananas Foster, created 60 years ago at Brennan's Restaurant in New Orleans. The server generally brings a cart through the Island Grille dining room to the table with a skillet on a burner. Butter and sugar melt together, and the bananas are cooked in the molten combination. Then a shot of high-proof rum is added, and flames leap. The mixture is poured over ice cream.

Owner Colleen Mugnai says she has two safeguards in place. First, a small amount of rum is kept in a bottle with a top that limits how much can come out. Exposing a larger quantity of alcohol to flame can essentially turn it into a Molotov cocktail.

Second, if the restaurant is crowded, the dessert is prepared in the kitchen. Tableside preparation is canceled.

"If one person walks by and bumps it …," she said, without finishing the thought.

At Gratzzi Italian Grille in St. Petersburg, co-owner Dominic D'Angelo prepares his flaming Cavatelli Bada-Bing as many as 30 times on a busy weekend night. One order often leads to the next.

"When people see it, they're fascinated," he said of the pasta dish. It too is prepared on a rolling cart, with vodka-fueled flames and a wheel of cheese as a cooking vessel.

"If the restaurant is too busy, I tell the customer that I'll have to do it on the side, where there is room," he said.

D'Angelo and Salivaras each said the alcohol that was used at Ozona Blue, 151-proof rum, was stronger than necessary. D'Angelo uses vodka, and Salivaras brandy. Each has an alcohol content about half as potent as the rum in the accident.

"We're using 80 proof (brandy) because it burns slower and is not as hot," Salivaras said.

"It adds a nice caramel flavor to the dish. The 151 is like jet fuel."

Jim Webster can be reached at jwebster@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8746.

Restaurants assess flaming dishes after Bananas Foster accident 06/13/11 [Last modified: Monday, June 13, 2011 11:19pm]

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