Small plates are The Way We Eat Now. But is this food glorious, or do we—frankly—want some more? By Bill Knott
Something has happened to the restaurant dining table. Once a paragon of rotational symmetry, with napery, crockery and glassware perfectly poised, it has descended into anarchy, congested with bowls, boards, plates and slates. Diners flit like gastronomic butterflies from dish to dish, trying to stay below the boredom threshold of their palates. Welcome to the “small plates” craze.
It is not, of course, entirely new. Cantonese dim sum, Italian cicchetti, Spanish tapas, Russian zakuski and Turkish mezze all feature appetizers meant for sharing. What is new is that a meal in many restaurants now consists entirely of small plates.
In this new collectivist style of eating, you might get your own plate, but it will be small and bare. The dishes you order will emerge in a haphazard sequence from the kitchen, and whether you get more to eat than your dining companion relies on a new and elaborate etiquette. When constructed intelligently, though, a sharing menu is a hugely rewarding experience.
Take the industrially chic Som Saa, for instance, a new-wave Thai restaurant in London’s East End. Order several dishes, and even a table-for-two can experience a joyous riot of aromas, flavours and textures. In Paris, the high table of traditional cuisine, the new Le George at the Four Seasons George V has kicked up a sharing storm comme une danseuse de can-can. Chef Simone Zanoni does Mediterranean-style healthy food in half portions: millions of plates in the light, airy indoor-outdoor restaurant on the marble courtyard. Sharing has reached the apogee of grandeur.
At the Pot Luck Club in Cape Town, chef/proprietor Luke Dale Roberts’s sharing menu is arranged not by ingredients but by tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. In the hands of a skilled chef like Roberts, the trauma of submitting to the tyranny of sharing plates is soothed by the thought-provoking, conversation-inducing nature of the food.
The concept may be coals-to-Newcastle in Hong Kong, the spiritual home of dim sum, but at 22 Ships, the produce is not: Jason Atherton’s tapas-style menu features Iberico ham and seafood paella, as well as inventive small plates: suckling pig with piquillo peppers and pineapple, perhaps, or green-tea cheesecake with lime and yoghurt. In New York, David Chang’s various outposts of have blazed the small-plates trail with the likes of brisket stew with kimchi, rice cakes and sesame; hungry would-be diners queue around the block.
For some food lovers, the very idea of sharing a “small plate” is oxymoronic: for them, a sharing plate is a dozen oysters, or a leg of lamb. Left to choose between upscale tasting menu or informal flurry of sharing plates, what are they to do? Chang—never one to miss a trick—has that covered. You can reserve a table for four to eight people, and chow down on his “large format” meal of fried chicken: two birds—one Southern-style, one triple-fried with Korean spices—while you watch your fellow diners battling over the last chicken wing.
When small plates come from a talented kitchen, they perfectly suit the modern restaurant: convivial, informal and dazzling in their breadth. Should the kitchen be less accomplished, however, diners might be reminded of Annie Hall. Terrible food—and such small portions.
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