I have a love-hate relationship with the so-called "small plates" restaurant.
For the most part, "small plates" restaurants are a Bay Area phenomena. They are, as Marian Burros wrote in her 2002 article in the New York Times on Bay Area dining, "places that are devoted entirely to serving small portions of serious food." The appetizer-sized portions are meant to be shared and cost from a few dollars to the high teens.
Some of the most popular restaurants to open in the past five years focus on this way of dining. Cooking styles vary with the restaurant, with menus inspired by Asia (Betelnut, Eos, and Grasshopper), India (Tallula), France (Chez Nous and À Côté), Spain (Bocadillos and César), the whole Mediterranean (Cortez), Latin America (Destino and Fonda), California (Isa and Fork) and all of the above (Andalu).
So what don't I like about "small plates?" First off, I despise the term. It drives me nuts that I feel like I have to put quotes around it, because it's a made-up construct. I lump it with another globalized word of the nineties: "wraps." There are perfectly good words in various languages for "small plates:" tapas, pintxos, hors d'oeuvres, antipasti, cicchetti, dim sum, chaat. We even have a word already in English: appetizers. Is it really necessary to have a catch-all phrase that lumps all of these disparate cuisines together under one big tent?
What makes me even madder is that I can't come up with a better phrase!
As a diner, sometimes I don't want to share. It drives me crazy when I only get one (or worse, no) bite of the dish that I really wanted and then have to endure other people's boring choices (don't you want to go out with me now?). How often have I left a "small plates" restaurant still vaguely dissatisfied and hungry?
Most of all, I hate that the bill always seems to rise to stratospheric levels, even though you-know-who at the Chronicle rated the restaurant with one dollar sign.
But, when done right, I love the "small plates" restaurant perhaps more than any other. When I'm dining with sensible people (i.e. my wife N and our food-loving friends), I like being able to sample lots of different flavors. When I'm dining alone, I like that I can avoid the typical super-sized American restaurant entrée and save room for dessert.
Some of my favorite restaurants specialize in "small plates:" La Cuchara de San Telmo in San Sebastián, Cal Pep in Barcelona, Tía Pol and Casa Mono in New York, and Bocadillos in San Francisco. You may notice that all these places are Spanish.
The Spanish have a long history with this style of eating and know how to do pull it off successfully. None of these restaurants is the traditional tasca that serves one- or two-bite tapas. In Spain, most of the portion sizes would be more similar to what is known as a media ratión (half portion).
My all-time favorite "small plates" restaurant in America is, however, not strictly Spanish. And it is not in the Bay Area. It is in Los Angeles and its name is A.O.C. (how was that for a rambling, ranting introduction!).
Suzanne Goin, the chef/co-proprietor of A.O.C. and Lucques, shows what wonderful food can be served under the name of "small plates." Her food is seasonal and sensual. The flavors are bold and the portion sizes are perfect.
This visit was my second and I have yet to find a dish that doesn't make me swoon.
I started my meal with a plate of end-of-the-season heirloom tomatoes served with creamy burrata cheese, opal basil, arugula, olive oil and sherry vinegar. It was by far the best tomato salad I've had this year outside of my own kitchen.
My next plates nicely showed off the best of this transitional season between summer and fall. My nicely seared, moist black cod (also called sable) was accompanied by buttery celery root purée, caramelized sunchokes, hazelnuts and purslane. My plate of tender warm haricots verts, served alongside, were topped with toasted walnuts, walnut oil, lemon, crispy shallots and sage.
The wine list at A.O.C. is full of interesting choices that complement the food. As this picture illustrates, the restaurant offers an extensive selection of wines by the glass. I chose a delightfully aromatic white made from the verdejo grape by Naiades (2003) in the Rueda region of Spain that I liked so much I intend to buy a bottle or two when I find it.
For dessert, I could've used some help polishing off the rich sheep's milk ricotta cheesecake with fresh figs and dark chestnut honey, but somehow (glutton that I am) managed any way.
For those of you who can't make it to LA I have good news. Suzanne Goin will soon be coming out with her first cookbook, so you and I can recreate some of her lusty Mediterranean food in our own kitchens.