So you want the Dover Sole Amandine, but a whole fillet is more than you’re angling for, not to mention the attendant sides. Maybe you can’t make up your mind between the Pork Veronique and the grilled lamb chops. Or maybe you want to experiment with four or five dishes and a glass of wine without having to spend all night doing it and paying a hefty bill at the end. If you eat out four to five times a week, as the National Restaurant Association estimates Americans do, routine can become the enemy. Small plates are the universal antidote.
B.J. Stone of Stone’s Cove Kitbar in Herndon says grazing has become the norm for people who love to eat. “Smaller plates in a grazing environment allow people more choices for a broader experience.” Stone defines the small plate as smaller than an appetizer, larger than tapas. (Hence, his menu heading, “Appetapas.”) He even set up his restaurant to be conducive to the small plate experience. Tables surround a cooking station, manned by a “cheftender” who does everything from cooking and presentation to serving cocktails and wine. It’s sort of like eating in a friend’s kitchen, where the host whips up dishes and drinks in front of you and then hands you the finished results.
For the diner, cost is one incentive for the grazing experience. The price of a small plate—usually 30 to 50 percent cheaper than an entrée—allows diners to try something normally out of their budget range. “They’re getting a high-end product, but it’s affordable,” says Owen Lane, chef and co-owner of The Magpie in Richmond. His Corn Dog Lobster Tail (breaded, fried and served on a stick with coconut tomato and horseradish mango sauces) is a popular example, priced at just $15—a paltry sum when compared to the market price of a full lobster dinner. Granted, the average $10 to $12 price tag per plate can hamstring the lone grazer, but remember, like tapas, mezze, dim sum or piattini, small plates are meant for sharing; likewise, the tab.
While cost and the diversity of options make the small plate appealing, its hallmark is the extraordinary combinations of ingredients that you just don’t get when you order an entrée with sides. A good small plate offers “an ensemble of flavors,” says Stone. Sure, the Kitbar offers an economical steak dinner (seared Flat Iron marinated with roasted vegetables and Stone’s horseradish sauce for $13) and an equally conservatively-priced oven-roasted Wild Salmon Fillet (with asparagus, lemon butter and corn-smoked tomato salsa for $11). But as scrumptious as they sound, if you really want your dining experience to “pop,” Stone says, turn your attention to small plates. His Blue Crab Margarita Wraps are interesting, with avocado and red onion. But what makes them really sparkle? “Almonds with lime sugar,” he says. “It’s an explosion of flavors.” Likewise, the Kitbar’s Lobster Cones, for instance, feature Chipotle Lobster Salad with basil, guacamole and tomatoes in a (pop!) black sesame cone for $10.
For Meghan Gill, executive chef at Pomegranate in Troutville, balance is an integral part of the small plate. “You want to awaken your palate,” she says, “not overwhelm it.” Gill balances textures and tastes in her dishes. A Parmesan Basil Pesto is a nice foil for the creamy softness of her Ricotta Gnocchi. And a salty bleu cheese cream is the perfect counterpoint for the sweetness of her Ruby Red Beets. “The cream isn’t as salty as bleu cheese,” she explains. “The walnut dressing brings it down a bit.” And the pop? Spiced candied walnuts. “You have crunchy, creamy, sweetness from the beets and saltiness from the bleu cheese cream.” All bases covered.
Chefs, too, appreciate the latitude of creativity of the small plate menu. “They’re more intricate,” says Gill. “I like to put a lot of finesse into the food.” And the combinations are usually the imprimatur of each chef and not found on others’ menus. Lane, who estimates that small plates make up about 50 percent of The Magpie’s business, thinks no limb is too far to go out on. “A small plate menu allows us to be more daring,” says Lane’s partner Tiffany Gellner. “People don’t want to commit to [paying a lot for] something and then be disappointed.”
The degree of creativity is all in the hands of the chef, and no self-respecting chef will rip off another. Sometimes that means getting online and checking out menus at other restaurants to make sure they’re not duplicating someone else’s creation. “I’ll look online and see something I’d already thought of, so I don’t use it,” says T.J. Hamilton, executive chef for The Green Onion, with locations in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. “Or I’ll find something and figure out a way to make it our own.” Rarely, if ever, will you see a small plate replicated by another restaurant.
Hamilton’s signature is to take a classic and “twist it on its side.” His version of Oysters Rockefeller, for instance, takes all the ingredients (spinach, parmesan and bacon) and mixes them in a cream sauce, which then dresses fried oysters. His Chipotle Aioli is a riff on the traditional Russian dressing: mayonnaise, catsup, cornichons and chipotle powder. Supplanting the classic Caprese Salad is Hamilton’s Griddled Houlimi (a cheese that doesn’t decompensate when heated), stacked with tomatoes, fresh basil and a balsamic reduction.
In fact, small plate offerings tend to be so richly creative and so creatively rich that an entrée-sized version might be more than the average constitution can handle. For instance, the mere description of Gill’s Diver Scallops triggers the salivary glands. First the scallops are soaked in apple juice. Then they’re paired with Napa cabbage braised in a bacon buerre blanc. But the ensemble could go from heartwarming to heartburn when sized for a large plate. “It’s too rich for an entrée,” Gill says. In scaled-down portions, small plates afford all the pleasure with none of the threat.
Another advantage to the restaurant serving small plates is the fact that there is little waste involved. In fact, chefs often find creative ways to incorporate the “extra” ingredients from another dish into a small plate creation. “I break down beef tenderloins into 8-ounce steaks and use the rest in my filet mignon kebabs,” says Gill. Instead of turning it into that old standby—beef tips—she adds a non-traditional Chimichurri sauce to make it her own. And the crowd hurrahs. “I don’t think I can take that one off the menu,” she says.
While small plates have become an important component of dining out and chefs are reveling in experimentation, there is, alas, a downside for the clientele. Just as there is no waste in the kitchen, the same is true at the table. Sorry. No doggie bags.
Think you may have a big appetite for small plates? Get a taste at the following restaurants:
THE GREEN ONION
Virginia Beach, 757-248-3474
STONE’S COVE KITBAR