Sociologists used to think they could track the rise and fall of the economy by the length of women’s skirts. Then fashion got hopelessly permissive. Perhaps the size of plates is a better indicator. In the dot-com euphoria, dishes had to be tall. Now restaurants boast their plates are small—perfect for a generation downmarketing, pinching dollars, and running from commitment to serious dinner.
As a child, I dreamed that life could be a smorgasbord, and as a restaurant critic, it was. Isn’t someone always saying that appetizers are much more appealing than entrées? So let’s have a glass of red wine and share two or three antipasti and call it dinner, even if we’re not economizing. I feel thinner already.
In flush times, restaurants insist that we do it their way. Now, staggered by a slowdown in traffic, if not by a blinding glow of bare white tablecloths, they’re eager to do it our way . . . whatever that is. Want to drink dinner with pals in a pub and share just enough spicy fries and crispy calamari to keep from falling over? How about a flight of red wines in tasting pours and a platter of cheeses at an enoteca? Online dating? It’s safer to meet at the bar and share a grilledpizzetta, in case you feel a swift urge to end the evening.
“Blame it on MTV,” says my music-world friend. “We’re used to fast cuts. Four beauties consummate affairs in half an hour on Sex and the City.” If we perch on a stool to eat snippets, no one will get bored. Or broke. Or fat. Suddenly, any Filipino, Korean, and Creole dribble or roll-up is a tapa. Unless it’s a meze (Turkish) or cichetti (as in Venice). Chefs, like the rest of us, have gone global.
For those of us who remember the allure—or was it a blur?—of grazing in the eighties, it seems like déjà vu all over again. Except then it wasn’t just indifference to a full-blown dinner that drove nocturnal nomads from one hot spot to the next—it was a fear of not being in that week’s happening joint. Remember Joanna? Cafe Seiyoken? Caffe Roma? And as one survivor of that frenzy recently reminded me, grazers were often so intent on feeding their noses, they didn’t want to eat anyway. It isn’t new, just newly rampant. I imagine today’s chefs lying awake at night, conjuring tricky variations on the theme: small plates, larger small plates, little bowls . . .
Confused? You won’t be, if you memorize this crib sheet.
Restaurants that serve small plates, only small plates, and nothing but small plates.
At Sumile, the waiter is the drill sergeant. “Everyone should order three dishes,” he instructs. “We definitely don’t gorge you here.” Small plates, clearly not meant for sharing, are all the menu offers in this subtly glowing little room. That’s the deal: small and very small portions, mostly $14 (except for the sliced sirloin with its pine-bough corsage, $6 extra), and shiso yuzu Mojitos. “You’ve only ordered two dishes each!” our waiter cries. Is he hurt or angry? I try to calm him: “We’re going to see how hungry we are after two.” Josh DeChellis’s menu, though uneven, still has its thrills. The cosmic consommé with its float of shrimp. A miracle of barely gelled hamachi with pickled melon and avocado. Sublimely moist chicken in a ragout with snails, cèpes, and vin jaune. But now the waiter’s back, chiding us again for ordering only two more plates. We’ve flunked the test. 154 West 13th Street (212-989-7699).
Amuse appeals to a don’t-tramp-on-me spirit. “It’s all about freedom to choose,” says chef-owner Gerry Hayden. Here, I am content to put together my own meal of roasted-butternut-squash soup, cumin-spiced pork tortilla, and a caramelized-pear toffee cake for a grand total of $25, or to share with a pal the citrus-marinated fluke, a spicy green-papaya salad, macaroni with mushrooms, and wonderful, just slightly soggy frites with chipotle aïoli for $20 per person. 108 West 18th Street (212-929-9755).
At full pitch, with blasting jive music and a packed house, Parish & Co. can frazzle the nerves. Happily, it’s serene the Monday night that five of us settle at two small marble tables in the bar to play with the permissive menu. Most everything comes in two sizes (small, $5 to $17; full-size, $10 to $26). Our troop grew up eating Chinese on Sunday, and so we’re into sharing small plates: roasted-beet-and-arugula salad, crispy scallop dumplings with slivered celeriac and hijiki, crunchy jícama-cabbage-eggplant slaw and grilled calamari and baby octopus. With a sensitivity to the carnivore, charred rib eye is offered only as an entrée, fatty but good. 202 Ninth Avenue, near 22nd Street (212-414-4988).
“Did I order enough?” I ask my waiter. I’m a bundle of insecurity at Snackbar. “You ordered perfectly,” he says with a benevolent smile. Perfect indeed, if like my quartet of diners you just can’t get enough of the aristocratic butter lettuce, radicchio, and herb julienne on the plates we’re sharing. There’s a bread charge? Egg salad on the menu? How retro can we get? Yet all of us are falling in love again with hard-boiled eggs simply sliced atop too much mayonnaise. And béarnaise for the fries. A small rectangle of perfectly rare char and a scallop-hanger-steak combo are enough to feed four. I could do without the $2 “Single Bites”: a listless baked clam, an odd little Parmesan-apricot canapé. With short takes from $2 to $24, we’ve managed to run up a $200 tab. It seems a bit high-rent in this no-frills neighborhood. 111 West 17th Street (212-627-3700).
Three fried goat-cheese balls? Four dainty ribs? Three doughnut holes? How spare can a small plate be? Our hungry foursome feels like it’s on deprivation row at Alta, the townhouse formerly known as Twilight 101. On the night we dine there, owner Christopher Chestnutt is still tweaking his concept—“I guess we need more proteins,” he says, “but I don’t want them to look like entrées.” Still, chef Harrison Mosher shines, even in miniature, on his always-changing menu. We were seduced by cockles in smoked-tomato broth, risotto, and a weirdly wonderful toss of caramelized cauliflower, clams, chorizo, and golden raisins on small plates—from $4 for sweet-potato croquettes to $12.50 for duck-leg confit. So why did we stop for pizza on the way home? 64 West 10th Street (212-505-7777).
Big and Small
Traditional menus with memorable small-plate options.
Matsuri needs to be user-friendly to fill its vast gymnasium of a space in the depths of the Maritime Hotel. A roster of stylish small plates—with smallish price tags ($4 to $11) and the signature of chef Tadashi Ono—should do it. After ribbons of tuna with yama imo (Japanese mountain potato), fluke sashimi in peppery ponzu, and yellowtail with green yuzu-pepper sauce, baked shishito peppers, and sea-eel tempura, I decide we deserve a Kobe-beef encore. At $16, this marvelous dish—rich and just barely seared—feels like a bargain. 369 West 16th Street (212-243-6400).
A roster of $4 and $5 hors d’oeuvre plates suggests that the folks at Nice Matin are hip to both the flavors of the Riviera and the psyche of the Upper West Side—prudent and penny-pinching if not paranoid. My friends and I are into dinners that pair two appetizers, most of them not more than $10. Voluptuous tarragon-scented mussels vélouté with grilled sweetbreads and frisée tossed with Roquefort, pear, and walnuts are my picks. 201 West 79th Street (212-873-6423).