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The Cheap List

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The Small-Plate Debate

And now let’s revisit the hot-button topic of portion control. Some are for it, some against. But hasn’t it been scientifically proved that appetizers generally trump main courses? And didn’t Michael Pollan tell us to eat less, anyway?

Even in the realm of cheap eats, the Underground Gourmet has always prized quality over quantity—as should anyone, we might argue, who doesn’t inhale Nathan’s hot dogs for a living. And with more and more fine-dining chefs scaling back their tariffs, if not their technique, quality has never been better. This is immediately evident at Traif (229 S. 4th St., nr. Havemeyer St., Williamsburg; 347-844-9578), chef-owner Jason Marcus’s tongue-in-pork-cheek rebuke to Jewish dietary law. But there’s more to Traif than bacon and shrimp: The changing menu features offbeat salads, like a recent combo of dark-roasted carrots, orange segments, arugula, feta, and grapes ($6), and barbecue-braised short-rib sliders served with attention-grabbing sweet-potato fries ($8). With prices like that, you don’t expect shot-glass amuses and dainty mignardises, like a juicy pineapple cube adorned with pomegranate molasses and lime zest, but Traif delivers both, as well as an appealing wine list and serious Schott Zwiesel stemware.

Like Traif, the Vanderbilt (570 Vanderbilt Ave., at Bergen St., Prospect Heights; 718-623-0570) offers front-row seats—counter stools, really—to the open kitchen, where ambitious young cooks painstakingly compose salads and tweak garnishes, and even the smallest of small plates seems complex. A broccoli “hors d’oeuvre” is thinly sliced, flash-fried, seasoned with Korean chile powder and lemon juice and dusted with Pecorino ($5). The charcuterie is all housemade and plated as elegantly as Bar Boulud’s. And while you might think it adequate to coat a sweet-fleshed mackerel fillet with piment d’espelette, sear it perfectly on the grill, and balance it somehow on a puck of diced Israeli-salad-style vegetables, the Vanderbilt crew doesn’t consider the dish complete without a pitcher of tomato broth to pour on top ($15).

Similar flourishes are on display at 6th Street Kitchen (507 E. 6th St., nr. Ave. A; 212-477-4649), Chris Genoversa’s homespun conversion of the former OG, primarily in specials like an ethereal corn custard, accessorized with chanterelles and mâche ($12). The place has already gained a following for its chorizo sliders (a small-plate motif, it seems), and a calm, civilized ambience that makes it an East Village oasis. Even more transporting is Robataya (231 E. 9th St., nr. Second Ave.; 212-979-9674), specializing in the theatrical Japanese practice of grilling items to order and passing them to sake-swilling customers on long-handled wooden paddles, not unlike feeding time at some high-class zoo. Of the raw material on display, the Japanese sweet potato ($5) benefits beautifully from this treatment, as do tender morsels of duck and Kobe beef. But one shouldn’t neglect the non-grilled dishes, served paddle-less—in particular, a pot of Hinohikari rice for two, accessorized with nori, duck morsels in miso, and spicy cod roe ($10), and a decidedly non-locavore salad of Japanese cucumber, Oxnard’s Nagatoshi Farm tomato, Sendai miso, and a hillock of boutique Japanese salt that management should hide before City Hall confiscates it.


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