For years, eating dinner in a restaurant has essentially been a three-act play. You knew what you were in for: first course, more substantive second course flanked by vegetable and starch, dessert. Maybe some bread to tide you over and some coffee and petits fours to finish things off. When you ladies tried to get away with ordering “just an appetizer” to save money or calories, you felt the same kind of guilt you might sneaking out before intermission.
But lately this tripartite meal structure has begun to feel antiquated, bloated. The big, demanding entrée is disappearing, and the delicate little appetizer is ascendant. Only it’s not called an appetizer anymore, unless you’re at a cheesy Olive Garden kind of place, an “appeteaser” kind of place. It’s somehow morphed into the “little plate”: an appetizer-sized, appetizer-priced portion of food with no necessary expectation of anything bigger to follow, except perhaps another little plate, and another, and another (With a side order of delusion that the size of the bill will be correspondingly petite-all those bites and nibbles accumulate quickly on the check.)
In Manhattan, the unofficial HQ for the small-plate trend is Tom Colicchio’s much-fussed-over restaurant Craft on 19th Street. Recently Babbo’s chef, Mario Batali, opened a Spanish place called Casa Mono two blocks away, with an adjunct wine bar, Bar Jamón, a couple of doors over. When you go to the latter, you’ll find New Yorkers chattering away like magpies over glasses of wine and communal dishes of Manchego and olives, blithely butting into the conversations of their fellow diners with no awareness of boundary issues whatsoever. In other words, acting for all the world like Angelenos.
Not surprisingly, the little-plate parade has caught on in L.A. faster than the recent wildfires. After all, this is the original town of grazing, nibbling, picky eating and simply not eating at all. It’s also a hotbed of female chefs, whose egos and appetites-and guts-tend to be not quite as looming as those of their male counterparts.
Nancy Silverton, co-owner of Campanile on La Brea, led the pack when she started a “sandwich night” on Thursdays a few years ago. But there’s more.
At the Amuse Café on Brooks Avenue in Venice (unrelated to Amuse in Manhattan’s Chelsea), the coy “little plates” include butternut squash soup with pepitas (Spanish for pumpkin seeds) and pumpkin-seed oil or grilled asparagus with olives, cabrales and pine nuts for $8 apiece. There are also some “bigger plates” ( ceci n’est past une entrée ?): a very salty chicken-meatball stew with quinoa, garlic confit and root vegetables for $16, say, or a duck-leg confit with fingerling potatoes, bacon, frisée and sweet cherries for $18. “Little plates, I think, are a less obtrusive way of saying ‘appetizer,’” said Brooke Williamson, 25, the co-owner, a former protégé of power restaurateur Michael McCarty. “It makes people feel less obligation; it’s like American tapas.”
Calling “little plates” tapas drives Suzanne Goin nuts. Ms Goin, 37, is the chef at Lucques, a fairly traditional place on Melrose Avenue (appetizers there are called “starters”), and now A.O.C., a wine bar on Third Street that takes its name from appellation d’origine controllée , a French term of quality control-no relation to A.O.C. Bedford in the West Village, where Ms. Goin said she fantasized she might open someday. “Tapas are like the snacks you go and have before dinner,” she said. “This is actually more derived from the idea of family and sharing. What’s so fun is the interaction you have with the people you’re dining with.”
Currently flying out of A.O.C.’s kitchen: lamb skewers with carrot purée and cumin yogurt ($13), some insouciant braised pork cheeks with mustard gremolata ($12), and roasted dates with bacon and parmesan ($6). “I like the deconstructive aspect of it-the flexibility,” said Ms. Goin. “I like not to commit to one main course.”
The date thing is just the tail end of a cheese bar that offers a Monte Enebro Castilla-Leon from Spain, a Le Berger de Rocastin Loire Valley from France and a Sweet Grass Dairy Gouda from Georgia. Apparently, the Atkins hordes are having no problem whatsoever plunking down $20 for a selection of five. “Our investors back east were like, ‘No one eats cheese in L.A.,’” Ms. Goin said. “The image is that people here don’t eat, and that it’s all anorexics who want a mixed-green salad. Well, it turns out that everyone who comes in says, ‘Oh my God, I love cheese!’ We sell an insane amount of cheese. We sell so much cheese.”