Trying just a bite of this and that

`Small plates' offer diners samplings of sophisticated fare

October 16, 2002|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Darkness had fallen by the time Kristi Burch and Shelley Brock got together after work to relax over a glass of wine. They were in the mood to share confidences, career stories - and a casual meal.

Neither had the time or appetite for full-course meat-and-potatoes fare. Nor did either have the urge to nibble on nachos. They were looking for something simpler than a sit-down dinner yet more sophisticated than bar food.

So the friends settled back at the hip lounge Red Maple to savor a few bites of raw tuna and sweetly spiced shrimp-and-rice cakes - imaginative, flavorful food that could have been a spectacular snack but turned into that night's meal.

Stylish little dishes, commonly called "small plates," are showing up these days in all kinds of places. The fashionable are sampling them; so are money-conscious college students. Celebrity chefs are creating tasting menus; so are caterers and ethnic eateries.

Small plates are having a big influence on conventional menu categories and eating customs. No longer does dinner have to follow the predictable pattern of appetizer, soup or salad, entree and dessert. Diners can choose between a sit-down evening meal and snack; restaurants can skip super-sized servings.

"I'm the type that likes to try a little of everything," said Brock, a 44-year-old physical therapist, as she tasted Red Maple's roasted vegetable special on a recent night. "You can't do that so easily when you go out for a full meal."

Rarely do small plates resemble the single-ingredient hors d'oeuvres of the past. They often include a bit of protein, vegetable and starch put together in creative ways. What matters with these dishes isn't sequence or size but elegance and intensity of taste.

In Baltimore, for example, a sampling of small plates includes: shredded duck over an apple-onion pancake for $7.50 at Sascha's 527; tenderloin with gorgonzola cheese for $7.95 at Tapas Teatro; corn-and-crab fritters for $6 at Red Maple; and mussels in ouzo for $10 at the Black Olive. Bethesda's Jaleo serves soft-shell crab with tomato salad for $6.95; Washington's Cafe Atlantico has grilled quail with plantains for $9.

Such main dishes in miniature can satisfy discriminating yet health-conscious diners. But they're also appealing because gourmet taste can be had at an affordable price. Small plates may be a third the size of a typical entree and they're usually only a fraction of the cost. That makes it easy to order a couple as a meal, or a half-dozen to share with a table of friends.

"With a traditional entree, even if it's prepared correctly, you're stuck with it," said Steve Suser, co-owner of Sascha's, where the menu is divided between "taste plates" and "big palettes." "With small plates, a whole table orders a bunch, and if you don't like a dish, someone else will. You can try more things without getting stuck with a big bill."

Little meals may be trendy but they're hardly new elsewhere in the world. Indeed, their popularity is probably the result of Americans becoming more aware and appreciative of the tasty tidbits of other cultures: Spanish tapas, Greek mezze, Chinese dim sum.

Restaurateurs have been quick to respond to the rising demand. At the Black Olive in Fells Point, for example, chef Pauline Spiliadis devotes as much attention to her mezze menu as to the grilled fish for which the upscale Greek restaurant has won critical acclaim.

"We often eat this way ourselves," said Spiliadis, as she sampled the cheese-stuffed grape leaves and eggplant dip for lunch. "Maybe we don't want to eat a whole fish. So we sit as a family and have some bread, some olives, a little salad and mezze."

But small plates are no longer limited to ethnic eateries. Some chic new restaurants and lounges serve nothing else. Even a restaurant as formal as Baltimore's Hampton's now offers multicourse tasting menus made up of smaller dishes. And contemporary chefs are mingling a multitude of cultural traditions to come up with new flavors.

In Washington, Cafe Atlantico introduced a Saturday brunch billed as "Latino dim sum," while in New York, Beyoglu specializes in "Turkish tapas." The word tapas, in fact, is now shorthand for small plates. In Baltimore, Tapas Teatro has an international menu, while Red Maple chef T.J. Lynch has turned toward Asian influences for his tapas.

"Tapas aren't necessarily Spanish anymore. What's happening is different cuisines are focusing on this style of eating," said Salma J. Abdelnour, a senior editor at Food and Wine magazine. "The Japanese have a long-standing tradition of eating small plates, and you're seeing them now touting themselves `tapas-style.' "

Perhaps the biggest reason for the popularity of small plates, according to Abdelnour and other food-industry observers, is that they give everyone a chance to experiment.

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