Food — Small Plates Are The Next Big Thing

Small plates are the next big thing

Perfect for a quick bite out or a cheap night on the town, tapas-style dishes are great for home entertaining as well

By Amy Diaz []

With last week's opening of Taste of Europe, the new restaurant from the owners of Piccola Italia, Manchester has completely embraced the small plate trend.

Taste of Europe’s owners say it will focus on appetizer-like dishes meant to be shared by friends over a bottle o wine. Much like the Spanish-style tapas dish, this kind of menu allows for relaxing meals of nibbling and trying new things. After all, when a plate consists of only a few bites of food, what’s the risk?

Of course, for Manchester residents who dine out on even an occasional basis, this small plate trend is nothing new. At restaurants all over the city, menu space is given up to the dishes that are becoming for than just a snack to keep hunger at bay until the main course. At places such as Starfish, Baldwin’s on Elm, Richard’s Bistro and the Korean Place (on the corner of Hanover and Chestnut streets), the pre-meal courses serve as a way for diners and chefs alike to try something new.  Nobody wants to spend $15 or more on an entree that leaves them hungry or, worse, queasy. But what’s a a $7 to $9 expense (a common appetizer price tag) in pursuit of new flavors? (Especially when that cost is split between two or more people...)

For chefs, these smaller plates offer them an opportunity to see how their patrons will react to new foods, which could then find a place on the regular menu. (Frequent diner’s tip—tell your waiter if the appetizer on special meets with your approval. In restaurant decision-making, every customer vote really can count.)

A perfect way to try something new, these small plates also offer thrifty diners an opportunity to check out that restaurant that’s a little above their normal price range. At some of the city’s highest-priced eateries, an entree can cost $25 and above. But a curiosity-piquing appetizer—herb-grilled porto bello mushrooms, for example—is a much more down-to-earth $8.50. Even with two such dishes and a glass of wine each, it’s still possible for a couple to enjoy a little luxury for about the same price as two movie tickets plus popcorn and drinks.

A useful tool for restaurant-goers, these small plate are also handy for at-home entertaining.

A full meal, especially one that ventures into culinarily unfamiliar territory, can be a bear to put together. Instead, pick one new dish and make enough to give each guest a half portion.

Start off the evening with a cheese platter. Mix spreadable cheeses such as brie with harder cheese such as a parmesan and spice up the selection with one or two flavored or imported cheeses. Offer rye crackers or toasted bread slices cut in half.

Then, serve your main attraction dish. Smaller portions will prevent picky and less hearty eaters from feeling obligated to over-eat and it will allow everyone to take their time with the meal. (And who doesn’t want to give their guests extra time to lavish praise?)

After this more exotic fare, offer a vegetable and/ or fruit course. Mix fresh, crisp vegetables with grilled peppers, mushrooms or zucchini for a blend of textures and flavors.

Add bulk to the vegetable course by turning it into a brushetta course (brushetta being, after all, essentially vegetables on top of toast). In addition to providing safer eaters food they recognize (even if you get fancy with the brushetta, always include a few pieces of the standard tomato-and-basil), these foods are classy while still being of the hand-held variety. (Nobody wants to use all their utensils in one night.)

Take the small-plate idea one more delicious step and offer a selection of desserts (in small portions). An impressive yet sneakily simple way to achieve the dessert sampler effect is by purchasing a variety of the one- and two-slice servings of cake, pie and torte offered in the bakery section of most area supermarkets. These desserts look dressy but only require the skill of cutting them into smaller pieces. (Want to really wow the crowd? Dress up the appetizer-style desserts with a drizzle of chocolate or raspberry syrup. A few swirls on the plate and you’ll be hailed as a genius.)

For bigger get togethers, expand the menu to include two featured dishes. Heck, play it right and you can even convince your friends to get in on the trend a bring a example of their own gourmet abilities. They’ll think they’re on the cutting edge of the city’s hottest trend.

Your secret? You’ve just found a way to make pot luck cool.

- Amy Diaz

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