The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells says small plates are growing up.
NEW YORK — We live in a messy revolutionary period for restaurants. The old rules for going out to eat, under which mom and dad ambled down a predictable path from appetizer to main course to dessert, with mom pausing halfway through dinner to ask about dad’s veal chop, were repealed some time ago. In place of rules, we got small plates, and anarchy. The last decade has been the era of messy tables, of gonzo pacing, of menus that came with a spoken introduction, of senseless plating, of endless instructions to share dishes that collapsed into rubble when you tried.
So, when the news came in February that Colicchio & Sons, Tom Colicchio’s 5-year-old restaurant near the meatpacking district in Manhattan, had eliminated large plates in favor of an all-appetizer menu, those who longed for order and stability may have groaned, “Not you, too, Tom.” Yes, him too. When his next project, Beachcraft, opens in Miami in the next few weeks, it will follow the same format, and he is mulling over a similar change at some of his other restaurants.
Colicchio is not exactly the voice of the old guard, but he is, in his restaurants and “Top Chef” appearances, the voice of reason, of a sensible approach that resists wild experiments for their own sake. When Colicchio says now that he has lost interest in cooking or eating main courses, it’s like hearing that Wolf Blitzer gets all of his Middle East news from Upworthy.
But his decision is promising, too. Now that the revolution has been won, there are signs that new rules are finally being written. Small plates are growing up, and one of the ways we know this is that some grown-ups are starting to enter the fray.
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It began innocently enough. Americans woke up to Spanish food, and New York restaurants like Casa Mono (opened in 2003) and Txikito (2007) showed that tapas made a superb canvas for a creative chef. What was, in Spain, a between-meals snack became in this country a freewheeling and inventive meal without the limitations imposed by the appetizer-main course template.
Soon we had Japanese tapas, Mexican tapas, French tapas — name the cuisine, and a restaurant somewhere was tapas-izing it.
Greeting these shrunken portions was a new generation of eaters who saw restaurants as a game. The object was to taste as many OMG dishes as possible, and sticking to two courses and dessert was no way to win. Momofuku Ssam Bar and its imitators catered to this audience, with menus of flavor-charged plates and no appetizer-main course barriers to slow things down. The only limitation was the size of the table.
Air traffic controllers
This would soon become an issue. If there is no structure, then there is no wrong time for a plate to appear. Chefs discovered that they could do without the full-time expediter whose job was to coordinate the cooks’ pace with what was happening in the dining room. Suddenly we began to hear that dishes would appear “as they’re ready.”
To the hungry and eager mob, this sounded like a good thing. Why wait around? Food shot out of the kitchen almost immediately, and it kept coming. At one Manhattan restaurant, since closed, a friend and I explicitly asked for appetizers to be followed by main courses. A few minutes later, everything we’d ordered showed up at once.
Servers have become air traffic controllers, looking for open runways to land stacked-up plates. They clear, consolidate, take away the condiments and beg for somebody to eat that last piece of Sichuan lamb belly to make space for the yellowtail sashimi. And if the lamb bacon is so spicy that nobody can taste the kalamansi juice on the yellowtail, if in fact the yellowtail goes uneaten, everybody is supposed to be too blissed out to notice.
Actually, a few people noticed.
“It’s a free-for-all, and you get the fish mixed in with the sweetbread mixed in with octopus,” Colicchio said. “Nobody cares what the dish number is anymore, so it ends up across the table. By the time you get it, it’s a smudge on a plate.”
A fan of small plates but no fan of chaos, Colicchio looked for “a way to maintain a certain standard of service.” Servers at Colicchio & Sons explain that, while the menu seems to be organized traditionally, from items anybody would recognize as appetizers through fish and meat dishes, everything is about the same size, roughly 3 ounces. Three plates will provide as much food as an appetizer and a main course, they say, but two will work if you’re not that hungry. Orders are placed. The dishes come out in courses, and each is delivered to the person who ordered it.
Ideally, a dish in a tasting menu has to hang together; it can’t be a main course that shrank in the wash. The format enforces focus. That focus may be spreading, because chefs at small-plates restaurants with à la carte menus are adopting the disciplined style of tasting menus.
At New York’s Alder, Little Park, Cosme and Pearl & Ash, the garnishes with meat and fish don’t feel interchangeable; at their best, they almost work like a sauce. Often, they are applied like a sauce, too, clinging tightly to the protein in a swirl at the center of the plate. If you share, your helping ends up looking about the same as everybody else’s and you don’t need a scalpel to slice a pea pod into four equal pieces.
Sharing, in fact, remains the blind spot of the small-plates era. The phrase “small plates meant for sharing” would seem to collapse under the weight of its own absurdity, but you still hear it.
But just as small-plates restaurants are evolving distinct styles of plating and service, they may be on the verge of a breakthrough on the sharing question. Colicchio & Sons subtly guides customers toward eating their own food, but there is an understanding that sharing will happen, and that is OK. The new protocol, in other words, is silence.
Two years ago, the chef Alex Stupak killed off entrees at his most ambitious restaurant, Empellón Cocina in New York. “I can’t stand them so I’m never cooking them again,” he announced on Twitter.
Once he had changed the menu, servers gave the “small plates meant for sharing” spiel. But customers refused to play along.
Today, Stupak explains the failure several ways: “One, if you’re going to ask somebody to scrape some onto his plate and some onto his buddy’s plate, you have to make sure it’s not food you feel bad about scraping. If you’re going to build food with tweezers, people are going to feel weird. And what if it’s two guys in business suits? What if it’s a first date? All these things made people incredibly uncomfortable sharing their food.”
The experiment was abandoned. Today, Empellón Cocina’s menu is divided into starters, tacos and entrees, which aren’t quite as dead as they seemed. In fact, entrees seem to have inspired people to act the way Stupak wanted them to all along.
“Now that we’re back to main courses,” he said, “people share.”