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Too little? Too much? Enough!

June 22, 2005|Leslie Brenner | Times Staff Writer

Braised in red wine, the short ribs are served over pureed potatoes with caramelized shallots and a rich, deep sauce spooned around. Sauteed asparagus spears top the generous portion, which is presented on one of those 12-inch white plates that used to seem oversized way back when.

This is a small plate?

Well, that's what the chef is calling it, for I'm in that dining netherworld known as a small-plates restaurant. You know, as in "small plates for sharing."

If life were as it should be, the dish would be set directly before me and I'd be digging in, hunkering down with the short ribs, enjoying the velvety puree and wine-dark sauce, sipping a glass of Cabernet in between bites. But instead, to get a taste, I have to reach across the table, carving out a chunk with my fork.

Serving myself short ribs from a shared plate here at Violet in Santa Monica isn't too much of a problem; the meat is fork-tender, after all, and I can easily nab an asparagus spear. Getting a taste of the New York steak is another story, however; the 6-ounce portion isn't sliced, and we don't have steak knives.

Excuse my reach.

Yes, these two "small plates" look suspiciously like big plates. The short ribs are plated just as a main course would be, complete with vegetable garnish. As for the steak, which comes with grilled onions and a pile of frites, it's not exactly tiny; most chefs consider 6 ounces of protein to be a main-course portion.

The small-plates trend, it seems, has gone haywire. At some restaurants, small plates are huge; at others, you might need a magnifying glass to see them. Some are terrific values; others are outrageous rip-offs.

Literal interpretation

At a recent visit to Nine-Thirty, the restaurant at the W Hotel in Westwood, a $9 order of merguez-stuffed dates wrapped in crisp bacon landed on my table, and there were just three little dates. Now that plate was small. Served on a piquillo pepper puree, the dates were delicious, but yiker-McGikers -- it's not easy to share three between four people. At the same restaurant, four small tiger shrimp served with sauteed frisee, "melted" tomatoes and horseradish gremolata cost $17. Tasty, sure, but was I being fleeced? Would we leave hungry?

But wait -- the next "small plate" came: mussels served on a hot cast-iron skillet. Mmm, good. And gigantic! My son and I, curious, counted them: There were 44 mussels. A big plate if ever there was one.

Big plates, small plates -- who can tell the difference any more?

And you know what? I don't want to share. One small plate as an appetizer and a big plate as a main course are just dandy. Dessert, one per person, completes the natural order of things.

Since the small-plates craze started in L.A. several years ago, it's devolved into a format that has lost its meaning.

At Yi Cuisine on 3rd Street in Los Angeles, there aren't just small plates and big plates, but medium plates and side plates. And listed before the small plates are salads and raw dishes. So, are those smaller than the small plates?

A server sized it up like this: "The left side of the menu -- those are all basically small plates. And the medium plates and the big plates are all about the same size, except the big-plate pork shank is the biggest of the big plates." OK, then.

At Yu Restaurant & Lounge, a pan-Asian small plates hot spot in Santa Monica, a teriyaki-glazed salmon fillet served on a 10-inch-square platter, weighs in at 5 ounces, according to chef Andrew DeGroot; it comes with an 8-ounce cup of forbidden rice. A "small plate" of chili kimchi fried rice is two cups of rice.

So what are these chefs thinking?

"For small plates," says Jared Simons, chef-owner of Violet, "the size of the plate doesn't matter. I could have a 50-inch plate, the whole tabletop." He'd still call them small plates, he says.

Eric Greenspan, former executive chef at Meson G, Tim and Liza Goodell's Melrose Avenue small-plates restaurant, says that deciding how much food should be on a small plate presents a challenge to the chef. "Is there enough food on the plate, not enough? Are you plating it in an effective way, so people are sure there is enough food on the plate? That's a big challenge," he says.

And perceived value is a challenge for diners, says Greenspan. "When we first opened [Meson G], a lot of people said the portions were too small."

"They're like tapas," is a common refrain from the wait staff.

But they're not like tapas. Tapas are like tapas -- that is, easy-to-share snacks designed to tide you over before a late dinner. In traditional tapas bars in Spain, that means bites of fried seafood, small slices of octopus and potato, chunks of chorizo, canapes with roasted peppers and sardines, and so on. You don't need a steak knife to eat tapas, and you can order them one or two at a time.

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