The Big City of Small Plates

Because Croats like their food – and lots of it – I wrote a story about L.A.’s trendy restaurants serving their food on small plates for the December issue of “Delicije.” Like all the stories (and that’s why I love doing this!) the story about small plates revealed some very interesting facts.

Because it is hard to motivate a person to eat two hamburgers instead of one, some 20 years ago, fast food chains invented “supersize” – a much bigger portion for a bit more money (but resulting in a lot more profit). This led to a portion size war: in last 20 years, the size of an average American portion has increased two to three (!) times. Combined with the sinking quality of ingredients, this had terrible effects on people’s health: it’s expected that by 2020 ¾ of Americans will be obese.

Partially to contrast this trend and partially to introduce a novelty, since the beginning of the millennium, fine restaurants started offering all their food on “small plates”. These are sized between an appetizer and a main dish, you order them all at once and are meant for sharing.

I learned that they originate from Spanish “tapas,” small but very interesting portions. And maybe from Asian food, which is huge in the USA. Also not to be forgotten is the all American “family style” dining in which plates of food are put on the table and people just share and help themselves. As Besha Rondell, the food critic for LA Weekly explained to me, small plates restaurants became so beloved because they make fine dining more casual – and Americans love being casual.

The novelty of small plates quickly became a trend and now almost every stylish restaurant in LA is offering small plates. I had the honor to interview Jon Shook, one of the masterminds behind Animal, Son of a Gun and Trois Mec. I also spoke to Sydney Hunter III of Superba, Holly Jivin of The Bazaar (which has 85 small dishes on their menu), and last but not least Neal Fraser of Redbird.

Some people love them. Others hate them.

Lovers praise the way they make fine dining more fun, more communicative and more casual. They also love the fact they can taste a big variety of food.

Haters feel cheated. They say the restaurants came up with this idea to make their business easier: they don’t have to time dishes according to the order they should be served in, nor worry about everyone at the table getting their food at the same time. Everything is brought out as it’s done. This increases the turnover. And it makes people order more then they can eat. There are those who don’t want to share. Jasson Kessler of Bon Appetit magazine wrote: „If I order something I love, I want alot of it and I don’t want to share.“

I agree with Kessler. I order what I like, in the amount I want, and I don’t want other people’s forks in my plate.

The most famous attack on the new trend comes from Neil Irwin, famous food critic from Washington Post who made a big stir in 2013 when he wrote:

„Small plates have gone from novelty — an exciting new way to eat dinner! — to cliché, a tool for punishing those who just want an honest meal and, really, an affront to civilization.

And in terms of flavor, chefs put themselves at an advantage when they offer only small dishes. They can provide cheap thrills, loading their dishes with salt and fat in ways that pop on the palate but would become gross if you ate a whole dinner-size portion. The small-plates phenomenon is a fraud, wrought upon all of us.“

Oh how I’d like to invite Mr Irwin for a Stelze at Waldschenke!

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