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Small plates are a big hit

Size is starting to matter at trend-setting restaurants, writes Annabel Jackson

 

At Yardbird, the menu comprises "bigger" and "smaller" items, and the mantra is "sharing is caring".

Elsewhere, at Papi it is almost entirely based on small-plate approach, and at the newly opened Sal Curioso they talk of "palate teasers" and "sharing cultures".

It doesn't have anything to do with eating less, or the size of the plate, but we're talking about the trend-gone-mad of small-plate eating.

This casual, flexible way of eating is nothing new, of course. Centuries ago, it was considered highly inappropriate to take food with tea, but the Cantonese changed all that with the development of dim sum, and the very notion of yum cha is imbued with a sense of relaxation and chatting. Japanese yakitori was created as far back as the Edo period, and it was during the 1960s that yakitori bars - usually small and smoky - became immensely popular, considered as drinking spots with great atmosphere, quick service and no-nonsense, tasty food.

The term Spanish tapas, which perhaps reach their epitome with the pintxos bars of San Sebastian, is derived from the Spanish verb tapar - to cover. The original cover, to protect sweet sherry from irritating flies, may have been a piece of bread or a slice of salty ham, which then gradually became aggrandised.

That it was customary to stand up and even more around in social tapas bars, the glass also became a useful plate.

What is interesting about the concept of small-plate dining, which is hot everywhere from New York and London to Hong Kong and Singapore, though it doesn't seem to have anything to do with eating less (it may result in less food wastage, however), is the way it reflects zeitgeist , or the present school of thought.

It has been recreated to fit sophisticated consumer demand, and at the same time allow chefs to stretch the boundaries of creativity versus traditionalism. It is a perfect way of democratising the formal degustation menu, serving many dishes with different flavours and textures, in an informal setting, and a fit to different budgets.

"Eating out has changed," says chef Jason Atherton, an owner of 22 Ships, citing the three hours it takes to eat in a smart French restaurant such as L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. People don't have that kind of time any more. At 22 Ships, he says, people take everything from 10 minutes to two hours, and don't necessarily stay static. Today, he says, people like to stand at the bar and eat, even in a smart restaurant: an option which was previously frowned upon.

"It takes the commitment out of meals," says Matt Abergel of Yardbird. "You can have a full meal or one plate. You can enjoy and relax - there's a casualness." Benjamin Lung, owner of Papi, adds that "sampling many small dishes also tends to induce conversation".

This relaxed sociability is a key theme for small-plate restaurants; indeed Atherton's restaurants in London are called Pollen Street Social and Social Eating House. He insists with his staff that his restaurants must maintain a neighbourhood feel.

These small-plate concept restaurants also share a kitchen full of creativity. Atherton, who did a stint at elBulli, where he was impressed by Ferran Adria's constant "why, what if" questions, doesn't want to be labelled as a "Spanish" tapas bar. The concept is similar, he concedes, and Iberico ham and sherry show up on the menu but, critically, "the food is more freestyle". He'll work with the kitchen on a new dish today, and have it on the menu tomorrow. "Sal is a step in a more playful direction for me," says Chris Woodyard, who is also the owner-chef of Madam Sixty Ate. "The menu is 'influenced' by Latin America and its heritage, but we have not set out to be an authentic Ecuadorian or Brazilian restaurant. We take influence from the cuisine and design our own food." With Papi, Lung has introduced cicchetti to Hong Kong - the small plates originating from Venice, which include rolled thin omelette, home-made grilled lamb meatballs, and sliced raw swordfish. "But we try to draw inspiration from all sorts of cuisines," he adds.

Over at Vi Cool, executive chef Matteo Pancetti has produced a brilliant twist on the classic Catalan dish, patatas brava. His brava potatoes are served as funky finger food, deep-fried then filled with tomato sauce and topped with aioli. His smoked eggplant keeps the traditional flavour but has a different texture, by "applying innovative techniques".

But is it complicated for the kitchen, when each diner might be sampling four dishes, rather than ordering a series of two? It is clearly essential that the whole kitchen is committed. "The large varieties of small dishes do create a lot of pressure for our kitchen team," Lung says. "We are fortunate to have established an effective and capable team, they always strive to produce new dishes according to each season."

The absence of a formal eating order can ease things, however. "Generally, service is easier as the food goes out gradually, so you might serve three of the same item to three different tables at the same time," Woodyard says. "The downside is that tables will often only order a couple of items at a time, often ordering the same dish several times. It means you may end up with seven orders for the same people."

Atherton says that it is inevitably harder for the kitchen. "If you want to be exciting and original, a follower and not a leader, you make your life more difficult," he explains.

At these restaurants, where there's often no reservations taken, and no service charge, there's also the risk that someone might sit on one plate and a glass of iced water for the whole evening. What implications are there, then for profitability? Abergel says this only happens once in a blue moon, and that (more profitable) alcohol does play an important part.

"Profit-wise, it is too early to tell, but I think if your menu is solely small plates, people tend to spend more," Woodyard says, while Atherton insists that you cannot expect to make a lot of money with these concepts. Abergel thinks that while there will always be a place for fine dining, small-plate eating is here to stay. "It is accessible, affordable and healthier," he says.

 

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