Balancing The Small Plate Trend
by Frances Largeman, RD
Managing Editor

Going out to eat is certainly a treat, but don't you sometimes feel torn over two or three entrées that all sound fantastic? I always wish that I could sample a few different dishes rather than committing all my calories to just one. Enough diners are interested in this tapas approach to eating that restaurants have taken notice. Many are now offering "small plates"—basically large appetizers that customers choose from to create an entire meal.

The Incredible Shrinking Plate

To understand this trend from the restaurant perspective, we interviewed one of FoodFit's chefs, Nora Pouillon, of Restaurant Nora and Asia Nora in Washington, DC. Nora defines a small plate as "a more substantial appetizer". While most fish, meat or poultry servings in main dishes are six to eight ounces, the protein serving on a small plate is more like three ounces. Along with the smaller serving of meat or seafood, the small plate is garnished with a vegetable and a starch.

Nora likes this concept of eating because it gives the customer a greater variety in one meal, which she feels most people enjoy. For example, diners can start with a soup or substantial salad and then move on to a small fish course, followed by a petite plate of meat and come away feeling satisfied, but not stuffed.

This downsizing in portions is customer-driven. Diners aren't necessarily asking for these "small plates" by name, but when offered, they are ordering them. Nora says that three to four percent of her customers at Restaurant Nora are ordering a few appetizers in place of an entrée—a substantial enough number for her to begin introducing a large array of appetizers that she will, in fact, be calling "small plates". She's also talking about decreasing the price of her larger entrees at Restaurant Nora and creating small plates that are bigger and slightly more expensive than the current starter offerings at the restaurant. Because price changes are always sensitive, Nora plans to ease into the small plates concept while gauging her customers' reactions to it.

A Little of This and a Little of That

One of Nora's former disciples is Chef Frederic Przyborowski of Bardeo, a Cleveland Park establishment in Washington, DC. Przyborowski defines small plates as similar to tapas, but slightly larger, with a couple more bites and a few more components to the dish. Fred, as he likes to be called, has created an entire menu around small plates. His explanation: "We like to make small plates so that people don't have to commit to an $18 entrée. They can sample different flavors and styles of cuisine."

The chef also noted that many people enjoy the range of appetizers on a menu, but feel limited once it comes to entrées. The small plate style of eating eliminates this problem. At Bardeo customers are ordering approximately three items off the menu (the same as sister restaurant Ardeo) and perhaps sharing the cheese course as well. Because the servings are smaller and cheaper, people are spending and eating less.

Fred thinks it's less work for a restaurant and more economical. You can serve a luxury item like foie gras in a two-ounce serving and charge $9, instead of the $30 price tag for the "large plate" option. One downside: there are more plates to clear, so it does make for an increased workload for the chef and staff.

Just a Taste

A good selection of small plates should be balanced with appropriate amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fat. At her restaurant, Nora suggests starting with a soup and then moving on to a shrimp dish and then the carpaccio. The complete meal of small plates could be as follows: grilled shrimp served with some avocado salsa and a chili vinaigrette; carpaccio paired with breadsticks, Parmesan and some fresh arugula. Each plate has a vegetable and a starch on it—just enough to enjoy—but not enough to overindulge.

Fred's ideal dinner from his menu is the Endive and Apple Salad, followed by the Curried Chicken Lumpia (akin to a spring roll) with Mango Relish and then the Petit Filet (a tidy four-ounces), served with Truffle Butter, Chateau Potatoes and Creamed Leeks. Fred would finish the meal with the Rhubarb Soup and a cheese plate. Even if your appetite isn't as robust as Chef Fred's, you don't have to worry, these portions are not overwhelming and are meant to be shared—if you're willing.

Try This at Home

The home cook can easily translate the small plate concept to the meals they serve at home. For starters, when you cook, don't use the one-meal mentality. Think of how you can start with the main ingredients and use them in several different ways.

If your main dish is smaller, you can make your salad or soup more substantial. Instead of just a salad of greens, Nora suggests adding items like some grilled shrimp, croutons, marinated artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, olives, nuts or cheese. Dessert should be kept simple—a cookie with a piece of fresh or poached fruit, or a small portion of ice cream, for example.

When I asked Nora if she thought this way of eating was inherently healthier, she replied, "I don't know if it's a healthier way to eat. It definitely gives you a bigger variety of food to eat, but you have to be careful that the quantity of food doesn't go overboard." Nora cautions that if the courses aren't truly little, then you may end up eating even more than you normally would have at a restaurant. The small plate "needs to stay a small plate". As with most things, balance is everything.

As an antidote to our society's super-sized everything, give the small plate idea a try. See what's going on in your local restaurant scene or check out Chef Fred's recipes. Whichever you choose, it's fun to nibble your way through a delicious and light meal with a variety of flavors.