Friday, August 5, 2011

Still Life with Robin: The Small Plate Solution

Scallops appetizer at DC's new Bistrot Le Zinc
by Peggy Robin

Here’s the solution to a problem you may not have realized you had: How do you maximize your taste experience at a restaurant without overspending or ordering too much food?

Answer: Do all your ordering exclusively from the appetizers or “small plates” part of the menu.

It’s taken me years of dining experience to discover what I really want most out of my dining-out occasions, and then to settle upon the most satisfying strategy to achieve those ends, but now that I have come up with a plan, I follow it faithfully at just about every time I dine out. Ever since the tapas craze swept over American restaurants (perhaps a decade ago), many, if not most restaurants in the DC metro area have become used to customers like me, who order a series of small plates instead of an entrée. I generally order two or three, and ask for one to be brought out while others in my party are having their first course, and the second --and third, if I’ve ordered three-- to be served when the others have their main course.

Here’s the run-down of the key reasons I keep doing this:

Frugality. As small plates typically cost $6 to $12 at a restaurant where the mains cost $18 to $30, you may save up 50 percent or more on the cost of your dinner out, especially if you choose just one small plate as a starter, followed by just one other small plate as your main, instead of the appetizer then entrée dining pattern.

Variety. I love being able to sample more of what the restaurant has to offer. I’m often interested in trying something in each of the seafood, meat, and vegetarian categories, and the small plate strategy is what makes that possible, without over-ordering or over-eating.

Inventiveness. I have found that chefs tend to be more creative when it comes to small plates, but will stick to the more tried-and-true standbys when it comes to the main courses. I tend to go for whatever soups, appetizers, or small plates are offered as that day’s specials, since restaurant reviewers often remind us that chefs tend to put more effort into their daily specials, making them from ingredients that are just in season or known to be at peak of their flavor. Specials give chefs license to experiment and try to please their own discerning palates. However, just in case a small plate is not entirely a success, unlike a main course, you still have other components of your meal that are likely to be worthwhile. You haven’t taken the bigger risk involved in choosing an inventive main course and then not liking it.

Right Quantity. The trend at so many restaurants these days is to give patrons such enormous portions that they will look at the bounty and think, “This is really my money’s worth!” But that’s just the opposite of what I want. I look at a huge serving on my plate and think, “Too much!”  But if I really love the taste of the dish, I’ll be tempted to finish it. (That old childhood admonition to leave a "clean plate" still haunts me.) Just give me less, and I'll be perfectly satisfied with what I've got.

Take-Home.  If you order a main, and it’s more than you should eat in one sitting (and you have successfully resisted the temptation to eat it all, nonetheless), you can get a take-home box and enjoy it again the next day. But there’s still the hassle of boxing up a partially consumed steak, or dividing up a juicy chicken breast or some other big slab of something. Small plates, on the other hand, tend to be easy to wrap up. You get a plate with three meatballs: You eat one and take the other two home. Or you get two neatly laid-out crepes stuffed with crab filling. You eat one and take the other home. What also may happen is that you get your first small plate, which is delicious and quite filling, followed by two more, and you realize that if you have all of the second one, you will be perfectly satisfied – so you ask to have the third one boxed almost as soon as it appears. That may, in itself, be enough for a full meal at home the next day.

The Soup/Salad Advantage. I’m a huge fan of soups and fresh, unusual salads. Back when I was still ordering entrees, I often would forgo the soup or salad, no matter how enticing the description on the menu, to avoid the risk of being full before the main course even arrived. Now I order a soup and a salad without a second thought. And by doing so I tend toward healthier choices overall: less fat, more veggies, lower total calorie count.

Dessert. Like dessert itself, I have saved the best strategy for last: If I’ve just had two small plates, or have ordered three but have just consumed one and a half of each of the other two, with the rest boxed to take home, I will still have a little room left for dessert. And if I’ve made more healthful choices, such as soup and salad, I don’t feel so guilty about something rich and sweet to finish off the meal. Not the most healthful reason to stick with small plates, but definitely the most rewarding.


Do you have a favorite strategy to get the best out of your restaurant dollars?  I’d love to hear it, and any other thoughts you may have on this column, in the comments section below.

1 comment:

  1. The small plate menu drives me crazy when they want 18 to 27 dollars for it, that's meal price my friend. I am so sick of ordering everything separate in these places as well, I feel I am being ripped off and can't enjoy, not that they give you anything to enjoy the last few places I've gone to I should have sent the expensive crap back.