Appetizer, entree, dessert—it’s a familiar dining progression we’ve seen at home and on restaurant menus for decades. But that’s been slowly changing, as our American palates have developed and we like to taste and sample a number of dishes when we go out. As several newer restaurantsare demonstrating, small plate dining is upon us in full force. More and more local restaurant have menus organized under terms like “Snacks,” “Bites,” “To share,” or small, medium, and large plates.
While we’re only recently seeing the small plate mode of dining on the Seacoast in any strength, the concept has been around for eons, coming to us by way of many cultures. It’s the merging of small plate dining with our New England traditions that’s new, and this way of enjoying a restaurant meal comes not only from the cuisine of other cultures but also from our yen for variety and versatility. We want to try
something new and different and to construct the experience on our own terms. It doesn’t hurt that the small plate approach is also a way to dine more cheaply and honor our need to eat more healthfully with smaller portions, all within our control. Since small plates are often designed to be shared, there’s a wonderful communal aspect to the dining experience.
Versatility, variety, and community are all a part of this new way to dine, and a part of our evolving Seacoast restaurant landscape. Newcomers Moxy, Black Birch, and Poppers at the Mill are building on groundwork laid by Cava and Black Trumpet. Still, since it’s a big departure from our traditional, linear way of dining, it’s not without its challenges. How do we approach a small plates menu? How did we get
here? Where is it all going? These are some of the questions our local chefs have thought about quite a bit.
The small plate model isn't exactly new, when you consider certain ethnic cuisines, like Japanese sushi, Spanish tapas, Middle Eastern meze. STREET in Portsmouth has taken the casual fare found in the street food from many cultures onto American restaurant tables to be sampled, shared, and coursed any way you like. Sit at the new yakitori bar at Portsmouth's Shio and order sashimi, maki, or a skewer of Bonchiri (crisp grilled chicken tail with five spice powder) and you're enjoying a form of communal, small plate dining that's dynasties old.
On the Seacoast, some 15 years ago, Ciento was a tapas restaurant that may have been a bit ahead of its time. Evan Mallett,now chef and owner of Black Trumpet, was sous chef and partner. "Ciento was the first small plate restaurant in Portsmouth back in 1998," he says. After Ciento, "I fled to Mexico where the idea of bocaditos [literally "snacks" or [appetizers"] was popular, but the idea of small food was not a uniquely Spanish concept. Early on at Black Trumpet, we put on a dish that was three bites on one plate— our Chef's Meze Plate. I like the vehicle for those three bites. I also tend to remember small plates more when I dine out, and I like that for our diners—but we still offer small and medium plates along with main plates to make it more versatile."
While Ciento was among the first to take on Spanish tapas in Portsmouth, the concept didn't really take hold until much later. When Ken Oringer's Toro opened in Boston in 2005, we had a good indication that small plate dining was here to stay, and when Cava Tapas & Wine Bar opened in Portsmouth in 2008, the culinary scene saw something different: tapas, primarily Spanish-inspired but with an American avant garde flair, from co-owner and chef Gregg Sessler.
"Out West we had these involved tasting menus with 12 or 15 courses, so we were basically doing small plates," says Sessler, who spent time working in restaurants in California. "I developed that style and had each plate work both as a whole and together, making each dish a cohesive experience." At Cava, he notes, "We have dishes where each one is composed and complex, or some more Spanish style, just a bowl of patatas [potatoes]. I love eating in that way because you're not committing to one large individual plate, but dishes are appetizer size and plates in themselves. We've moved into more of a sharing model where, except for soup, everything is designed to be shared between two people so you can order in sets of two or four or six."
Sessler says this type of dining also opens up his guests' culinary horizons in a region where the boiled dinner has reigned for centuries. "It allows people to be more adventurous without making a big commitment to one dish. Our food is inventive and it's about lots of sensory overload. The big question should be, 'Do I remember what I ate?' If it sticks in your mind, that's outstanding. How memorable is the dish? Texture, saltiness, bitter, sweet—we want to create a culinary memory of that dish, and that means smaller for us. We have a pineapple dish with just a few components—pineapple, pomegranate molasses, and lime zest—and people remember it. It might be three times the amount of work as a simpler larger dish but that's the choice I made, the challenge."
“When you have an appetizer section of a menu, for example, you feel you have to fill these slots and offer what an appetizer is ‘supposed’ to be. The small plate menu is not as limiting and there are many customers who do eat in that style. It’s a lot more fun for me.” — Moxy chef-owner Matt Louis
At Moxy in Portsmouth, chef-owner Matt Louis offers a dual-purpose "modern American tapas" menu. "As a chef it gives me more of an opportunity to cook and put dishes together than a traditional format," he explains. "When you have an appetizer section of a menu, for example, you feel you have to fill these slots and offer what an appetizer is 'supposed' to be. The small plate menu is not as limiting and there are many customers who do eat in that style. It's a lot more fun for me."
This free-form design is a part of the plan to make the meal more enjoyable for Moxy diners. They can simply snack on, well, Something to Snack On, a pile of chili-scented crispy kale and pumpkin-sunflower seed granola bites, or try more substantial dishes like Johnny Cake Community, a small casserole of brown sugared pork shoulder served with cornmeal pancakes, sauces, and pickles. In-between dishes include Monkfish wtih Sunflower-Arugula Pesto.
"When I designed the menu at Moxy, I didn't want that rigid structure. It's so much more enjoyable and relaxing for the customer too," Louis says. "Sometimes there's one thing on the table, sometimes three, sometimes more. It's all flowing. People want to enjoy the people they're with, and this way you can enjoy company because you're not in some rigid structure. We also try to keep all of our dishes for sharing, in a true tapas format. They should be shared. Soup has never reached the Moxy menu and probably never will." Still, he notes, there are exceptions. "If there is, there has to be a reason to have the exception. And some dishes do bring up problems—a hen egg—how do you share a hen egg?" he says, referring to the Poached Hen Egg, a single egg served with sliced sopressata, arugula, and fingerling potatoes. "That's a composed small plate and not as easy to share." This dish is part of "The Farmer Told Me To" section of menu, which otherwise features more sharable dishes, like Quick Sauteed Baby Carrots.
Charcuterie has become a part of the small plate concept at a few local restaurants, including Moxy (where it's filed under "Cured, Dried, and Aged"). At Poppers at the Mill in Newmarket, chef-owner John "Popper" Medlin offers a large menu of charcuterie (not surprising, given that he also owns Popper's Artisanal Meats, which specializes in cured goods), which includes items from Elk Pâté to Speck to Duck Pastrami, offered "with accoutrements" in 3-ounce portions. "I look at my charcuterie menu as a benefit for both myself and the customer," says Medlin. "I love to get in local meats and that can be expensive, so this brings the cost down for me and for the customer, who can come in three or four times a week. It's fun for me because I can try new things but I also like to give the customer the freedom to pick and choose, to give them more independence and variety."
There are also small and medium plate menus, as well as entrees, and the cured influence is apparent in the maple bourbon sausage that accompanies the quail eggs of the N.H. Scotch Eggs and the apple, andouille sausage, and ham mash paired with Pork Schnitzel.
Chef Ben Hasty makes his own charcuterie at When Pigs Fly Pizzeria in Kittery, Maine, served both on the wood-fired pizza that is the mainstay of the menu and also as part of the antipasto menu. You'll find items such as house-made porchetta, sopressata, and head cheese, accompanied by pickles and hot sauces. Other small plates might include slow cooked Octopus and Chorizo Stew or Warm Dates tossed with blue cheese and hot honey.
“We wanted fun food that drives a sense of community in the restaurant, and when we have dishes for sharing we can do that.”
— Jake Smith, chef-owner of The Black Birch Kitchen & Drinks
The menu is more of a hybrid at The Black Birch Kitchen & Drinks in Kittery. Owners Jake Smith (the executive chef), Ben Lord,and Gavin Beaudry developed four sections, with snacks, spreads, small plates, and "larger" plates to allow diners a way to design their own experience. It also reinforces the trio's goal to provide a place for community.
“Our thought process was to give the guest an experience that is not overwhelming,” says Smith. “We wanted fun food that drives a sense of community in the restaurant, and when we have dishes for
sharing we can do that. Most of our dishes are designed that way—a dish like our Bacon and Bleu Cheese Mac, we put a spoon in it for sharing. The Roasted Bone Marrow and Duck Rilette are both spreadable, so people share that at the bar. It’s fun and interactive. But if you need to have a more traditional dish, then our large plates are usually made up of a starch, vegetable, and protein. People will still share that too.”
It’s the sharing aspect of small plates that will take modern American dining into another dimension. Black Trumpet’s Mallett says that his medium plates are becoming a good indication of what’s next on the horizon for how we dine. “I think that we are on the tail end of the small plate phenomenon,” he says.
“We’re going to go more toward family style but on a very high-end level. Smaller plates are not always sharable, but our medium plates are designed for that—a more substantial dish to share, and that’s a
construct we’re moving towards. There will be a place for the small dishes but these medium dishes are good for two to three people, and we’ll see more of that because, dining is becoming more and more about community.”
Photographs by Jeremy Heflin Photography and Wendy Freedman