Pondering The Purpose Of Small Plates

Mar 10, 2014

With the arrival of Lent, we’re all scaling down our appetites. No more sloth, lust or gluttony. After all, less is more. And good things, they say, come in small packages.

But when it comes to food? In New Orleans? I’m not so sure.

The small-plate trend seems to be, well, mushrooming. Baru, Booty's, Dominica, Salu, Three Muses — the list goes on and on. Even the owners of Finn McCool's, that Irish bastion of barbecue and beer, are jumping on the tasting bandwagon with the new Trèo on Tulane Avenue.

NolaVie managing editor Laine Kaplan-Levenson recently went to Root, where she sampled tiny, exquisite tastes of things like crispy pig ear and ménage a foie. It was great, she says, but afterward the group was still starving. They got in the car and drove to McDonald’s. For Big Macs.

Last year, on a trip to Paris, I splurged at Joel Robouchon’s L'Atelier restaurant. It’s a chic, high-class diner — really, counter service only. My daughters and I split a $40 eggplant napoleon that was truly divine. All four bites.

Here in New Orleans last month, I ordered a corn dog at an upscale downtown restaurant. It was the length of my little finger. What’s with that?

Sometimes I think that whoever invented sliders should get a Congressional medal of honor. I mean, really — a hamburger one third the size for twice the price. Could there be anything more American?

In honor of the Lenten season, I called a number of NolaVie writers to get their angles on this idea of culinary downsizing. Not surprisingly, the response was mixed.

New Orleans food writer Scott Gold admits that he’s a fan. He points out that small plates have their roots in the Spanish tradition of tapas, or finger food served in taverns.

"What's not to love about inexpensive but lovingly prepared drunk food to share with your friends?" he says. "Those Spaniards really have a good thing going there, what with that and the whole concept of the siesta. Drinking, snacking and napping are probably their most heralded cultural hallmarks.  It's like Spain, as a nation, is forever enjoying its junior year in college. That's pretty great."

Of course, Scott also points out that the American version of tapas too often veers toward fussy food — dainty little bites of painstakingly composed food art. Like that eggplant Napoleon.

"Give me a big meal on big plates any day of the week, and I'll usually be happy. I'm a New Orleanian, after all."

Senior living columnist Bettye Anding notes that in China, where people tend to eat everything on small plates, few people are obese. It’s only in the U.S. that diners tend to load up heaping helpings of things on their plates. Nature or nurture?

Local writer Eleanor Keller says that she likes the idea of small plates — literally. She has a collection of cute little thrift store small plates. The idea came from her Aunt Helen, who started using diminutive dishware to keep her portions small, in order to lose weight.

"We had a big laugh when she filled two small plates and sat at the table," Eleanor recalls. "I don't think she totally grasped the point of the small plate."

For many local gourmets, variety is the spice of life.

"With small plates you get to eat a lot of different stuff instead of a big plate of one thing," points out artist and writer Carol Pulitzer.

The one thing she can’t understand is mixing culinary metaphors.

"During the nouvelle cuisine phase they would serve minute portions on gigantic plates, making the paltry serving look even smaller. But that's for a future article on big plates."

Photographer Rene Marino, who heads to Mimi’s for his finger food, considers small plates to be drinking food. You share a few of them with friends, and everyone gets a taste.

Columnist Brett Will Taylor sees a bit of the Emperor’s New Clothes in this bare-bones trend.

"When I hear 'small plates,' I ask myself the same question I do when I hear someone order a tall, skinny, venti whatever at Starbucks: 'Are Americans that bored?' They're called appetizers, people. Just like it's a coffee with milk. Large."

That said, Brett Will’s idea of a great small plate is the  "pickled okra, bacon, cheddar jack, celery and olive garnish on the Sunday Bloody Mary's at Lost Love Lounge."

"It's about the size of three small plates at Root," he says, "but not quite as large as a Big Mac. "

Where else but New Orleans would we look for small plates not on our china, but in our glass?