Small plates get licked clean

A little national food trend garnishes Twin Cities’ tables

On a trip to San Diego, I sat down to a very special dinner:

First, shrimp in a spicy tomato broth served over crostini. Then an Asian-inspired chicken dish. Then crab cakes. Finally, oysters Rockefeller.

I wasn’t coming off of a fast. I wasn’t overeating. In fact, I finished my meal satisfied but not stuffed.

My secret: small plates.

But it turns out my secret is the country’s latest food trend.

Rather than eating one big meal, people are grazing upon many different tastes. And they’re eating a variety of delicacies at a fraction of the price. My meal in Cali cost $15 – and this was at one of the city’s ritziest restaurants. This is one trend that’s affordable and perfect for college students.

Top restaurant critics and leading chefs say the trend demonstrates diners’ desire

for a more simple, affordable and fun dining experience. Chefs on the Food Network such as Michael Chiarello and “30 Minute Meals” diva Rachael Ray have dedicated

whole shows to enjoying a marriage of appetizers instead of one big meal. An article in Gourmet magazine by Anthony Bourdain, one of the world’s leading chefs, revealed that this trend is showing up on little platters all over the United States.

Even in Minnesota?

I decided to check out our local small-plate scene. I looked first to small plates’ alias: tapas.

La Bodega has served up tapas since 2000 and is the first tapas bar to expose this Spanish tradition of small plates to the Twin Cities, a restaurant co-owner said. Jacquelin Purpura and her husband opened the bar because “it offers variety,” she said. “You can try different things and build your own menu.”

Purpura has noticed the small-plates trend and attributes the restaurant’s steady business to the trend’s rise in popularity. While at La Bodega I sampled one of its

most popular dishes: grilled garlic shrimp. Then I tasted the sautéed asparagus with Castellano cheese and grilled Chorizo sausage with cornmeal cakes.

The restaurant’s dishes, such as the squid stuffed with breadcrumbs, pine nuts and raisins, might be unfamiliar to Minnesota taste buds. But that’s the point.

Although La Bodega is known for its small plates, the trend hasn’t completely caught on in Minnesota – yet. It can be difficult to find other Twin Cities restaurants that feature small plates front and center. But scarcity wasn’t going to stop me.

A group of friends and I went to a few restaurants and shared bunches of appetizers. We would experience small plates – even if we had to create the focus ourselves.

We started at the Lotus, a Vietnamese restaurant near the University’s Minneapolis campus for more than 10 years. We ordered the spring rolls. They were filled with rice, shrimp and other tasty vegetables accompanied by a wonderful, sweet and tangy dipping sauce. As we finished our spring rolls, we made our way down to Loring Pasta Bar in Dinkytown.

There we ordered calamari and mussels. The calamari was clothed in a garlic-chili dipping sauce, which was a nice change from the traditional marinara sauce. The dish was crisp without being oily or heavy. The mussels were light and succulent and served in an herbed wine broth.

Despite that they’re not known for their smaller dishes, Loring Pasta Bar just might be on its way to understanding the appeal of the trend. It offers an appetizer platter that you can share for $5 each if with four or more people in a group.

Loring chef Jeff Maxwell said he “plans to incorporate” more small plates onto the pasta bar’s menu in the future.

“I like the idea of the variety,” he said.

The whole Vietnamese cuisine-meets-pasta evening cost about $10 a person. Such variety and affordability has caught on with some students – for very simple reasons.

“You get a bunch of things,” said Heather Buffie, animal science major. “And you don’t have to worry about being stuck with one dish you don’t like.”

Going out to dinner shouldn’t be a mundane, expensive event. Instead, try the spice at La Bodega. Or go restaurant-hopping for different appetizers. Either way, small plates just might make a big impact on dinner.

– A&E Editor Jenna Ross welcomes comments at [email protected]