It crept up on us. Nibble by nibble, taste by taste, bite by bite, and then … KABOOM! We were besieged by “small-bite cuisine.” And what a lucky coup it was.
One of the reasons the revolution was won so handily is that the small-bite style of eating is actually nothing new. The practice of munching a little bit of this and a little bit of that serves multiple purposes, from practical to social to economical. And we, as a culture, were ready.
Several decades ago, a standard hamburger patty weighed three to four ounces, and just one of them was an adequate meal, thank you very much. If you check out Grandma’s china, the dinner plates look small. That’s because they were—about one-third smaller than what we pile the food on today.
Edina food writer Paulette Mitchell (author of Vegetarian Appetizers and 13 other titles) has spent a lot of time thinking about small bites. She contends that what we call “small bites” have in fact been around for a long time and have persisted throughout many cultures. The reasons are manifold: to whet the appetite, to entertain with myriad flavors, to explore a new or foreign cuisine and to stimulate conversation. Noshing or grazing has always been a pleasure and it seems more popular and interesting than ever.
True foodies recognize the pleasure of tasting more and eating less; instead of one single hunk of meat, small-plate dining allows the curious gourmand the luxury of sampling meat, vegetables, dairy and dessert in all forms. Small plates can be symbolic, as in the Passover meal, where a sprig of parsley stands in for bitter herbs and a hardboiled egg dipped in salt water celebrates life.
Watch out, though: We may be in for another swing of the pendulum: a July article in the Guardian, “End the Tyranny of Small Plate Dining” hints at the trend’s demise. It’s true: Small plates seem to be growing bigger. It makes more sense for a restaurant to serve larger portions; bigger batches are more efficient and cost less. Indeed, it’s easy to chuckle with irony when a “small bite” order is as generously portioned as an entrée.
A Meal of Small Plates
Small-plate dining suits our endless search for new experiences and allows us to try many things in one sitting. Mitchell often entertains at home with small plates. “I’ll use little plates as sides to a soup or a salad and construct a really nice meal,” she says, though she advises sticking to one type of cuisine when it comes to putting together a small plate dinner, e.g., Asian appetizers with an Asian entrée, Italian with Italian, etc.
Hang out around the ethnic section of the supermarket or a farmers’ market and make note of what people buy; don’t be afraid to ask questions, Mitchell advises. Many are eager to share; people love talking about food, both about what they eat personally and about their national cuisine.
Small-Plate Dining in Edina
Chefs still put their best foot forward with a small bite; the medium allows creativity and flair that is easier to achieve in smaller sizes. What’s more, a good chef knows the weight of first impressions, especially for a hungry diner.
Cocina Del Barrio (5036 France Ave S; 952.920.1860) rocks happy hour with a variety of small plates; the Americas might claim this tradition of unwinding after work for their own small -late heritage. Here you can taste small versions of menu favorites, including a sampling of seafood ceviche (raw shellfish or fish marinated in citrus) or simple carnitas tacos. We always recommend the house-made red chile tamales, falling apart with shards of slow-cooked pork cradled in a densely corny masa.
Japanese cuisine is rife with small plates, for aesthetic as well as culinary reasons. As delicious as a row of pink and green California rolls is, it’s also stunningly pretty—almost too pretty to eat. Like American culture, Japanese culture also embraces snacks that go with drinking, which we have embraced enthusiastically: edamame (steamed soy beans) with coarse-grained salt, delicately skinned fluted gyoza (dumplings) pan-fried and filled with pork and finely diced veggies, and shumai (steamed dumplings), tender packets of shrimp that practically melt in the mouth. Head to our superlative sushi house, Raku (3939 W. 50th St; 952.358.2588) to experience a smart selection of these small-plate nibbles.
The French are discerning eaters; a small and delicate bite is never compromised or considered anything less in flavor or finery. Salut Bar Américain touts an entire section of French tapas—i.e., small plates—and it’s great Gallic fun to make a meal from the array. These are perfect for a social occasion: Salty foods encourage imbibing, rich bites are for sharing and can lead to lively conversations. Get yourself something crunchy, something soft, something warm, something cold. There are a variety of colors; pick your plate as if it were an artist’s palette for your appetite. Great choices include a dish of warmed olives with rosemary and extra-virgin olive oil; crispy frog legs are a classic.
Oh, the places you will go, all in the chase of the small plate! Crave’s Mediterranean Plate sails on a cruise in the Aegean with a selection of cucumbers, bread, kalamata olives and a roasted red pepper tapenade (3520 W. 70th St.; 952.697.6000). If you’re wandering around the Galleria, you’ll have room and reason for more than one small plate; take a quick ’n’ tasty tour around Asia at Big Bowl (3669 Galleria; 952.928.7888) some lettuce wraps, like the diced beef heavily laced with inimitable Thai herbs like cilantro and lemon grass, make the perfect diminutive mouthful.
It’s a pub, yes, but please call it a gastropub: George and the Dragon (3948 W. 50th St; 952.926.1187) gathers beloved little bites from places much more exotic than pubby old England and Ireland (though we love their comforting permutations of potato). Ask any Philippine about lumpia, the golden cigar-shaped pastry filled with gingery spice and meat, and you’ll see their eyes light up in pleasant reminiscence. Try these crispy snacks dipped into the chili-sweet sauce and your eyes will light up, too.
Don’t skip a stop south of the Border. At Andale Taqueria y Mercado (7700 Nicollet Ave.S., Richfield; 612.259.8868) you’ll find glorious, authentic small-plate dining, aka the taco. Each taco goes down in three to four bites and is as simple as can be: some highly seasoned meat of choice (we like chicken), a few onions or sprigs of cilantro, a dollop of salsa. One is a nice afternoon treat; three make a great lunch. Try different combinations at your discretion—small plates encourage creativity.