While the 1980's and 90's brought a vast array of culinary trends that both came and went within a short time, there are some basic ideas that stuck for all future culinarians. Healthy and/or organic, and now sustainable food has a definite niche. Ethnic cuisines are boundless and anyone has licence to interpret, and mix different cuisines even in most the horrible and dishonorable ways. The number of courses in a meal is a direct correlation to the quality of a meal, and the most realistic way to accomplish this is to make things very small while applying the optical allusion that things stacked high look bigger than they really are.
The Spanish culture has an interesting, but not isolated idea that eating small plates of food while drinking and socializing is a good thing. By the late 90's this idea collided with the crashing popularity of Haute Cuisines 25 course tasting menu and with in a few short years we have the most popular trend in American dinning, tapa. Follow this slippery slope, and suddenly, any Filipino, Korean, and Creole dribble or roll-up is a tapa. Unless it’s a meze (Turkish) or cichetti (as in Venice). With the absolute rage of Asian fusion in the air, many American restaurants who didn’t want to get cornered into roasted red pepper and olive tapa, renamed the whole concept as, "Small Plates" and that brings us up to 2007.
There are many question that need to be addressed at this point. More directly there are questions about how this idea of small plate, that we are going to define soon, will interact with the Cleveland working mans idea of meat and potatoes as a solid meal, something no one can deny. Who’s to profit most when you look at the economics of the small plates phenomenon? Finally, how long can it possibly last.
What is a ‘small plate’? There are many components to this question, such has the absolute size of the dish, and the food set upon it? The composition of the dish, is protein necessary, how about a sauce? Is the dish intended to be shared? How many plates would constitute a meal? How much does a plate cost? Then how much is this meal?
I’ve done some research and I’ve not found definite answers to these questions. I’ve reviewed a few dozen menus, mostly identical, and I’ve come up with the following conclusions based on this research and my experiences this past month dining out. A small plate is anything you purchase before dessert that is intended to be part of a multi course meal, including bread, butter, olives, chips or dip. The composition of small plates just like on a traditional menu can be divided up by common sense even when the words that describe them are not spaced accordingly. There are ‘salad’ small plates, ‘appetizer’ small plates for instance a plate of olives, and there are ‘main course’ small plates that contain a protein, starch, vegetable and a sauce. By no means are small plates miniature main courses, while the protein portion is usually a direct correlation, the rest of the dish is drastically reduced. This is to say a main course might contain 8 ounces of protein and 10 oz of starch and vegetables. A corresponding small plate would most likely have a half portion of protein, 4 ounces, accompanied by only 2 ounces of vegetable and starch. This seems to be a perceived value issue, since it is economially more efficient for the restaurant to load a plate with vegetables and starch. As for the overall size of the small plate I think that 3-4 ounces of protein is a good estimate. I’ve read that small plates are not at all intended to be shared, and should constitute only a few bites. The pricing of small plates is this, 5 courses at Muse, with 4 ounce wine pairing, $95, 65 without wine, 5 courses at Light Bistro cost $55, small plates at the Flying Fig are $9 each. At Light Bistro the range of prices went from $2 for a plate of olives, up to $12 for Shortribs, and at Muse the all small plate menu topped out with a $17 Lamb chop, and just to throw it in, Lolita happy hour pricing is $5 for half portions of some of there popular dishes, finally we can compare this to the Baricelli Inn grand tasting of 7 courses during the early 00's included a foie gras course, cheese course, intermetzo, fish, meat and dessert course which all cost around $110.
Small plates in Cleveland is challenging most pointingly due to the fact that most people are more than happy eating the same meat and potato dish they had last time, save nothing has changed with it, and finishing this off with a huge slice of cheesecake, and it has got to be a slice, not a miniature, and if you call it ‘NY style’ this is even better. There are many honest people out there making a secure living and raising their children based on restaurants with this exact plan, and god bless them. Then there are others who want diversity, and changes, and I applaud there efforts, except when they rip me off ‘as a customer’ with this small plates scam. I spent the past 10 minutes clicking away to find the website of some of my favorite restaurants, just to compare pricing. I think I found a nice group of restaurants, Lola, the biggest restaurant opening in the Midwest this past year, Blackbird in Chicago, Three Birds in Lakewood, and Fahrenheit. I picked 5 courses, 2 apps, a soup/salad, entree, and dessert, and the prices rang up in dollars as, 72, 70, 65, and 53 respectively.
At this point the best deal is Muse 5 courses with wine pairing, after that the small plates are a wash. Consider it cost less to have 5 full size courses at Fahrenheit as it does to have 5 ill prepared small plates at Light Bistro. If you concede that small plates are approximable half the size of traditional portions, then to get the same amount of food at Muse as you would at Lola it would cost you $58 more!?!?!?!? So why is the customer paying the restaurant more money for smaller portions!?
From what I’ve seen ‘small plate’ are not in fact small plates. The menu is written in one continuous column, the food per plate is halved, and the price is only reduced by 1/3rd. Customers are encouraged to graze on 3 or more courses, which is a realistic goal for any traditional menu styled restaurant. Unfortunately for the customer, 3 small plates is not really a full meal. For instance, I had the scallop small plate at the Flying Fig, it was one scallop a tablespoon of celery root puree, and some citrus oil. I know that the scallop cost only $1.20 but this dish cost $9. The average scallop entree has 4 scallops, so 4 of these small plates would cost $36!!! I’ve yet to see a $36 scallop entree anywhere.
Where do we go from here??? Well, I think the idea of small plates needs to be re-examined by these restaurants and they should truly challenge themselves by restructuring the pricing and sizing of what constitutes a meal to be more in the range of 8 to 10 plates, here plates are in the $3 to $8 range. This would encourage customers to try something new, or add on a plate just for fun. The mathematics here say that 10 plates with an average price of $5.50 would come to a grand total of $55, well within the price range of our sampled traditional style restaurants, but this time the customer has twice as many courses.
The circumstance for the restaurant is daunting, they need to have a lot of variety, and a staff prepared to cook and sell any and all of it. It is also twice as distant from a 5 course to a 10 course meal when dealing with customers who have only had to make 3 choices in the past. I think the prospects of a successful small plates restaurant in Cleveland is realistic only when it is not necessary for each and every customer to take in a full 10 courses in order for the restaurant to be financially successful. It was never my understanding that any Spanish gastro-pub intended it’s patrons to sign on for 10 tapas and 6 sangria before they move on. When the time comes for a culinary rich area of Cleveland to rise, where restaurant don’t compete for customers, they compete for pride, then and only then will a daring and honest small plates restaurant succeed in the eyes of discerning customers.